Oxidised steel monolith … the Australian pavilion at the Expo.
BEIJING: Last Friday the Chinese President took a 25-minute stroll through the world's most expensive rusty Aussie shed. Hu Jintao made his first overseas trip to Australia in 1986 and he knows the country well, but it is doubtful he has ever seen anything like this.
It is Shanghai Expo and China, as usual, is giving new meaning to the word ''big''. More than 70 million people are expected to wander among exhibitions from 200 countries sprawled over 5.2 square kilometres.
The $83 million Australian shed stands out among the cranes and mud, not only because it is one of a few pavilions that look remotely ready for the May 1 opening. It is a monolith of curved oxidised steel, ringed by raw Pilbara iron ore, looking not unlike Kata Tjuta or Uluru.
Inside, it is self-mockingly Australian in the spirit of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony. Cartoon-like children are seated at desks and hanging upside down from a ceiling made of drought-cracked mud.
''It's the School of the Air,'' the artist, Justin Dix, explained this week, adding that it gave a Down Under feel to things.
When Chinese leaders visit a company or a town, it bestows an almost mystical pulling power on the place. It means good luck, that money will flow or, in this case, that the Australian pavilion will be a star exhibit at Expo.
Mr Hu visited no other country's pavilion and his tour was broadcast on national television and splashed across a dozen Chinese newspapers.
Organisers hope 7 million visitors will be lured into the great shed doors, where scuba divers will be flying through the air in search of exotic fish. They will be swept through a tube that snakes its way around and up the building, past displays of indigenous art and a part-caricature, but also serious, history of post-1788 Australia.
The main event is a 1000-person theatre where visitors will watch a rotating installation about growing up in an Australian city, backed by a score from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
The crowd will then spill back into the main reception auditorium, to be swooped on again by flying scuba divers. They will watch performers on the elevated stage and chomp into kangaroo burgers or emu sausages - depending on how negotiations go with Chinese quarantine.
Visitors will get to see their kangaroos and iron ore, but they will also see a more creative and accomplished side.
Lindall Sachs, commissioner general for Australia at the Expo, said focus groups had shown Chinese people lacked understanding of what Australia is actually about.
''People don't know that there have been 10 Australian Nobel Prize winners,'' she said.
Peter Sams, the Department of Foreign Affairs official overseeing the exhibition, said the aim was to create a fun, interactive engagement with Australia rather than a didactic history.