19 October 2018
Allan Zeman (left) will have less time for Ocean Park's pandas and more for art if his role expands at the West Kowloon Cultural District. Photo: HKEJ, Ocean Park, Apple Daily
Allan Zeman (left) will have less time for Ocean Park's pandas and more for art if his role expands at the West Kowloon Cultural District. Photo: HKEJ, Ocean Park, Apple Daily

Will Mouse Killer take star role in west-side saga?

Chief Executive CY Leung is clearly running out of options to fill top public service posts, so much so that he seems to be throwing out the government’s unofficial handbook, Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

The government is contemplating relieving Allan Zeman of his Ocean Park chairmanship and elevating him across town from board member to chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District, which has gone nowhere in 16 years, according to some observers.

Putting a popular figure in an unpopular project goes against the usual rule but Leung is no doubt hoping that a well-respected businessman like Zeman can defuse the ticking time bomb of Hong Kong’s most controversial project.

The speculation came after an Apple Daily report last week that Zeman’s time will be up at Ocean Park this month when his 11th annual term ends.

Zeman reportedly wants to stay on but the government has named unproven and less-popular deputy chairman Leo Kung Lin-cheng to take over the job.

If Zeman does take on the West Kowloon post the question will be whether he can play Mr Fix-it again.

Zeman has an impeccable track record at Ocean Park and is widely credited with turning an ageing theme park into a dynamic tourist attraction with visitors growing in record number every year. The turnaround was so dramatic that the park dwarfed Hong Kong Disneyland, earning Zeman the nickname “Mouse Killer”.

For more than 11 years, the Canadian-turned-Chinese tycoon has also proved he can do something that even titan Li Ka-shing can’t: he has worked with all three of Hong Kong’s chief executives.

But West Kowloon could be a different story. The cultural district, first proposed by Tung Chee-hwa in 1998, has been dogged by controversy, with everyone in the fractured worlds of art and politics wanting a say on the project’s massive scale, planned operations and spiralling budget.

West Kowloon has been a reputational graveyard for senior government officials such as Rafael Hui Si-yan, Henry Tang Ying-yen and CY Leung. Even popular Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has found herself in hot water over the need for more cultural facilities, and that neatly explains why she may want to find someone to take over from her as chairman of the project.

One person close to the Zeman clan said Zeman had not yet be approached to take on the West Kowloon job. “Are you crazy?” the person said at the suggestion that it would be offered. 

One obvious potential conflict could be his joint venture with DreamWorks Animation and China Media Capital to build a Broadway-style center in Shanghai. The financing details of the Dream Center are not known, but it is believed that China Development Bank and China Taiping Insurance are putting up most of the funding.

While the quest for top board talent continues, it looks certain that three West Kowloon musketeers — Zeman, Ronald Arculli and Victor Lo Chung-wing — will stay on. It will all be more gripping than a Korean drama so grab a chair and watch the show.

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Chief reporter at EJ Insight

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