Smells a Little Fishy

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Mickey mouse, Donald duck, Goofy—these venerable Disney characters stand for family, fun and now, maybe, dead fish. At least they do for Lai Ah-shui and 200 other fishermen. All was well with Lai's stock in the Cheung Sha Wan fish farm until last July, shortly after dredging work for the Hong Kong Disneyland project got under way. Although construction was taking place 9 km away at Penny's Bay, off Lantau Island, the surrounding water quickly filled with sediment, turning a threatening shade of brown. Suddenly, the future of Lai's 27-year-old farming business turned as murky as the water in which his fish swam. I'd come to work every day and just haul out dead fish, says the diminutive 45-year-old father of seven. I had no idea how long it would last. ALSO IN TIMECOVER: Person of the YearIt was the closest and wildest U.S. presidential election in history. At the end of it all, the man left standing is George W. Bush, whose marathon victory makes him TIME's pick as the No. 1 headliner of 2000 • Asian of the Year: North Korea's mercurial Kim Jong Il steps out from the shadowsCHINA: Farewell, My ConcubineA new law may threaten philandering officialsHONG KONG: Under the SeaDredging for Disney's new park is churning up more than dirtSOUTH KOREA: Conduct Unbecoming Feminists rally to support disgraced starlet Baek Ji YoungBUSINESS: Filling the Cheap SeatsHow one theater owner is challenging China's film monopolyCINEMA: High octane, fast trash in Gen-Y CopsQ&A: Greeting the future with Arthur C. ClarkeTRAVEL WATCH: New tricks for buying old furniture in ChinaMonths, it turned out. Fishermen at Cheung Sha Wan and Ma Wan, 3 km from the site where dredged mud is dumped, estimate $3.5 million worth of fish died between July and September due to construction of the sprawling American theme park. The local chapter of Friends of the Earth agrees that sediment likely clogged the fishes' gills and suffocated them, though Hong Kong officials insist the deaths were caused by bacterial infections and that compensation is unnecessary. Walt Disney Co. isn't planning to pay the fishermen either. Reclamation is the complete responsibility of the government, says Steve Tight, managing director of the Hong Kong Disneyland project. The government has assured us that there is no link between the Penny's Bay reclamation and the fishing industry. Disney is right, up to a point. Under the terms of a $3.5 billion joint-venture agreement thrashed out last year, the Hong Kong government agreed to provide infrastructure works such as land reclamation and roads to ensure Mickey Mouse and friends will be accessible to an estimated 5 million annual visitors when the park opens in 2005. In turn, Disney agreed to train locals for theme-park jobs ranging from operating Space Mountain to donning plastic Donald Duck suits and entertaining two-year-olds. Disney's dismissive attitude toward the dispute offends some who believe a joint venture means shared accountability. Says Plato Yip, assistant director of Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong: Contrary to what Disney says, it does have a say in this matter. Disney prides itself as a model corporate citizen, citing its commitments to the environment and community in the U.S. But it has suffered from its insensitivity to local concerns before—in America and, more prominently, in the case of EuroDisney in Paris, where it banned alcohol, leading to accusations of cultural imperialism. With U.S. companies increasingly maligned and held accountable for their actions overseas, critics say Disney would be doing itself a favor by taking an interest in local issues. It's like they're trying to stay invisible, says Cyd Ho, a legislator with the Frontier party in Hong Kong. And it's not in a way that the population feels is friendly. Disney could win an easy p.r. coup by showing greater concern for the plight of the fishermen—what's $3.5 million to Michael Eisner & Co.? In order for the project to be accepted, community issues need to be addressed, says John Ap, associate professor of tourism management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Disney has to tread carefully. They should want to establish a good rapport. Even with their current problems, the fishermen concede that the Hong Kong government had good reason to court Disney—and that the Goofy-smitten public had more than one reason to welcome it. The idea, hatched during the latter days of the recent economic crisis, was intended as a long-term measure to boost tourism and lift the Hong Kong economy by providing 18,400 jobs, a figure expected to double over 20 years. Fisherman Lai Ah-shui says that with seven children aged four to 19, he will have little choice but to visit Disneyland when it opens. Lai Tsak-tsuen, another fisherman involved in the dispute, would still consider going to work for the theme park. Even after all of this, he says, if Disney wanted to hire us to drive boats in the marine park, I don't think any of us would object. Disney can only hope that the rest of Hong Kong will be so forgiving.