Mouse Zedong? Disney opens its gates in Hong Kong
Communist cadres share centre stage with Mickey and Minnie as long-awaited £1bn theme park opens
Jonathan Watts in Hong Kong
Monday September 12, 2005
The Communist heirs of Mao Zedong and the capitalist successors of Walt Disney will share the stage in Hong Kong today with a near £1bn monument to globalisation: China's first Disneyland.
The meeting of the world's biggest Communist party and the planet's best-known entertainment corporation would have been unthinkable to their founders. Walt Disney was a fervent anti-communist; Mao launched deadly purges of rightists and blocked Hollywood films. But this morning, after a build-up dogged by controversy over two-hour-long waits for rides, a sell-out crowd of more than 18,000 is expected to flood in for the inauguration, the first of an annual influx of 5.6 million people into this 310-acre (125-hectare) fantasyland built around a replica of small-town America at the end of the 19th century.
The head of those walking through Main Street USA will be China's vice-president Zeng Qinghong, joining a cast including Mickey, Goofy, the Disney chief executive, Michael Eisner, and Hong Kong's leader, Donald Tsang, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that highlights the hybrid nature of modern China, where the desire to make money is now the dominant ideology.
Often condemned as a vehicle for US cultural imperialism, Disney is now being embraced for the cash it can bring in. The park's economic spin-off is put at HK$148bn (£10bn) over four decades.
Disney has had to make only modest concessions to local customs. A feng shui master ensured that Mickey's magical kingdom satisfied traditional views of harmony with nature. The opening date was chosen in line with the Chinese zodiac. The Disneyland Hotel has no fourth floor because the pronunciation of this number sounds like the word for death, and its ballroom is the lucky size of 888 square metres.
But the biggest cultural adjustment has been the menu. Unlike its parks in Tokyo and Paris, Disneyland has diluted the American flavour by allowing a single Chinese restaurant, though it still faces problems over dining habits. Environmentalists stopped Disney hotels from serving shark fin soup at their banquets. Disney also seems to have misjudged the willingness of Asian customers to embrace the fast-food lifestyle of the US. At a rehearsal, organisers were shocked to find that Chinese guests took at least an hour for lunch. To avoid long queues dozens of tables were added.
Although it has been transplanted on to largely rural Lantau island, 30 minutes from the city centre, the park relies on the Disney formula of familiar characters, hi-tech attractions and standards of service that have prompted criticism that staff are being treated inhumanely because they are not allowed to drink water in public.
Among the most bizarre last-minute preparations was the inculcation of Disney's values. Doris, Twinky and Edmund - Disney's customer service staff - said they had been sent around the park to practise smiling and waving. "Our supervisors showed us how to do it properly," beamed Doris, dressed in a check-patterned skirt, straw boater and one outsized, four-finger Mickey glove. "If we wave at people with this glove on, it makes them feel happier than if we wave with just our bare hands."
Even before the opening, tens of thousands of curious visitors have flooded in on the Disney light railway. Josh and Helen Leung said: "We only came because so much of our tax money has been spent on this place. If it can attract lots of tourists from the mainland, it will be worth it. Business is business," said Mr Leung. But his wife bashfully admitted that she had caught Disney fever.
Some sightseers from the mainland even compared the park favourably to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Zhao Shiyong, a 25-year-old arts teacher from Heilongjiang in north-east China, had come even though she did not have a ticket. It was her first trip outside the mainland. "I've never seen anything like this before. This is the best. Everything is just perfect. I'm sure it will be a huge hit."
Disney's target market is the mainland, from which two-thirds of the visitors are predicted to come. Travel agents in Beijing and Shanghai say demand has been modest. The main obstacle is price. Although the HK$350 (£25) ticket is cheaper than Disney's 10 other theme parks, it is still prohibitive for many in China, where the average wage is less than £70 a month. But interest is strong. "We came by bus from Guangzhou to take a look because we love Disney," said Coco Leung, 21, who had spent £10 on the trip just to see the gates."It's incredibly expensive, but ... I will definitely come back."
That is the good news for the owners, who see the park as part of a big push into China. For the Hong Kong government, which has a controlling stake, the park could lure more mainland visitors. That would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, when the border was closed. Now Hong Kong opens its arms. Mainland visitors number 12 million.
But success is far from assured. "I'm not convinced there is a Disney mania in Hong Kong," said Lui Tailok, sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "People under 35 are more familiar with Japanese animations and manga than Disney. For us Winnie the Pooh is an alien."
Opposition groups who have accused Disney of restricting union rights and lacking environmental awareness held a protest concert yesterday. "We want people to know that Disney is no dreamworld. It brings many problems for our environment, labour relations, economy and culture," said Rex Zhang of Disneyhunter, a student organisation.
But the authorities in Beijing seem to have more mixed feelings about a Disney-led US cultural invasion. Although China has tightened restrictions of foreign ownership of domestic media and releases of overseas films, its measures have failed to stem a flood of pirate DVDs of Hollywood films.
Francis Lui, professor of economics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says the government may now have more sympathy with the old-fashioned values depicted in Disney's classic films: "Ideology is totally unimportant in China now. All that matters is business. And Disney is no threat to the Communist party. Both are very conservative in their outlook."
Disney has already set aside enough land to double in size. If it proves successful, many analysts predict a Disneyland for Shanghai in 2012. Whether Mao or Walt will emerge as the greater power is still to be seen. But in Disney's new Asian territory, there is little doubt who is boss. As the last visitors drifted home last night, loudspeakers piped out a tune now familiar across the world: "Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? M-I-C K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E."
At a glance
· Six years of planning and almost £1bn in building costs
· 125 hectares developed, with room to double in size (compared with 180 hectares in Tokyo)
· Government officials say it will create 18,000 jobs in the short term, and about HK$148bn (£10bn) in economic benefits over 40 years
· Expected to have 5.6 million visitors in its first year, two-thirds from China and south-east Asia
· Ticket price, HK$350 (£25), is nearly two weeks' wages for the average mainland Chinese family