Walt Disney

The mouse that roared

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 September, 2005, 12:00am

An international city does not usually mean people of different races and backgrounds mixing and merging together, and coming up with the best that east and west, or north and south, have to offer.

More often, simmering tensions, resentment, jealousy and misperception lurk just beneath the surface, waiting to burst out when a triggering event takes place. Two nasty cultural triggers have caused an avalanche of emotions among many expats and locals in our community this month.

On the surface, there are few things in common between Disneyland's opening and a proposed teachers' wage cut of up to 10 per cent at the English Schools Foundation (ESF). But both Disney executives and ESF teachers have provoked a good deal of resentment among locals and expatriates, judging by media reports and letters to editors.

What was supposed to be a joyous event with the mega-billion dollar theme park's opening was marred by accusations of an arrogant Mickey trampling on the jurisdictions of various law-enforcement departments. Long before Disney asked hygiene inspectors to remove their insignia before admitting them to investigate food complaints, it was reported that some electrical and mechanical standards in Hong Kong would not be enforced because the US entertainment giant claimed its amusement rides had unique designs and unrivaled safety records.

As for the hygiene inspectors, their action may have been undignified, but it was terribly prudent. They got their job done quickly in collecting suspect food samples, and avoided a dispute that could have had repercussions on their careers. Police officers at Disney have been specially trained to act like friendly characters in a Disney movie.

All this, of course, brings back bad memories of extraterritoriality, the 19th-century imperialist practice that made areas in China - occupied by the western powers and Japan - exempt from Chinese laws.

But lest we scream cultural imperialism, let's remember that Disney behaves in exactly the same way in America. In 2002, a visiting US political scientist, Richard Foglesong, warned against all this at the University of Hong Kong.

'Disney has a habit of seeking public subsidies while resisting transparency,' he said at a public lecture. 'It is a formidable political player, effective at seducing legislators and playing the democratic game, and yet it matches Hong Kong's top-down system.' Dr Foglesong's book The Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando argues that Walt Disney World in Florida is effectively an independently governed country, a sort of 'Vatican with mouse ears' free from official interference, regulations and bylaws.

Meanwhile, the letters pages of this newspaper have been inundated with protests against 'overpaid' and 'under-worked' ESF teachers, whose foundation is heavily subsided by public money. These have been matched by incensed replies from ESF teachers who have long argued that to attract the best educators from overseas, you had better pay top dollar. Translation: we are the best.

Auditors found ESF teachers earned an average of $947,400 a year in 2003-2004, compared with $391,000 to $813,000 in seven international schools. Teachers in local public schools are paid $193,980 to $741,180. The mean monthly salary of Hong Kong as a whole is $10,382.

Overworked teachers, under the native speaking scheme, who have to teach dozens, if not hundreds, of students, are particularly resentful, if some letters are any reflection. Little wonder - they are paid roughly half to a third of what their ESF colleagues earn.

Alex Lo is a columnist and senior reporter at the Post