Magical Hong Kong Disneyland

By Robert Harland

Mickey Mouse and girlfriend Minnie

Mickey Mouse and girlfriend Minnie

Having visited Disneyland in Los Angeles and Disney World in Orlando, Florida, I was not sure what to expect when I had the chance to spend a day at Disneyland in Hong Kong recently. Sure it’s smaller than its US counterparts, but it’s every bit as entertaining and, as Disney people like to say, every bit as magical as its American cousins.

Hong Kong Disneyland got off to a slow start after it opened in 2005, with poor attendance figures. But today, as it celebrates its 6th birthday, business is booming with visitors numbers at record levels. And it’s now making a profit.

Chinese travel boom

Robert Jr and mum Stessie meet a wizard at Disneyland

Robert Jr and mum Stessie meet a wizard at Disneyland

The boom in travel by mainland Chinese coupled with the growing affluence of Asia’s new middle-classes are fueling the explosion in visitor numbers to Hong Kong theme parks like Disneyland.

And a visit to Disneyland is certainly a treat for the whole family. It encompasses all that is essentially Disney ­ the rides, the shows, the mascots, and of course, the world-famous parade.

And a quick look at tripadvsior.com, that worthy barometer of visitor opinion, shows that the vast majority of customers really enjoyed their time there. One British visitor commented that “Disney is all that is good about Hong Kong.” An Australian visitor asked “How can you not be happy at Disneyland.”

Go on a weekday

Certainly my family and I plus Tom Hall, a British friend from Taiwan, did indeed have a great day there. We went on a Tuesday which is a quiet day for the park. This meant lines were not that long so we were able to enjoy more attractions in one day than you would on a weekend.

Apart from the grand parade, which was very well done, we enjoyed the many attractions on offer. We especially enjoyed the 3D movie, Festival of the Lion King and the Jungle River Cruise.  We also had a delicious Chinese lunch at the Crystal Lotus restaurant.

Meeting Mickey Mouse

Robert Jr, my three year-old son was in the line to meet his hero Mickey Mouse. But, alas, by the time he reached Mickey and his girlfriend Minnie, the wee lad was fast asleep and nothing would wake him. Never mind, we’ll definitely go again one of these days.

Robert Jr had fallen asleep by the time he reached his hero Mickey

Robert Jr had fallen asleep by the time he reached his hero Mickey

So, if you are visiting Hong Kong then Disneyland is definitely a must-see. Whether you are traveling  with children or not there’s something for everyone. And don’t forget to watch the Grand Parade and Firework Play after a whole day’s play.

If you do plan to visit Hong Kong and need a modestly priced, but good quality hotel, my favorite is the Ibis in North Point on Hong Kong Island. Stunning harbor views, very clean and a great location.

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Hong Kong’s Ocean Park Thrives

By Robert Harland
writer Robert Harland interviews Ocean Park's chief executive Tom Mehrmann (Annie Chung photo)

writer Robert Harland interviews Ocean Park's chief executive Tom Mehrmann (Annie Chung photo)

Planning a visit to Hong Kong? Then you really must spend at least one day at the renowned Ocean Park on Hong Kong Island.

It’s a fascinating home-grown theme park with many stunning features including Giant Pandas, a huge aquarium displaying more than 5,000 fish, gut-wrenching rides, spectacular views, a memorable cable car ride, a magical Amazon-themed Rainforest attraction and much, much more,

Behind the scenes, Tom Mehrmann, the park’s American chief executive knows it takes a lot of hard work to keep the fun and excitement alive to maintain the park’s position as one of the world’s premier tourist spots.

Mehrmann took over the reins at Ocean Park in 2004 when the park and the entire Hong Kong tourist industry was struggling to recover from the disastrous SARS outbreak in 2003.

SARS Crisis

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) first appeared in February 2002 in China’s Guangdong Province before emerging in neighboring Hong Kong in late February. The epidemic had a huge negative impact on tourism around the world, especially on Hong Kong.

“It’s been quite a ride since those dark days of SARS”, says the 52 year-old Mehrmann. “But today business has never been better. Annual visitor numbers have almost doubled since 2004 to six million.

Mehrmann credits much of this success to the ‘can do’ attitude and hard working approach to life of his Hong Kong staff combined with a highly motivated board of directors headed by billionaire businessman Allan Zeman.

Ocean Park opened in 1977 funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club with land provided free by the Hong Kong Government. It ceased to be a subsidiary of the Jockey Club in 1987, becoming its own statutory body, with a Government-appointed Board.

Today the park is managed by the Ocean Park Corporation, a financially independent, non-profit organization.

Although a non-profit organization, it’s been making money for eight straight years.

Surplus ploughed back

“The park’s ‘profit’ is regarded as a surplus and is ploughed back in to the business enabling us not only to maintain our current attractions to the highest levels, but also to introduce new attractions,” Mehrmann added.

His basic philosophy is that all attractions have to be culturally relevant. So with that in mind he and his team drew up a master plan in 2004 which will eventually see some 70 attractions in the years to come.

The park has also benefited from the Chinese government’s move to allow its nationals to travel freely to places like Hong Kong.

“These days over 50 per cent of our visitors are from mainland China. 40 per cent are locals with ten per cent from other countries.

“Basically our visors fall into two categories. Those who are on group tours and they tend to only stay a few hours and those traveling individually who usually make a full day of it. Interestingly, most of our customers from the Philippines are individual travelers and tend to spend an entire day at the park.”

A life of theme parks
Robert Harland Jr's tries his hand at writing his name in Chinese (Robert Harland photo)

Robert Harland Jr's tries his hand at writing his name in Chinese (Robert Harland photo)

Mehrmann has been the theme park business all his working life. “I started as sweeper in a theme park in Florida back in 1977 when looking for part time work to pay my way through college.”

He enjoyed theme park life so much he stayed on after graduating and worked his way up the ladder at numerous parks ending up as vice president and general manager of the Warner Brother’s Park in Madrid, Spain.

His move to Hong Kong was a major step, but he’s never looked back.

“Hong Kong  is a great place to live and work. It’s such a vibrant city and the local work force is second-to-none. Its easy to see why this small territory has done so well when you see how hard-working and conscientious its people are.”

A bright future

And what’s to come? Mehrmann is bullish on the future of Ocean Park.

“It certainty looks very bright and we are confident we can maintain the park’s strong growth, especially with the many exiting soon to be launched new attractions including Thrill Mountain and Polar Adventure.”

Robert Harland Jr with mum Stessie enjoying one of the many rides at Ocean Park (Robert Harland photo)

Robert Harland Jr with mum Stessie enjoying one of the many rides at Ocean Park (Robert Harland photo)

But Ocean Park is not only about entertaining millions of visitors each year. It also channels surplus funds into the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation which promotes major conservation projects for dolphins, whales and giant pandas plus programs involving birds, reptiles and amphibians in many parts of Asia.

If you do plan to visit Hong Kong and need a modestly priced, but good quality hotel, my favorite is the Ibis in North Point on Hong Kong Island. Stunning harbor views, very clean and a great location.

Submitted on Friday, September 30, 2011

Levy on Plastic Bags Scores in Hong Kong

By Robert Harland
Plastic bag pollution - a major problem

Plastic bag pollution - a major problem

We’d all like to see fewer plastic bags littering our streets and beauty spots. There’s been a lot of talk over the years about banning all plastics here, but is this a practical solution?

I was in Hong Kong last week and was surprised to be asked to pay 50 Hong Kong cents (Php2.80) for a bag when I shopped at a Wellcome Supermarket. But I was with a Chinese friend who promptly produced a bag from his pocket and we were on our way.

The 50 HK cent plastic bag levy, part of the Hong Kong government’s efforts to reduce waste, was introduced at all major retailers in the territory in mid-2009. An average Hong Kong resident uses three bags a day.

The government mounted a major awareness campaign so when the levy came into force few shoppers were surprised by it. Indeed, as green awareness grows in Hong Kong, most shoppers were happy to bring their own bags.

The levy aims to reduce plastic bag usage by 50 per cent. It is estimated that Hongkongers throw away more than eight billion bags every year.

And the project has been great success. According to the latest survey, the amount of plastic bags from supermarkets, convenience stores and medical and cosmetics shops going into landfill is down by a whopping 75 per cent.

The levy currently applies to about 2,000 major supermarkets and chain stores, but it’s anticipated it will be extended to all retail outlets.

What about a similar scheme here in Bacolod? And why not make a plastic bag expensive – what about Php5 or Php10 each?

Plastic bag pollution - a major problem

Plastic bag pollution - a major problem

In Hong Kong the levy is paid to the government, but perhaps in the case of Bacolod, the retailers should be allowed to keep the money. Not only would they have an incentive to comply with any ordinances, it would also avoid yet another layer of bureaucracy to collect the money. And for goodwill how about retailers donating the income after expenses to charity?

Initially such a scheme could begin with supermarkets and grocery stores. It would need a lot of publicity and there would need to be a system of policing it to make sure retailers comply with the law.

Stores might have an issue with security, but I’m sure any such problems could be overcome.

No doubt there would be some opposition by shoppers. But any move that reduces the menace of the  plastic bag should surely be welcome by all Bacoleños who care for their city.

It works well in Hong Kong. So why not in Bacolod?

Submitted on Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Frying The Knot

By Robert Harland

Tying the knot – McDo style

Tying the knot – McDo style

Getting married in a McDonald’s? Surely not. I’m told it happened in Manila. Could Bacolod be next? Meanwhile in Hong Kong, getting hitched under the Golden Arches is fast becoming a casual and trendy way to tie the knot.

The fast food chain calls it a McWedding and it’s being offered at several of its stores in the former British crown colony.

On arrival, employees, dressed in black suits and mimicking the actions of hostesses at upscale hotels, greet each guest with a Big Mac and fries. There’s an apple pie wedding cake with a single fry on top instead of the traditional cherry.

After the ceremony, each guest receives a Happy Meal toy as a gift and the bride and groom are given a photo frame shaped like Ronald McDonald.

But guests expecting a glass of Champagne will be disappointed. No alcohol is served at McDonald’s so instead the guests toast the couple with
Coca-Cola, milk shakes and sundaes.

Shirley Chang, managing director of the fast food chain in Hong Kong, defends the concept of getting hitched at a McDonald’s.

“A McWedding isn’t tacky”, she said. “It fills a niche in Hong Kong where our restaurants are popular dating venues. They date here; they grew their love here, so when they have this important day they want to come over here.”

And, tying the knot under the Golden Arches is cheap compared to a traditional catered Chinese wedding which can cost more than HKG$250,000 (Php1.4m). It’s not uncommon for young couples or the groom’s family to save for years or to go into debt to pull off a big wedding.

Getting hitched in Hong Kong at a McDo

Getting hitched in Hong Kong at a McDo

By contrast, a McDonald’s “warm and sweet wedding package” starts at a modest HK$9,999 (Php29,600) including invitation cards, food, drink, gifts and wedding photos for 50 people.

Does McDonald’s have plans to start serving up McWeddings in the Philippines? According to the company’s Manila-based PR and Communications Manager, Adi Timbol, there are no plans at the moment “But we are always open to suggestions in the future” she said.

Getting married in a McDonald’s may be something of a novelty but it shouldn’t shock anyone.

There have been stranger wedding venues including a garbage dump, under water, on top of a roller coaster, mid-air on the wings of a bi-plane, at a nudist colony, at the peak of Mount Everest and even while bungee jumping.

Fall of Saigon Lensman Dies

By Robert Harland
Hugh van Es' most famous photograph - the evacuation of  US citizens from Saigon in 1975

Hugh van Es' most famous photograph - the evacuation of US citizens from Saigon in 1975

Hubert Van Es, a Dutch photographer, who captured some of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War, has died in  Hong Kong after suffering a brain haemorrhage. He was 67.

His most famous picture, taken during the fall of Saigon in 1975, showed a group of US citizens scaling a ladder to a CIA helicopter on a rooftop during the city’s evacuation.

As North Vietnamese forces approached Saigon, hundreds of Vietnamese joined Americans fleeing the country, mostly by helicopters from the U.S. Embassy roof.

Hugh van Es in Macau in 1969

Hugh van Es in Macau in 1969

A few blocks away, others climbed a ladder on the roof of an apartment building that housed CIA officials and families, hoping to escape aboard a UH-1 Huey helicopter owned by Air America, the CIA-run airline.

From his vantage point on a balcony at the United Press International (UPI) office nearby, Van Es recorded the scene. The picture became a striking emblem of America’s failure in Vietnam.

According to his widow, Annie Van Es, he earned no royalties from the photograph other than a one-time bonus of $150 from UPI.

2008 photo of Hugh Van Es in Hong Kong

2008 photo of Hugh Van Es in Hong Kong

Van Es was born in Hilversum, in the Netherlands  He was known variously in his working life as ‘Hu’, the Anglicized ‘Hugh’ and the nickname ‘Vanes’.

He arrived in Hong Kong in 1967 and worked first as a freelancer and then moved to the colony’s South China Morning Post as chief photographer. He joined the Associated Press photo staff in Saigon in 1969 and covered the last three years of the war from 1972-75 for UPI.

He returned to Hong Kong after the war, and lived there for the rest of his life while photographing news events across Asia.

He covered the Moro rebellion in the Philippines and was among the journalists who flew into Kabul to cover the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Having evaded efforts to make him join an airlift out of Kabul, and arrest by Afghan police, Van Es was one of the first to photograph the invasion of Soviet tanks.

He was a stalwart of Hong Kong’s famous Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC). Sadly, I saw him at the FCC bar only a month ago.

He was regarded by colleagues to be fearless and resourceful. “He will always be remembered as one of the great witnesses of one of the enormous dramas in the second half of the 20th century,” said Ernst Herb, president of the FCC.

“He really captured the spirit of foreign reporting. He was quite an inspiration.”