"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Ocean Park can't hide the fact they've taken captured wild-dolphins, and put them on display"
Has Ocean Park had its day? Should we be throwing billions at a failing theme park when people are festering in tiny ramshackle apartments? Is the taxpayer funding a prison for dolphins masquerading as a conservation initiative?
Well, it looks like our officials see no problem with pouring more money into the place. The generosity is staggering. For starters, a one-off grant of HK1.67 billion, followed by HK1.1 billion over four years for conservation and education programmes. Then waving interest on a loan of HK5.4 billion and pushing back the repayment date until 2028.
As a sop to public criticism, we get free entry to the park and then pay per ride or venue visited. How is that a concession? It's not.
Ocean Park once enjoyed a commendable position in Hong Kong's collective memory. Opening in 1977, many of us enjoyed wonderful days of fun there. At one time, I held a season pass, as I'd take the kids almost monthly. Burned into our family folklore is the tale of a Japanese tourist projectile vomiting from the roller coaster. With each telling, the volume of spew increases, the splatter area growing to cover vast crowds of onlookers.
Straddling Brick Hill, with Deep Water Bay on one side, and the South China Sea as the backdrop, the setting is breathtaking. A visit was a must for overseas visitors, especially riding the cable car to the Headland. Then as Mainland tourism to Hong Kong increased exponentially, Ocean Park lost its lustre with locals.
Over-crowding, rude behaviour, stories of ill-disciplined queuing and cigarette smoke filling the air, all degraded its reputation. In many ways, Ocean Park proved a microcosm of the Hong Kong/Mainland culture-clash that shaped aspects of our politics in recent decades.
Adding to that is a change in attitude toward animal conservation placing Ocean Park in a difficult spot. Is it a fairground or conservation-themed venue? The operators managed to conflate or fudge the two. Still, many people feel that having dolphins performing for our entertainment is no longer acceptable. Besides, Ocean Park's conservation efforts looked like tokenism. Despite a slick PR machine, they couldn't hide that they took captured wild dolphins and put them on display.
In 2017, Ocean Park lost HK236.5 million, marking the third straight year in the red. The protests of 2019 didn't help matters. Then Covid hit.
But, the cause of Ocean Park's underperformance is a bit more complicated than first appears. When Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005, many people wrote off Ocean Park as doomed. But the place prospered. Why? In 2003, Allan Zeman, Lan Kwai Fong's founder, came in to run the venture. Zeman immediately hired an experienced overseas theme park management team.
They set about introducing a series of special events, such as the Halloween Fest to lure people to the park. And it worked. Ocean Park thrived under Zeman's management. Forbes even went as far to call Zeman the "Mouse Killer".
Yet, there is a suggestion Zeman fell out of favour when he backed Henry Tang against rival candidate CY Leung in 2012 CE election. CY won, and Zeman moved on from Ocean Park in 2014. Some believe the new and less able management led to a steady decline, made worse by recent events. Either way, year after year, Ocean Park lost money.
So here we are today, with the government proposing to spend billions on Ocean Park. With other voices demanding we cut our losses and put Ocean Park out of its misery, you can see that sentiment is hardening. Yet, a closure could see 2000 plus staff out of work, besides hitting the many support companies that supply the park.
Weighing all this up, for now, I see no alternative. We have to keep the place going, although the management team must account for future performance or face the chop.
Moving towards a water-themed amusement park seems a better idea than seeing animals forced to live in small enclosures. After all, having humans reside in pokey flats is terrible enough; let's treat the animals better.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.