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Hong Kong Disney Facing Resistance - 2002-05-02

Disneyland bills itself as "The Happiest Place on Earth." But, dredging in the picturesque Penny's Bay, home of the next Disneyland in Asia, is raising serious environmental concerns and makes a lot of people very unhappy.

Disney and the local government struck a deal to build Hong Kong's Disneyland even before anyone took a look at the effect this would have on the local environment. For Hong Kong, Disneyland is the ticket to revitalizing the flagging tourism industry hit by the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the territory's handover to mainland China in 1997. To cement the deal, Hong Kong paid $2.8 billion of taxpayers' money to invest in the amusement park.

Dredging in Penny's Bay, in the northeast corner of Lantau Island got under way and fish in the surrounding waters began to die in large numbers. But a study commissioned by the government found no relationship between the two. Public outcry about the destruction of marine life prompted the government to pay for another study, which found some fish died, but, as one of the members of the panel said, the murky waters of Penny's Bay are safe enough to swim in.

Daniel Chan, head of Hong Kong University's zoology department and one of the scientists on the study, has no doubt the deaths of red snapper, white blotch snapper and head grunt fish in the bay, once the breeding ground for these fish, are caused by the toxic sediment stirred up by the dredging operations.

For Lindsey Porter, of the World Wide Fund for Nature, the big concern is the dwindling population of the Chinese White Dolphin in Hong Kong waters where the only known existing population lives. She says the dolphins, revered by the local fishermen as messengers of Tin Hau, the traditional goddess of the sea, are dying out. Ms. Porter sees a grim future for the White Dolphin.

"One of our greatest fears for the population currently is that of the six to nine calves which are born every year, approximately 80 percent of them die," she said. "So we are not sustaining the population in the long term because we are not replacing the adult population because of high infant mortality."

Local fishermen, whose livelihood is being eroded by the construction and land reclamation projects in Hong Kong waters, such as Disneyland, have been paid $3,000 in financial compensation. For many, fishing has been the way of life for generations, and some are worried about the generations to come.

Eighty-three-year-old fisherman Wan Fat Chun is one of them. He says his children and grandchildren are no longer able to make a living as fishermen, and must supplement their income with part-time work.

Mr. Wan says his family has been fishing for six generations in the Hong Kong waters. He says fishing gave him a good life and no worries about the future. But, because of all the reclamation work on eastern Lantau, he says, silt is killing fish and life for his family is much more difficult.

Some islanders worry about noise and water pollution even though they acknowledge having Disneyland in their backyard may be good for the local economy. Others, including Chairman of the Green Peng Chau Association, "Sennie" Chan Lit Fong, resent the intrusion of foreign culture into their lives. "I don't think it's necessary. Chinese have our own culture. This is American culture. I talk to many, many people about Penny's Bay reclamation and Disneyland. And most of them say why. Why Disneyland in Hong Kong?" he asks.

But whatever the views of the islanders, they are of little relevance as Disney, with full backing of the Hong Kong government, forges ahead toward the 2006 opening of its amusement park. Hong Kong officials see Disneyland in terms of jobs and economic development, and, as environmentalists point out, are deaf to warnings the giant works transforming Penny's Bay wreak havoc on marine life.

Meanwhile, Disney is already casting its sights further north toward Shanghai, the anticipated site of yet another happy place on earth.