Friday, September 23, 2005

Mickey Mao Talk: The WSJ Scoop on Disneyland

Asian Wall Street Journal Reporter Geoffrey Fowler (who is also a Harvard-trained anthropologist) gave a thoroughly enjoyable talk yesterday evening at a well-attended Lecture Hall in the Hong Kong Museum of History. His subject was the Hong Kong Disneyland theme park and how Disney has had to change elements of its Anaheim offering to suit mainland Chinese tastes (he's already been 4 or 5 times). He started the talk by asking: who is Disney targeting with the scaled-down 19th century Bavarian castle? By the Aztec warriors played by Filipino and Chinese men? By the char siew rice served at the open air restaurants on "Main Street, USA"? And most interestingly, with the 40-minute waits to pose for a picture with Mickey?

He made the interesting point that, far from Disney representing a growing American cultural hegemony of the mainland market, it is the mainland Chinese consumer that has the true agency with his or her tastes - the mainlander interprets the Disney story and its offerings in a totally unique way, and despite Disney's best efforts to control the experience of their creations, the Chinese consumer is making his or her own choice about what Disney is all about. Disney is chasing what he called a 'family revolution' in China, where the one child in the family is in charge of consumption.

This is exacerbated by the fact that Disney cartoons and movies are in fact still banned in China and cannot be shown through official channels. For that reason, even though many Chinese are interested in Disneyland as a slice of Americana, they don't know even basic facts about the main characters (i.e. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse). In fact, the most popular character is a 35-year old cartoon character called Marie the Cat, from the 1970 feature film, "The Aristocats". Mr. Fowler suspected this was because Marie bears a striking resemblance to 'Hello Kitty'. Apparently overwhlemed with this response, and bending over backwards to cater to the tastes of their Chinese clientele, Disney is already planning a sequel to the 1970 film "Aristocats", due for release in 2007.

Some other interesting points:

1) The #1 interest for mainland visitors is not the rides: the rides, interestingly, don't even make their top ten list. The #1 interest in taking photos. A mainland couple (cited in the SCMP), a family of three (they don't come in too many other sizes these days in China) had clearly spent a lot of money to come, but did not even get past the Main Street area and left after an hour because they had run out of camera battery. Disney anticipated this, and created an area called "Fantasy Gardens" which is just really for picture taking from many different angles.

2) Disney initially apparently toyed with the idea of having Asian-themed sections of the park, but ultimately decided that what the Chinese wanted was Americana, and that they should stick to a 'cookie-cutter' version of Disneyland in California (albeit scaled down). They are trying to target Chinese with 'international aspirations'. Parents from China that came with their kids cited the desire to "enrich children with new experiences." Mulan, for those of you who are curious, makes only very limited appearances at the park. Snow White is played by a Caucasian white actress who only speaks to everyone in English.

3) Speaking of demographics, Disney sees 3 groups coming to the park: 1/3 local Hong Kong Chinese, 1/3 S.E. Asia, Taiwan, Korea and Japan; and 1/3 Mainland. But Disney execs clearly only care about the last group; the Hong Kong authorities, too, are clearly pushing for catering to mainland tastes as the number one priority. One wonders whether the Hong Kong taxpayer fits into all of this, since he/she is the one that is footing the bill. Are Hong Kongers going to appreciate the mainland visitor interest the park provides, or will they feel alienated by this park they helped create and resent the mainlanders that come to visit (e.g. as we can see already, lambasted in the press for defecating in sinks and urinating in public).

It was a very interesting talk. Disney clearly sees this as a small first experiment (emphasis on the small) to tackle the greatest new market of our time, China. For them and for China, the jury is still out, but the signs are positive for Disney, particularly as they make all the necessary adjustments (particularly having Marie the Cat boot Mickey off centre stage).

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