Mistaking the Mickey

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am

ON THE FACE of it, they're just the sort who would rush to the new Disneyland or apply for jobs there. They're young; they grew up with the characters; they've got money to burn. Instead, they're urging Hong Kong to rethink its embrace of all things Disney.

The opening of the theme park has had a surprise side effect: it has helped revive activism in a generation of students largely viewed as politically apathetic. Which is why, last Sunday, a group of university students were out in bustling Mongkok, canvassing the crowds on the labour practices and adverse cultural impact of the US entertainment giant.

Action in the so-called Disney Hunter Festival centred on Sai Yeung Choi Street, where campaign banners drew the attention of middle-aged pedestrians as well as hip teenage shoppers. Dressed as Disney cast members and factory workers, the students performed songs and skits mocking the manufactured happiness of the Magic Kingdom.

The campaign unites more than 60 students from all seven Hong Kong universities under two groups: the more established Disney Hunter, and the recently formed Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom).

Marsha Lui is among the most active participants. A member of Disney Hunter, she wants visitors to know that the entrance ticket costs $3,450 - what each taxpayer contributed to the park. 'It seems many people only remember that their [$295] tickets are cheaper [than those of other Disney theme parks], but they forget how much we gave,' she says.

The group has condemned the government for granting the US company excessive concessions to set up the park, including the amount the city had to pay for land reclamation and extending the rail line. And when Disney kicked off its online sales on July 1, members braved the sweltering summer heat to distribute 4,000 dummy theme park tickets printed with accusatory comments against the firm. 'We condemn the government for doing so many favours for Disney, which invested only $2.3 billion and took a 57 per cent stake in [the park venture],' read one item, in an aside to the $21 billion cost of the theme park.

It's not empty slogan-chanting by the young and restless. Disturbed by reports of unfair labour practices, one team of students conducted its own investigation. Over a period of about three months, they visited four Guangdong factories making Disney merchandise and interviewed about 120 workers.

Such activism has shocked the university community. In recent years, student unions have struggled to fill various committees and are a far cry from the dynamic forces they were in previous generations.

One catalyst for such activism may be University of Hong Kong academic Marana May Szeto, who researches Disney-related issues. Some of Disney Hunter's founders were inspired to set up the group after taking a postgraduate class on globalisation that she gave at Lingnan University earlier this year.

But Szeto demurs. 'They watched Disney cartoons while they were growing up,' she says. 'So the opening of the theme park is something closely related to their lives.

'These students are different from typical student leaders. It's not a hierarchical organisation; they interact on an equal basis. They are interested in many other issues, including the economy, environment, race and gender matters.'

A founder of Disney Hunter, Susanna Lee Wing-yin, agrees that having Disney on the doorstep rouses student activism. She is an unusual candidate as activist, given her earlier training in finance and economics. Now a postgraduate student in social science, she has been taught to think like an entrepreneur - outsourcing work and minimising costs are second nature. 'I was shaped to think this way,' she says.

Lee became politicised during a row over the low pay of cleaning workers at her university, which alerted her to unethical labour practices.

In lobbying for the cleaners, she got to know a group of like-minded lecturers and students, concerned with Disney as a symbol of globalisation.

'We felt that society seems infatuated with the idea that the Disneyland development is a wholly positive thing,' she says. 'At universities, people dream about going to Disney. But we thought we should let them know how a global entity has been influential in our government's decisions.'

Joyce Au Yat-che, a fellow Disney Hunter, plans to track whether Disneyland creates the amount of jobs government officials touted when they signed the deal to build the theme park.

'Some university students would like to apply for jobs at Disneyland, but they might not be aware of the problems,' says Au, who is in the final year of an economics degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The Disney campaign has been a bigger revelation for Sophia So than most activists. The Sacom member is a long-time Disney fan and used to spend more than $1,000 a year on various Disney toys and stationery. Friends would often give her Disney merchandise as gifts.

But visits to Guangdong sweatshops have altered her perception of Mickey and Minnie. She claims that workers were often forced to work 15- to 16-hour shifts, and that they rarely had days off.

'The workers had nowhere to complain to,' she says. 'The meals they were given were really bad, sometimes it was only cucumber.'

A Disney spokeswoman said: 'We were not aware of the violations that have been mentioned in the factories highlighted and will investigate this claim diligently.'

However, the company is now threatening the pressure group with legal action over its logo - a black silhouette of Mickey Mouse with his ears on fire. The mouse head is in the centre of crosshairs.

Now when So sees Disney merchandise, it's the images of workers that come to mind. 'I might be able to see the laughing faces of toys, but there are tears and blood behind them,' she says.

Her group recently released a report claiming that some sweatshops making Disney merchandise fail to pay a living wage, and has since circulated the findings around the world with the help of the US-based National Labour Committee.

Inspired by a campaign against Nike's use of sweatshop labour, the students are now pressuring Disney to be more transparent. They want the company to publish a list of its manufacturers so that the public can monitor those factories.

Polytechnic University graduate Argo Yeung Man-yue abandoned a career in engineering to join Sacom full-time. 'I lost interest in my studies and the idea of climbing up the middle-class ladder,' he says. 'There are more worthwhile pursuits.'

The issues surrounding Disney, especially underpaid workers, interested him because it affected all of China, not just Hong Kong.

Yeung says he believes university students can muster substantial clout if they put their minds to it. He cites, as an example, how students abroad once refused to accept Nike sponsorship unless the company released the list of factories manufacturing its shoes and apparel.

His group plans to launch a consumer campaign later in the year. 'We want to make people think about how goods are produced before they buy them,' he says.

Other student campaigners also promise further action to coincide with the opening of the theme park on September 12. The Disney Hunter Festival, it seems, is only a taste of things to come.