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Hong Kong Disneyland faces shark fins, stray dogs, smog and other controversies
2005-09-10 09:21:39 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

HONG KONG, Sept 10 (AP) -- Many Hong Kongers are ready to give Mickey Mouse a big hug for bringing a new Disneyland to this city. But others are angry about a variety of controversies and would like to give the black grinning rodent a big punch in the gut.

The issues have included Disneyland's initial plans to sell shark fin soup at the park that opens Monday. Others are irked about smoky fireworks shows that will add pollution to already smoggy skies. And Disneyland made headlines when it asked dog catchers to round up dozens of stray mutts near the park and send them to a certain death.

In the months before the park's opening, the local media often wrote about Disneyland with deep suspicion and sometimes hostility _ as if Disney were building a shoddy nuclear plant, instead of a cheerful amusement park with cuddly cartoon characters and a pink Sleeping Beauty Castle with a mountain backdrop.

Hong Kong Disneyland became a popular target because it involved a high-profile marriage between two major forces in people's lives: big business and government, said David Ketchum, a public relations expert. Hong Kong's government was the biggest investor in the US$3 billion park, built on outlying Lantau Island.

"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," said Ketchum, chief executive officer of Upstream Asia in Hong Kong.

Disneyland sparked the biggest controversy by announcing that it would serve shark fin soup at wedding banquets at its hotels. This caused an uproar among environmental groups, who argued that shark populations are being decimated by the shark-fin industry, which usually hacks off the fin before tossing the fish back into the sea to die.

Michael DeGolyer, professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Disneyland apparently underestimated Hong Kong environmentalism.

"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.

Disneyland said it was just balancing its commitment to the environment with its desire to respect local customs and tastes. Shark fin is hugely popular in Hong Kong and is served at most major banquets -- including those at large international hotels.

But the park eventually decided not to serve shark fin soup because of environmental concerns _ a decision that came from the top, said Robert Iger, president of the Walt Disney Co.

But Iger insisted that Hong Kong Disneyland's construction went smoothly without any major harm to the environment or public.

"None of the issues really rose to the level 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.

Residents near the park have complained that Disneyland's nightly fireworks shows would create too much smoke and noise. They've complained that Hong Kong Disneyland isn't using the same technology that limits the smoke at fireworks displays in U.S. parks.

But Hong Kong's leader, Donald Tsang, dismissed the complaints, saying that Disneyland is complying with local regulations. "They have passed the test and I am satisfied with those tests," he told the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club.

Tsang's administration has said 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's rule as both the prime investor as well as the park's regulator. She also said the public is wondering whether it was the best investment.

"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."

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