Author: CHUNG Yoon Ngan
Date: 05-11-12 07:46
War of the wheels
By Hazel Parry
September 29, 2011 - 11:12am http://www.chinadailyapac.com
Potential wheel operators claim a observation wheel would give up to 10,000 people a day a unique viewing experience and bring tourists to Central. (Provided to China Daily)
It's a rare, clear autumn day in Central. On the viewing platform at The Peak a group of mainland tourists marvel at the view of Victoria Harbour and snap away with their cameras.
Over on the 100th floor of the International Commerce Centre (IFC), a pair of newly weds on honeymoon enjoy a romantic view from the Sky100 lounge.
In Mid-Levels, a domestic helper stops work for a few seconds to stare from the window of her employer's high-rise apartment, while at the same time a worker in IFC gazes out of his windows.
At that precise moment, all these people have something in common - a high-rise view of Hong Kong's iconic Victoria Harbour, and one of the most photographed city views in the world: breathtakingly stunning on a clear day and magical when lit up at night.
That is why it comes as no surprise to discover that two international entertainment companies are engaged in race to win approval to erect a giant observation wheel on the harborfront.
The wheels, like smaller versions of the London Eye, would reach 60 meters into the sky, carrying between 300 to 400 passengers at a time in air-conditioned gondolas.
Both companies have applied to the government for short-term leases at the harbor, one in Central, the other in Kai Tak. The companies claim the wheels would be a great attraction. However, only one is likely to succeed and even if a lease were granted, the company would still need the approval of various government departments before going ahead.
The two players in the race are: a partnership between two British companies, Hall Organisation Ltd and Great City Attractions Global Ltd; and the Dubai-based Freij Entertainment International. All have experience in operating observation wheels.
The British contender has 25 wheels in operation in nine countries, including the Singapore Flyer - the world's biggest observation wheel at 165 metres.
Rival Freij Entertainment claims to be the world's biggest entertainment company and is the company behind the transportable Roue de Paris wheel, which was originally installed in Paris for the millennium celebration. It's also behind several city carnivals including the current Shanghai Carnival.
While they are rivals, both companies agree on one thing: Hong Kong would benefit from adding an observation wheel to its skyline.
"I think it would do Hong Kong's harbour a lot of good and add vibrancy to the central area," said the Hong Kong representative for Hall Organisation and Great City Attractions, who asked not to be named.
"Tsim Sha Tsui has the Avenue of Stars and the Bruce Lee statue, both of which attract people to the area.
"But Central is pretty quiet and there is no reason for people to go there at night-time. Something like an observation wheel would encourage tourists to go there and appreciate the harbor."
So far the bid by Great City Attractions Global and Hall Organization appears to have the upper hand, having already gained some support from district councilors after a presentation at the August meeting of the Harborfront Commission. A spokesman for the Lands Department also confirmed that while a short-term land lease was still under consideration, the application by Hall Organizations had received policy support from the Director-General of Investment Promotion.
At that meeting, the companies told the committee they were was prepared to invest HK$95 million to ship and install the wheels if the application for a short-term lease on land close to piers No 9 and 10 were granted. The companies also agreed to stand the HK$10 million-a-year operating costs.
They said the wheel would bring between 70 and 100 jobs to the city and have the capacity to take 10,000 passengers a day, with a daily expected average between 2,000 and 4,000 - each paying around HK$100 for the 10 to 15-minute ride.
The Hong Kong representative for the two companies told the China Daily they were currently waiting for a decision on the land lease but hoped to have the necessary approval to see the wheel in operation early next year.
"We have to follow the rules and wait for the land to be ready. Then we need to get all the licenses in place from the various other departments. I think there are 10 departments in total which we have to go through, including the police and the fire department.
"However, once we have those in place, the wheel could be up in days. It's a portable wheel which makes it is very easy for us to ship. The installation only takes 10-14 days," she said.
However, Freij Entertainment, says its wheel - the Freij World Wheel - is already in Hong Kong after being shipped here from previous stops in Kuala Lumpur, and in Kota Laksamana, next to the Malacca River, in Malaysia. An application to place it temporarily at Kai Tak currently is being considered by the District Lands Office for Kowloon East.
Freij El-zein, chief executive of Freij Entertainment Hong Kong, said the wheel had been here a year and had received relevant approval from various government departments including the Mechanical and Electrical Services Department which checks the safety of fairground rides. He said it was hoped it would form one of the key attractions at a six-month carnival in Kai Tak due to start in November, pending the approval of the land lease. However, afterwards, he planned to make it a priority to find the wheel a permanent site in Central.
"We are not a company that is saying, we will bring a wheel, we already have a wheel here," he told the China Daily.
"We have been here in Hong Kong for five years. It is very difficult to get permission for these things in Hong Kong. It takes a long time.
"We planned to put it front of the Exhibition and Convention Centre for the New Year but the approval didn't come through until July.
"The wheel will be one of the attractions at the carnival at Kai Tak in November for six months but we are planning to keep it here permanently.
"In fact, we are building a bigger wheel of 80 meters in Germany now and that is going to be ready next January. If they (Hong Kong) don't want the 60-meter wheel, we can give them the bigger one and they will be first place in the world to have a 80-meter transportable wheel."
But not everyone is convinced that any wheel, 60 or 80-meter, would be good for Hong Kong.
Legislator for the tourism sector Paul Tse Wai-chun said he welcomed any idea that had potential to help the city's tourism industry. However, he did not want Hong Kong to be seen as being a "copycat" to other cities.
"There is also the fact that Hong Kong already has very good observation points on The Peak, in fact all the way to The Peak there are various points where you can see the harbor very well," said Tse.
"There is also Sky100 in Kowloon. So on both sides of the harbor we have very good vantage points where people can enjoy the view. I doubt very much, we need an observation wheel.
"We should also look at how something like this would change the skyline before going ahead."
His concerns are echoed in part by Paul Zimmerman, of the Society for the Protection of the Harbour, who believes although in the short term, using the land for a Ferris Wheel was much better than using it for a car park, it was not a development he would like to see over the long-term.
"As a temporary facility to bring a bit of excitement to an area which is likely to be a construction site for quite some time, then why not?" he said.
"But in the long-term, I would be concerned that a Ferris wheel would be a bit 'me too' and I think we have to work harder to be try and be different from other cities.
"There is a good reason for us to be different because in both Singapore and London, observation wheels are a great success because they lift people over the skyline and give them a great view.
"I would rather that land is used for waterfront restaurants or a kids' playground. Those kinds of uses bring an enormous amount of enjoyment to an enormous amount of people."
But the companies behind the wheels take the view that high-rise Hong Kong does have room for an observation wheel because it offers a unique experience which both locals and tourists will enjoy.
Both see the plans for a temporary wheel on the harbor front as a way of testing the water to see if demand and support exists to make it a permanent structure on the skyline.
"It is a romantic thing to go up a wheel," said the representative for the Hall Organization and Great City Attractions.
"It is a fun and exciting way to see the harbor. It is a different experience than taking a view from a vantage point. People have always loved Ferris Wheels and I see no reason for people in Hong Kong to be any different.
"This particular wheel is not a dramatic as the London Eye or the Singapore Flyer. But it would allow us to test the water and see how the people and the government would react to it. Putting a permanent wheel here would be a very big investment."
Freij El-zein said the location was key to the success of a wheel and he believed the waterfront was a good place.
"A wheel gives a panoramic view but if you put it between big buildings, it will be like a mosquito. You need an open space like the waterfront," he said.
Hong Kong architect Nigel Reading takes the view that "fair-ground" wheels are not right for Hong Kong's harbor.
Almost 14 years ago, he came up with a dramatic idea of a horizontal observation wheel called the Hong Kong Spin, which so far has not gone beyond the concept stage.
"I think it is very poor show," he said of the proposed wheels. "Hong Kong can do much better than ape what has already been done in London, Singapore and numerous other cities," he said.
"These wheels are not even the same caliber as the London Eye, or the Singapore Flyer. They are not good enough for Hong Kong."
As attractions go, the two Ferris wheels under proposal look pretty tame when compared to HK$1.5 billion wheel project designed by concept architect Nigel Reading.
Hong Kong Spin, as it is named, features a 200 meter-tall leaning observation tower and a horizontal spinning wheel that houses bars and restaurants, all with a revolving view of the harbour and skyline.
The ambitious design was originally put forward as a project for Tai Mo Shan as an entry for a design competition organized by the Hong Kong Institute of Architects to celebrate Hong Kong's handover in 1997.
For ten years, it remained on the drawing board but then in 2007, Reading resubmitted it as a proposal for the old Kai Tak airport site.
It is the Eiffel Tower and the London Eye rolled into one and sure-fire icon for the city, according to Reading.
"The thing about Hong Kong Spin is that it is bespoke tailored for the Hong Kong story," said Reading.
"Its form represents the both Chinese character 'Jung' (meaning middle) and the Greek letter 'Phi' (sign for the golden ration in symmetry), which is a circle with the line going through it.
"It is a reflection that Hong Kong is a city produced by both Western and Eastern cities; it is a fusion.
"So it's not just a novelty or a gimmick that the wheel is horizontal, it has very strong symbolic association with Hong Kong."
The Spin's inclined tower - the line in the Greek phi letter - features pods which spiral up and down in a continuous cycle, taking visitors to the observation platform at the top and back down again.
It also proposed the use of cutting-edge technology taking advantage of sustainable energy sources such as wind farms and the tidal energy of the harbour to power and light the wheel.
Reading, who now runs his own company Asynsis Architecture and Design, said the project was very well received in 2007, by the Tourism Commission and Frederick Ma, then the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, who requested a feasibility report.
However, then the global economic recession hit and interest in the project waned.
"Basically, it just didn't happen then because of the crash," said Reading. "It is very much on the table and we are now hoping to garner developer interest to re-propose it to Hong Kong, not at the original site which was not feasible because the helipad needed to be on the tip of the old runway, but at other sites such as West Kowloon."
Reading said the Hong Kong Spin team features all the original partners in their respective roles with Arup providing all the engineering services, Aedas as executive architects and himself as the originating concept designer.
"The project is very much alive and we are seeking commercial partners to join the government in a public private partnership consortium arrangement to first fund a feasibility report into the technical, commercial and social aspects of the project and - pending the results - to then proceed with a full design development, documentation and tendering process," said Reading.
"I would love to see it happening. It is very apt potential landmark for branding Hong Kong."