HONG KONG It was the spring of 2003 when Hong Kong business magnate Allan Zeman answered an unexpected call from Tung Chee-hwa. "Why don't you become the chairman of Ocean Park?" asked Hong Kong's then-chief executive. Zeman was left utterly bewildered.
Ocean Park opened in 1977 as a public theme park with an aquarium and a zoo. By 2003, the place was on the verge of closure after decades of neglect. Even more daunting, Hong Kong Disneyland was slated to open just around the corner two years later.
After six calls from Tung, Zeman reluctantly went to see the decrepit old park. But when he took a cable car ride at the park, one look at the views over the South China Sea was enough to convince him he could turn Ocean Park around.
Zeman, 66, was born in Germany and grew up in Canada. At the age of 19, he started importing clothes from Hong Kong, and eventually moved there at 26. In 1983, he opened his first American restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong -- a back alley of warehouses and small stores at the time. He then began to buy up neighboring properties, and transformed the district into a one of the territory's most popular entertainment hot spots.
After taking over at Ocean Park, the first thing Zeman did was to name a new management team, recommending Tom Mehrmann as CEO. The 56-year-old had previously worked on the development of Warner Brothers Movie World in Spain. "Right after the interview Allan said, 'That's it! We've got to hire him right now.' Within two minutes I was called back into the room," Mehrmann recalled.
Zeman's instructions were clear: Don't mimic the West. He argued that Ocean Park should continue to offer a uniquely homegrown experience, while Disneyland came in from abroad. Many of Ocean Park's attractions are designed to reflect local culture. Restaurants at the park serve steamed rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and other local foods. The new walk-through aquarium filled with exotic jellyfish has proved extremely popular with tourists from China's landlocked provinces.
After proposing an investment plan of HK$5.55 billion ($715 million) to the Hong Kong government and local banks, Zeman did everything to drum up publicity. At the first news conference, he even turned up in a jellyfish costume.
A 26-year-old tourist from Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, said, "During my second visit to Hong Kong Disneyland, I got bored with the rides and attractions, but Ocean Park always offers fresh and surprising experiences." Annual attendance at the park has reached more than 7 million, almost doubling in the past decade and consistently staying above the number of visitors to Hong Kong Disneyland. The latest coup earned Zeman the nickname "Mouse Killer," in reference to Disney's most famous character.
In 2008, Zeman renounced his Canadian citizenship and became a naturalized citizen of China. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, chairwoman of the New People's Party, Hong Kong's pro-Beijing political party, said, "I think the Chinese authorities trust him and respect his advice as a very useful outside perspective."
In partnership with a U.S. company and China's media investment fund, Zeman is currently spearheading development of the Shanghai DreamCenter, an urban arts and entertainment center. He says that merely imposing Western culture on Chinese consumers is no longer effective if people want to find opportunities in China.
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