An article in Time Out HK two years ago reported that…
In 2004, Andrew Yuen Man-Fai and Pastor Boaz Li Chi-Kwong of evangelical Christian media organisation Media Evangelism climbed Mt Ararat in eastern Turkey and found what they claimed were the remnants of Noah’s Ark. Excited and inspired by their discovery – which they documented on blurry video that was unfortunately corrupted by a ‘mysterious force’ – they returned to Hong Kong determined to build a replica of the famous life-raft.
Four years later, they’ve done just that, with the help of Sun Hung Kai.
It sounded irresistible: a Hong Kong version of the creationist Dinosaur Adventure Land ‘Where Dinosaurs and the Bible Meet!’ (last seen being seized by the US government). But my long overdue trip to Noah’s Ark at Ma Wan proves disappointing. I wanted hard-core, ignorant, anti-scientific, pro-Biblical literalist, anti-evolution propaganda rammed down my throat. What I got was an insipid, semi-secular mishmash of vaguely animal-oriented, warm and fuzzy niceness wrapped up in Hong Kong officialdom’s finest concrete, fake natural features and barrier tape.
As with the origins of life and the universe, the genesis of Ma Wan Park leaves some unanswered questions. It seems that Sun Hung Kai Properties, who were building the Park Island residential development, originally proposed a commercial theme park with rides. When Disney came along, the plan changed. I would hazard a guess that evangelical forces in the developer and sympathizers in the civil service attempted to steer the government-financed, SHKP-run project into a Christian fundamentalist direction at some stage before having to largely back down in the face of behind-the-scenes secular opposition, or maybe fear of public ridicule. Thus the future facility came to be officially referred to as having “a theme of ‘Naturally Hong Kong’, with emphasis on … conservation of the natural environment and cultural heritage, as well as promoting harmony and family values”.
Most of the park is free to visit and contains things like newly weds being photographed and rocks with ‘peace’ and ‘love’ painted on them. The part we are concerned with here is the bit you have to buy a ticket to enter: the Biblically correct ark nestled beneath the vast Tsing Ma Bridge to the airport: it is a Christian theme park with God largely stripped out of it.
After getting one type of ticket and passing through the turnstiles, the visitor has to get another to enter the garden walk adjoining the ark. The idea is to stagger the flow of people, and it goes without saying that the various checks by brightly uniformed youths wielding barcode readers quickly becomes tiresome, especially if you have stuffed the requisite coupon somewhere and can’t find it. The good news is that the staff are docile and turn cooperative at the merest hint of an attack of irritable gwailo syndrome.
The garden walk contains the semi-lifelike models of animals set against the bridge to the airport and the rabbit hutch factory that is Park Island. Twee and anthropomorphic descriptions of the animals assign each creature an admirable personal characteristic of its very own. The zebra, for example, practices sincerity. This bears no relationship to biological science, but nor is intelligent design explicitly mentioned. The rocks are fibre glass, and the animal sounds and songs come from loudspeakers, but the plants are real and flourishing under copious amounts of horse manure, which adds a certain authenticity to the ambience.
After more ticket checks you enter the ark itself. The Biblical account of Noah, the boat-building and the flood is set out museum-style, but with a notable lack of fiery, pulpit-bashing conviction. Mostly. Of the idea (new to me) that the Ark had only one pair of ravens, we are told “This is wrong!” We also learn that while on board, “all animals were cooperative – at a time of hardship and anxiety”. Not like some people, presumably.
Some interactive games offer you the chance to see how the world would be different if we were closer to/further from the sun, had more/less oxygen in the air, had stronger/weaker gravity, and so on. This is standard creationist circuitous logic: life on Earth could not have arisen except under very specific conditions, therefore someone planned it. But directly opposite the games are displays of live animals, including a nautilus shellfish (still going, it says, after 500 million years) and a chameleon, complete with descriptions of how evolution – chance genetic mutation – has left them well adapted to their environments. It’s almost as if a committee of officials told a bunch of Christian fundamentalists that they could have some intelligent design content in their publicly funded museum only if some Darwinist exhibits appeared next to them.
Far and away the best part of the museum is the film about the flood. It is on a 180-degree screen and gripping: bad people have orgies, good guys build a boat despite being laughed at, animals turn up to board the vessel, the vicious storm breaks out, naughty people die horribly, the rain eventually stops, a dove finds a twig, a rainbow appears, the ark comes to rest as the water recedes (where did it recede to?), the animals get out and everything lives happily ever after. Not only are the surround-sound effects amazing, but you get shaken in your seat and, at one stage, surrounded by an eerie mist. It is better than Avatar. God’s Cantonese, by the way, is excellent.
While waiting for the 10-minute movie, you can see artifacts from the sorry-sounding expedition to Mount Ararat, including a real piece of Ark. It looks like a lump of rock, but as we all know, Evangelical Christianity has roots in the Calvinist backlash against the Catholic Church’s acceptance of relics and other idolatry, so it must be real.
The crowd control measures continue after the film as you are herded to the next exhibit (flood myths found in different world cultures) for an allotted period of time. This is necessary because the Ma Wan Noah’s Ark is ‘very popular’ – Hong Kong-speak for ‘crammed into a tiny space’. What sort of people does the visitor rub shoulders with?
The bulk of visitors appear to be youngish Hongkongers out for a good photo-taking opportunity rather than a spiritually uplifting experience. Some are undoubtedly devout, scribbling notes down in booklets for further reference. Quite a few pairs of young, clean Westerners with one kid and plans for eight more roam the place. Groups of Muslim Indonesian women are also much in evidence (Noah is a prophet to Muslims, though Islamists would be horrified at what subliminal Christianity appears here).
I can recommend the Singapore noodles in the Harvest Restaurant canteen. If you want a souvenir, the shop near the entrance sells little cardboard road signs bearing supposedly morale-boosting slogans like ‘everyone has a job’ (road works ahead), ‘pay rise’ (steep slope ahead) and ‘wealth goes round’ (roundabout ahead). They sum up what is, after all, Sun Hung Kai’s most morally ambivalent and confused project.