SCMP Thursday, June 15, 2000

Welcome to our Mickey Mouse city

KIERAN COLVERT


Theme parks seem to be enjoying an unprecedented popularity in Hong Kong. Even the humblest real-estate development now tries to promote itself as having some worthy theme - in entertainment or more serious business.

Sun Hung Kai Properties, for example, has proposed a Chinese medicine research complex and theme park on Ma Wan, east of Lantau Island. Pacific Century has opted for a hi-tech theme in its Cyber-Port project, and the Government has got in on the act with a Science Park, under construction on reclaimed land in Tai Po.

Of course, the most high profile of all the SAR's new spate of theme parks is the world's first "Chinese Disneyland" - due to open in 2005 in Penny's Bay on Lantau. The project speaks volumes about the cultural and political ambivalence that has become increasingly prevalent since the handover.

It will have the usual Disney attractions: Mickey Mouse; a mini Transylvania; Blue Beard's Castle, together with what the Disney executives, in a remarkable display of cultural sensitivity, have seen as a potential local crowd-puller - Chinese heroine Mulan; numerous red lanterns; food stalls selling Chinese fare; and walk-through model Chinese landscapes.

The Disney public relations machine has already let it be known that a fung shui master was employed to determine the best placement for the entrance and appropriate "guest flow" at the site.

Perhaps this is to be Hong Kong's future: to pedal a fake Chinese style to the West, a user-friendly model China, complete with avuncular mandarins and miniature Great Walls - while simultaneously peddling a fake version of the West to China, replete with smiling Mickeys and Minnies.

It is all reminiscent of a 1975 essay by the Italian writer Umberto Eco, entitled Faith in Fakes. This is a fascinating travelogue through American theme parks, wax museums and halls of fame of the 1970s, marvelling at the United States' fondness for fakes - miniature Eiffel towers, walk-through models of mid-West towns and such like.

The attractiveness of the Disney project to the SAR Government can be seen in its aim to project Hong Kong, as Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in his first Policy Address put it, "as the most cosmopolitan city in Asia, enjoying a status similar to that of New York in America and London in Europe". Ever since that speech there has been one theme in official pronouncements: Hong Kong has to become a "world class city".

The Government's new theme park-dominated Hong Kong - the cosmopolitan, futuristic metropolis that will carry us into the 21st century - offers a glimpse of Mr Tung's promised land. But the city that emerges from all the strategy papers produced by a plethora of government think-tanks - such as the Commission on Strategic Development; the Commission on Innovation and Technology; the Education Commission; the Central Policy Unit - is a city that would hardly be recognisable to anyone living in Wan Chai, Causeway Bay or the urban areas of the Kowloon peninsula.

According to the Commission on Strategic Development's report Bringing the Vision to Life: Hong Kong's Long-Term Development Needs and Goals (info.gov.hk/cpu), released in February, 21st-century Hong Kong will be a city with high-speed transport links and a hi-tech telecommunications infrastructure. It boasts that this will be a city governed by the rule of law, with a free press and the region's best-educated workforce. Most importantly, perhaps, the new Hong Kong will be a "virtual" city. There will be no polluting industries, and its economy will thrive on e-commerce.

This mirage city, of course, shows little sign of materialising in the streets and tenements of Hong Kong. The commission's report can be compared with the billboards that grace the entrances to the city's many construction sites, depicting a prototype skyscraper, tall and glittering against a clear and perfect sky. These billboards show happy, cartoon people in immaculate designer clothes strolling around the base of the future skyscraper, or taking the lifts up to endless floors of shopping centres, cinemas and restaurant complexes. They show a two-dimensional world that consists of little more than banal optimism and primary colours.

Behind such billboards, you might occasionally catch a glimpse of the actual construction site - a few hectares of opened earth and stray dogs scavenging for scraps. Similarly, the real Hong Kong, the city choking on its own effluents, the city where the air pollution index regularly rises above World Health Organisation recommended safe levels, is proving stubbornly resistant to the temptations of the "virtual" future.

The Commission on Strategic Development's document dwells for many pages on the plan to integrate the SAR economically with the emerging Pearl River Delta region. It waxes lyrical on the potential benefits of co-operating with Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Macau to form a new Pearl River Delta mega-city, but it barely goes into the planning and environmental issues that need to be addressed if such a city is to be made remotely habitable.

The environment has been the consistent loser in the rush to build the new theme park Hong Kong. The sad irony behind the Government's eagerness to import a slice of fake Americana into Penny's Bay is that it is driving one more nail into the coffin of Hong Kong's most valuable, but least appreciated, resource - its natural environment.

Hong Kong's location means it enjoys a dramatic combination of mountain and seascapes. It boasts a rich ecosystem straddling temperate and tropical zones. This spectacular natural environment is virtually invisible among the pages of the Government's strategy papers.

Theme park Hong Kong is far too "virtual" to consider its actual location on the south China coast. It likes to project itself as everywhere and anywhere, a cyber-city, more notional than physical.

Such disparagement of the natural terrain in Hong Kong has a long history. The British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, upbraided Captain Charles Elliot for negotiating the cession of Hong Kong at the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, describing the place as "a barren island, which will never be a mart of trade".

He was famously wrong about Hong Kong's prospects as a "mart of trade", and he was also wrong about the potential of Hong Kong's natural environment. As wealth increases in a population, the importance given to the living environment also increases.

Hong Kong should perhaps bear this in mind as it busily flattens islands, fills in the harbour and digs up primary woodland to make way for the new theme park city that will apparently lead Asia into the 21st century.

Kieran Colvert is a Hong Kong-based journalist.