Culture Shock at Hong Kong Disneyland

Many in Hong Kong (search) are ready to give Mickey Mouse (search) a big hug for bringing Disneyland (search) to them. But not dog-lovers, shark-defenders and fireworks foes. The opposition may seem odd, in a Chinese city where fireworks are a fixture, shark fin soup is hugely popular, and stray dogs are summarily dealt with as health hazards.

But eight years after the British colony was returned to China, the capitalist city is much freer than the Communist mainland, and advocacy groups are vocal.

To start with the sharks: Disneyland said it was merely trying to honor local custom by selling shark fin soup at weddings in the park that opens Monday. But environmentalists protested that shark populations are being depleted by the fishing industry, which usually hacks off the fin before tossing the fish back into the sea to die.

A top-level decision was made to take the soup off the menu, said Robert Iger, president of the Walt Disney Co.

Disney made more headlines when it asked dog-catchers to round up dozens of stray mutts near the park, sending many of them to a certain death.

And then there were the plans for nightly fireworks displays at the park on Lantau, Hong Kong's largest island. Neighbors said they were worried about the noise and smoke, but the park stuck with its original plans.

In the months before the park's opening, the media sometimes sounded as though Disney were building a shoddy nuclear plant, rather than a cheerful amusement park with cuddly cartoon characters and a pink Sleeping Beauty Castle with a mountain backdrop.

Hong Kong Disneyland became a target because it involved high-profile marriage of big business and Hong Kong's government, the biggest investor in the US$3 billion park, said David Ketchum, a public relations expert.

"As the Australians say, 'The tall poppy gets the chop,' and Disney's high profile worldwide and the lead-up to the opening has meant that many are looking for ways the venture will fail," Ketchum said.

Michael DeGolyer, professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Disneyland apparently underestimated environmental cares in the crowded territory of about 7 million people.

"If they thought that a huge commitment of government money would cushion them from public criticism, I think they will, and seem already, to be discovering that is not, definitely not, the case," DeGolyer said.

But Disneyland's Iger said construction went smoothly with no major harm to the environment or public.

"None of the issues really rose to the level of what I call a major concern in our minds, because they were either exaggerated — and I won't be specific — or they were fixable," Iger told The Associated Press.

Hong Kong's leader, Donald Tsang, dismissed the complaints about the fireworks, saying Disneyland is complying with regulations. "They have passed the test and I am satisfied with those tests," the chief executive told reporters.

Tsang's administration says the park will create thousands of new jobs and help turn Hong Kong into a regional tourist destination for families.

Christine Loh, a former lawmaker who runs her own think tank, Civic Exchange, said, "Hong Kong people as a whole don't hate Disney. They don't think it's the most awful thing to have a Disney theme park in Hong Kong — unlike other parts of the world where citizens got together and said they don't want this kind of trash."

But Loh said there's unease and suspicion over the government being the park's prime investor as well as its regulator, and over the size of its stake.

"The initial reaction was quite positive," she said. "But as it rolled out, Hong Kong people felt, is this a reasonable deal for us, or are we giving away pretty much everything to have them?"