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Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2001

Tickets here for Asia

From Indonesia to Japan, the past reappears as a theme park


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Special to The Japan Times

By the time the lunch gong sounded in the great hall of the Heng Yang monastery, I had already placed generous votive offerings at a shrine in the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy, watched a flour-doll and knot maker at work, witnessed minor grievances being aired at the Ancient Courthouse and met a talking Sun Yat Sen in the Wax Museum. Why not slow the pace down, the brochure kindly suggested, with a visit to the Chamber of a Thousand Pleasures?

Singapore's Tang Dynasty City, as it is known, is cleverly billed as "The World's Only Living Empire." But it is not the only recreation of past cultural glories on offer in Asia, where a growing number of countries are waking up to the possibilities inherent in theme parks.

The entrance to Dragon World

Only the day before, I had visited another cultural digest called Dragon World -- a cleaner, more efficiently run version of Hong Kong's wonderful, ruined, soon-to-be-condemned Tiger Balm Gardens. At Dragon World, I had witnessed the creation of humanity by the legendary and very swift (it took less than five minutes) Pan Gu and Nu Wa, experienced the Wrath of the Water Gods chute, and eaten in the Celestial Picnic Gardens, which also doubled, according to the blurb I carried, as a "corporate picnic area for company functions."

Some Asian countries with a genuine historical legacy in the form of monuments like Borobodur in Indonesia, Sukhothai in Thailand and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or once authentic arts and crafts centers like the Sudaluk district of Thailand's Chiang Mai, are fast turning their treasures into places resembling theme parks. Others, like Singapore and Hong Kong, having destroyed most of an architectural heritage that would surely have proved a strong drawing card for tourists, are fast recreating ersatz versions of the past, and these are turning out to be almost as lucrative as the real thing.

More money and a desire to court more tourists to build on that affluence are, of course, the main reasons for the spread of theme parks, but there are other motives as well.

A good case in point is Hong Kong. Formerly geared to shoppers, single men or gamblers off for a spree in nearby Macau, Hong Kong has begun to address itself increasingly to the broader needs of families.

Hence the theme park concept. Long time Hong Kong resident Kevin Rafferty hinted at the larger-than-life quality of the newly created Special Administrative Region that makes it ideal for the development of such complexes when he wrote: "Sometimes it seems as if Hong Kong exists only to claim its own chapter in the Guinness Book of World Records."

At Ocean Park, on the coast at Deep Water Bay, some of these Hong Kong superlatives can be put to the test. The park was opened in 1976 but has been considerably developed since then. And, despite the extreme scarcity of land in Hong Kong, it has managed to continue expanding. Billed as an oceanarium, it is more of an amusement and theme park than a marine world. The emphasis is clearly on pleasing everyone, with landscaped gardens, a mini-zoo, a theater, a space-wheel, a complex of water chutes and a giant roller coaster, ominously named the Dragon.

For parents at least, a certain tolerance and open-mindedness is required if one is to appreciate the sights of Ocean Park. How else, for example, would it be possible to enjoy the sight of penguins plunging through machine-induced surf at Wave Cove?

As visitors descend by escalator or on foot toward the Ocean Park exit, they have one last chance to clean out their pockets at the row of souvenir shops that are an indispensable presence at all theme parks. The shops here blend discreetly with the red-tiled roofs and giant incense burners of the Ming Dynasty Village -- another replica, naturally. Short but highly accomplished displays of folk dancing, Chinese opera, ceremonial parades, kung fu and other performing arts are staged in the streets and in the village theater throughout the day.

All in all, Ocean Park is a timely reminder that Hong Kong owes its very existence as a contemporary foreign entrepot less to the architectural and other vestiges of a rich cultural heritage than to the trade and commerce it has generated, and to the patronage of its customers, clients and, more recently, tourists who support it.

Stephen Mansfield is a Japan-based freelance photojournalist and the author, most recently, of "Lao Hill Tribes" (Oxford University Press). He last wrote for the Focus page on the complex relations between Laos and Thailand.


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