At 63 metres high, the inverted crimson pyramid hangs over Shanghai's waterfront, dwarfing the 200 other newly built structures around it. Designed to resemble an ancient crown, the China Pavilion in the centre of the sprawling Expo 2010 grounds along the Huangpu River is very much the powerful host surrounded by rings of anxious-to-please guests.
The opening of Expo 2010 following the spectacular fireworks display that rivalled the stunning opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics two years ago, represents the fulfilment of a century-old Chinese ambition to hold the World's Fair in Shanghai. The near-full attendance at the six-month-long event - 189 of the world's 196 countries are to take part - reflects how the Middle Kingdom has moved from the ranks of the world's envious to the envied.
If the Beijing Olympics marked the moment China asserted itself as a global power after decades of isolation, the Shanghai Expo represents the world's acknowledgment of that new status, with developing countries in particular fighting an undeclared battle to show which among them is friendliest with this emerging superpower.
"It's a coming-of-age party," said Mark Rowswell, the Ottawa-born television host who is a massive celebrity in China and Canada's commissioner-general to Expo 2010. "The Olympics was a chance for China to put on a show for the world. The Expo is the flipside of that - the world trying to put on a show for China."
Indeed, some 95 per cent of the 100 million people who are expected to pass through Expo's turnstiles over the coming six months are expected to be Chinese. In true Chinese style, it will be the largest and most expensive World's Fair in the 149-year history of the event.
Just as Beijing did two years ago, this city of 20 million people has transformed itself for Expo. Some $59-billion was reportedly spent on the 5.3-square-kilometre site that spans both sides of the Huangpu , as well as new subway lines, a new airport terminal and an overhaul of the city's signature Bund riverfront stroll.
Since Queen Victoria summoned the world to Hyde Park for first World's Fair in 1851, Expos have repeatedly been used to herald the arrival of new forces on the international stage. The Eiffel Tower was built in Paris for the 1889 World's Fair, and a trio of early 20th century exhibitions in the United States showcased the speed with which the U.S. was overtaking the conflict-ridden powers of Europe.
Recalling that history, China's ruling Communist Party clearly views the event as a declaration that this is China's moment. "Countries around the world insist on attending the Shanghai Expo because their attendance will boost the world economy, just as the 1933 Chicago World Expo did when the United States was mired in the worst economic crisis in its history," read an editorial on the state-run Xinhua news wire this week, noting that the U.S. went on to lead a "century of progress."
"The Crown of the East" - China's $220-million architectural statement - is followed on the lavish list at Expo by the $164-million Saudi Arabian pavilion, which is shaped like a giant oil barge and includes imported date palms, a mosque and a soccer-field-sized video screen to display photographs and footage of King Abdullah meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The homage reflects the tightening relations between the world's biggest oil exporter and its fastest growing market.
"This is a symbol of how the China-Saudi relationship has advanced over the past few years … China for the past few years has emerged as an open and welcome country. I think the future is very brilliant," said Mohammed al-Ghandi, executive director of the Saudi pavilion.
The pavilion will stage the unveiling of new business deals between China and Saudi Arabia, he said, including the announcement Sunday that a Chinese firm has been contracted to build a new railway connecting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The theme of Expo 2010 is urbanization - the ubiquitous motto is "better city, better life" - though as with past world fairs, most national pavilions are dedicated to showing off that country's cultural and technological achievements.