Time to get Mickey working for Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am

The happiest place on Earth doesn't seem too happy any more. Mickey is losing money; Minnie is peeved about her stock performance; Goofy is impatient; and Donald (the duck) has his sights set on Shanghai. The future of Hong Kong Disneyland, the 'enduring symbol of the co-operation, friendship and understanding between the people of Hong Kong and the United States', looks bleak after Disney this week said it was putting expansion plans on the backburner and laying off 30 Hong Kong-based 'Imagineers' assigned to the project.

While undersecretary for commerce and economic development Greg So Kam-leung is perplexed by the move, Disney is said to be fed up with the drawn-out negotiations with the government to fund the much-needed expansion. So, by dangling Shanghai on a stick to taunt us, and threatening to pull out, Mickey is baring his teeth. This is intended to pressure both the government and the legislature to settle - something neither can afford to do, politically.

From the start, Hong Kong Disneyland hit a raw nerve with the public. The Tung Chee-hwa administration got taxpayers a poor deal, with disproportionately little power for the money we put up front to fund the project. And, once it was up and running, it was evident that Hong Kong's magic kingdom was way short on magic. The pre-opening overcrowding, inadequate ticketing measures for the Lunar New Year, food poisoning, discriminatory price policies and the repeatedly failed attendance targets kept the bad press rolling.

Expanding the park is vital for any hope of profit or at least loan repayment for Hong Kong - especially with Shanghai Disneyland expected to open in 2014. But Hongkongers are well aware of a recession's effect on consumer spending, and are keenly alert to the grim outlook for the US entertainment industry, declining revenue and shareholder pressure on Disney. And, in a sense, Disney may be as desperate now as we were during the Asian financial crisis when we practically sold our souls, dishing out more than 80 per cent of the initial cost for a 57 per cent shareholding, so Disney would build a theme park here in 1999.

We may be in way too deep to pull out now, but the public is not going to allow the current administration to cut any more deals unless it changes the shareholding arrangement, so that Hong Kong's interests are better protected. The disappointment of Disneyland has been so deeply ingrained in the public psyche that delaying its expansion to better protect our interests is a cost the public is willing to bear.

We may not be able to undo all the damage of the past and, unfortunately, we may never know the terms that the previous government agreed to in 1999, but the current administration has a lot to gain if it can demonstrate that it is on the people's side.

It is not too late to draw from the experiences of Paris and Tokyo. The Parisian magic kingdom was marred by controversies, financial troubles and tremendous public resistance, but it did make a turnaround in its fifth year. Inspiration can be found in Tokyo, home to the only non-Disney-owned Disneyland and a proven success. The government must look for every opportunity to make Hong Kong Disneyland unique and create a sense of ownership for the people. Local support is the key to success of all Disney theme parks.

And it may be wise for our government to let our 'brother', Shanghai, in on the lessons we have learned. 'The Disney Way' of 'Dream. Believe. Dare. Do' may very well mean: Dream up projection figures. Make suckers believe in them. Double-dare them if necessary. And make sure the suckers do all the paying.

As for the unemployed 'Imagineers', our government should hire them and see what they can come up with for the most pathetic white elephant of all: Cyberport.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA