Fun is the fair factor as winter carnival returns to Hong Kong
Michael Denmark's children inspired him to revive Hong Kong's big winter carnival
If you've heard screams ghosting across Victoria Harbour over the past few weeks, don't be alarmed: they're all part of the fun of the fair. Because as the more observant among you will have noticed, after an eight-year hiatus, Hong Kong finally has an official winter carnival again.
The Great European Carnival takes up a 390,000-square-foot space on the Central waterfront (next to the giant ferris wheel, which confusingly isn't part of it), cost more than HK$130 million to produce, and features 7,535 cubic metres of equipment housed in 59 trailers, all of which travelled by sea from Europe.
"In Europe, travelling funfairs have been part of the culture for hundreds of years, but they're not common in Asia," says Michael Denmark, the founder of the carnival. "A few people have been trying to start a carnival in Asia in recent years. The rides are not small things, so this represents a massive leap of faith. But when you see the rides against this backdrop, it's just unique."
Those with long memories might recall that Hong Kong did have a winter carnival, on four occasions, between 2001 and 2006-7. Known as the World Carnival, it never really settled on a site, with one event at Kai Tak, one at Hung Hom, and two at Tamar, but they attracted a total of about seven million visitors.
British-born long-term Hong Kong resident Denmark, who has worked in various media, marketing and event-related roles, and is also co-founder of communications and branding agency Branded, worked with the producer on branding and commercial partnerships for those carnivals, and for events in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Bangkok.
When the British company that produced the carnivals decided to focus on its home market, however, Hong Kong - and the region - was left without any fair. For Denmark, a year off work sick, beginning two years ago, "forced me to sit down for the first time in 20 years in Hong Kong and think about what I wanted to do. My two kids, as cliched as it sounds, asked what happened to the carnival, and the idea of reviving it came from there. I wanted to bring something back that I knew Hong Kong people enjoy."
His children, aged 15 and 11, have special passes to the event, and provide Denmark with his most valuable feedback.
"I've made it sound like putting on an event like this is easy, which it isn't. There are four things you need: land, money, equipment and people. If you have any one of those missing, it's not going to happen. And perhaps the most critical is land. It was only last year that the government tendered out this land, offering it to various organisations to turn it into an event space and public park."
When Central Event Management was put in charge of the space in early 2014, the carnival became a realistic possibility.
First of all, Denmark visited Europe and its many professional showmen: for example the Manning family, which has been in the business since 1850. (Along similar lines, the helter skelter that ended up being used at the carnival dates from the 1930s, and is owned by famous British circus family the Chipperfields, who put on their first public show in 1684, when the river Thames froze over.)
"There's something quite inspiring about working with people with hundreds of years of history and experience," says Denmark.
He formed a partnership with the Winter Wonderland carnival in London, and started looking into what was needed in terms of fairground equipment. The European branding of the Hong Kong event, he says, was chosen because "all of the equipment comes from Europe, it's a European tradition, and a lot of people in Hong Kong love visiting Europe".
"What I thought would be successful was the combination of traditional rides like the helter skelter and the carousel with the thrill rides, plus the entertainers and the ice rink, with this backdrop and location," he says.
Those entertainers include stilt walkers, clowns, balloon artists, jugglers, and drummers, while a performance space will feature a Hong Kong battle of the bands, a Taiwanese music festival, performances from community theatre group the Hong Kong Players, juggling exhibitions - and pretty much anything else anyone wants to put on. The carnival employs 800 people, including 500 Hongkongers, plus representatives of 15 European nations.
The carnival opened just before the recent holidays with a Christmas market and closes on February 22, at the end of the Lunar New Year. So far it has pulled in average crowds of about 15,000 a day, which means over the 60-odd days it should attract close to a million people.
With tickets costing HK$90 to HK$125, including HK$70 to HK$100 of tokens, it's a relative bargain in Hong Kong's pricey entertainment landscape. The carnival is open from 11am to 11pm, with families dominating in the daytime, and young couples in the evenings - there have even been marriage proposals on the carousel.
Denmark says he often sees four generations of a family together, and in feedback from visitors so far, 91 per cent have said they're coming back. Buoyed by the success, he hopes the Hong Kong event will be in place for at least three years, while he's also looking into taking it to cities on the mainland, as well as Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam.
There are also special events - on January 4, 3,000 underprivileged families were invited to visit - and classes of school science students have even visited to learn about the physics of the rides and talk to the rides' owners. Another big contributor to visitor numbers has been headline sponsor AIA, also the main sponsor of Hong Kong's previous carnivals, which has used it as a marketing opportunity, inviting thousands of its customers and other stakeholders along.
"It's important to recognise that to produce an event like this, you need partners," says Denmark. "I mean, you could call this an integrated marketing platform - but I'd prefer to call it a carnival."