This city of soaring towers and flickering vistas is showing signs of rebirth after nearly two years of painful recession, leading many here to praise an unlikely savior. He's an exuberant American with two very big ears, and he seems to have brought nothing but good news.
The announcement earlier this month that the Hong Kong government and the Walt Disney Co. will build a Disneyland on reclaimed land smack in the middle of a secluded bay offered a glorious vision to the city's 6.8 million recession-weary residents: Mickey Mouse will walk on water, and Hong Kong will follow.
As if by miracle, those lofty expectations already have begun to be met. Hong Kong's economy has witnessed more positive developments in the days since the Disney deal was announced than at any time since the Asian financial crisis first hit the territory in 1997. Although Disney has been the lucky beneficiary of a recovery that was already underway, the happy coincidence has added to the Mickey mystique.
Polls show more than 75 percent of the population supports bringing Disney to town, despite grumbling from opponents that the company got an overly sweet deal and complaints that the government should not be putting its own funds into a commercial venture. The city's $3.3 billion investment in the project, including infrastructure, dwarfs Disney's $320 million contribution.
"I think it's wonderful," said Paul Ngai, the financial controller at the American consulting firm Arthur Andersen & Co. He and his bride, May Singh, exchanged their wedding vows a few days after the deal was signed, then drove away from the ceremony in a black Mercedes sedan with a stuffed Minnie and Mickey hooked prominently to their hood. "Disney will boost the confidence of people in Hong Kong," Ngai said.
Despite the effusive welcome, a small number of heretics have questioned the city's aggressive effort to court the world's most pervasive animated rodent.
"Only two years ago, we were trumpeting to the world that we ought to be more Chinese, being embraced by the motherland and all that," said David Tang, who has become one of Hong Kong's most successful barons by marketing Chinese styles and ambiance through his Shanghai Tang department store and the traditionally appointed and outrageously expensive China Club.
"As far as I can see, nothing of the sort has happened. On the contrary, with Disney we seem to have gone the opposite direction," Tang said.
Tang, whose attire alternates between old-fashioned Chinese silk apparel and natty business suits, said he is not opposed to building a Disneyland in Hong Kong, but thinks more should be done simultaneously to beef up the city's Chinese accents. He said erecting an elegant Buddhist temple in every Hong Kong district would be a better strategy for attracting tourists than promoting Mickey Mouse, Broadway plays such as "Cats," and the French-Canadian theatrical circus, Cirque du Soleil, as the government has done.
Mike Rowse, Hong Kong's commissioner of tourism and the chief negotiator with Disney, responded to such sentiments with a laugh. After all, Hong Kong is a place already so deeply infused with foreign culture that it is not unusual to see adults carrying Hello Kitty and Batman credit cards, he said.
"If you want to see the Great Wall, you'll go to the mainland [of China]. We're not going to build one here," he said. He predicts that 1.4 million additional tourists will visit Hong Kong the year Disneyland opens, mostly from the rest of China and Asia.
Opposition politicians and other prominent entrepreneurs also have assailed Tung Chee-hwa, the territory's first leader appointed by Beijing since the handover in July 1997, for interfering in Hong Kong's free market. They say he is a well-meaning but hapless chief executive who has engaged in a pattern of "paternalist" intervention that is undermining Hong Kong's freewheeling way of life.
Tung's government bought $15 billion worth of stock last year to buttress the market and also took on the role of developer for a high-profile high-tech zone, leading some businessmen to chafe at the mercantilist bent of Tung's regime. The Disney deal was the most egregious example yet, they say.
"We don't need the government to increase their activity and to guide us out, like Moses from Egypt," said Jimmy Lai, an outspoken businessman who publishes Hong Kong's most popular newspaper, the Apple Daily.
Lai, who recently launched a massive e-commerce and buy-by-telephone venture that is hemorrhaging millions of dollars, said Tung is trying too hard because he wants to outshine his British predecessors. Although the economy is starting to recover, Hong Kong still needs to continue its painful transition until the city's entrepreneurs learn to compete and win in the new world economy, he said.
But Lau Siu Kai, a leading social analyst and associate director of the Asia-Pacific Studies at Chinese University of Hong Kong, argues that while people are less confident in Tung's government than in the colonial government in the past, the Disneyland deal has provided a real psychological boost.
As a city centered on a small rock half the area of Washington, D.C., Hong Kong has always prided itself on its wiles. Out-competing Shanghai and southern China for Mickey's affections helped restore self-confidence after the worst recession in 50 years.
"The feel-good factor is pretty important right now," Lau said.
Since Nov. 2, when Tung and Mickey appeared smiling together after the conclusion of more than a year of difficult negotiations, Hong Kong's economy has had good news. In a sign of confidence in the territory's financial future, three times the number of eligible investors lined up ahead of a Nov. 4 deadline to buy into a stock fund offered by the government to unload some of its holdings from last year, sending the Hang Seng Index surging.
Then Friday, the Hong Kong government announced that the economy grew at a rate of 4.5 percent in the third quarter, a jump from 0.7 percent in the second quarter and a clear break from the sharp declines that have dogged the territory. While the economy still faces problems, such as declining prices that are cutting into profit margins, Hong Kong's recovery has officially begun.
Growth is expected to increase once the impact of Disneyland's construction is felt. Morgan Stanley analyst Andy Xie estimates the five-year project will add 0.4 percent to Hong Kong's gross domestic product each year, and 0.5 percent annually after the park opens.
The rosy forecasts have been tough on Sze Pang Cheung, organizer of a tiny local activist group called Beware of Mickey.
"We've got to stop it. This kind of standardized culture is terrible," said Sze, 26, a sociology graduate student. He added that the kind of development that comes with a Disneyland is not worth the cost: "Look at Orlando!"
CAPTION: "Disney will boost the confidence of people in Hong Kong," says Paul Ngai, a controller who stands with his bride, May Singh, in front of their appropriately adorned Mercedes.
CAPTION: Department store owner David Tang says he is not opposed to building a Disneyland, but believes Hong Kong also should focus on its Chinese traits.
CAPTION: Jimmy Lai, a businessman who publishes Hong Kong's newspaper, the Apple Daily, says the government's investment in Disneyland is misguided.