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#1: Building China's Tomorrow
Mellissa Berry was the Executive Creative Producer of Tomorrowland in Shanghai Disney Resort, which opened to the public in 2016. She moved to Shanghai in 2009, two years before the groundbreaking on the park, and lived and worked there for 8 years.
Walt Disney: To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America; with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.
Craig: That was Walt Disney dedicating Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955. In the sixty-five years since that speech, Disney theme parks have opened in Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and in 2016, Shanghai.
As you can imagine, these parks are a big business. In 2018, they brought in over 20 billion dollars and 157 million guests.
To look after all those visitors, Disney employs a hundred and thirty thousand people in those six cities. That’s 86 percent of Disney’s total workforce, just for these parks. One of those employees was Mellissa Berry, who started her work as the Executive Creative Producer of Tomorrowland in Shanghai Disney Resort in 2009 - two years before the groundbreaking on the park. She lived in and worked in China for eight years after that. Tomorrowland is a staple of Disney theme parks. It’s a place to showcase what the world could look like in the future.
But how do you try to predict the future in a country that has developed as quickly as China has.
From the USC US-China Institute, this is China-Life. The podcast shares the stories of people living and working in China. I’m your host, Craig Stubing.
Have you ever been to China before your experience with Disney?
Craig: Do you think you had preconceived notions of what it would be like?
Mellissa: You realize, like, some ways how narrow my view is - I hadn’t really spent that much time thinking much about it you know, even Asia at all. So I probably had, you know as a storyteller and a person with you know, kind of bent towards that. I had probably, if anything had sort-of a romantic sort-of orientalist, you know that sort of world view that kind of goes back to you know more of that kind of a british-colonial you know silk road like conquer the road kind of romance - completely stuck in a previous century [Laughs].
Mellissa: You know so, if anything I came into it with probably like an overly romanticized view. Which is really interesting because like modern day China as you know from going there, completely shatters that. Technologically savvy and so forward thinking, and you know the pragmatism of the culture was so intriguing to me, and I have to say that I found that I really loved that. It was kind of like this pragmatic optimism - it’s what I sort of started to call it.
Craig: The Tomorrowland in Disneyland in Anaheim, California, you know has this plaque that I’m sure you have memorized. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure, and ideals - and that was kind of Walt Disney’s - you know this was the land to showcase what the world might be like in the future. I think at the time it was like 1986 - like was what the world would be like, which you know, has come and gone and is nothing like tomorrowland. Umm, so when you’re building you know a place that is supposed to represent the future while we’re kind of living in that future in a very futuristic city-like Shanghai. I don’t know, where do you even begin?
Mellissa: Yeah, I worked on the project for over eight years. So, to think about the trajectory from the beginning and the way we kind of launched into it where we landed is also so fascinating and you know we would need like [chuckles] oodles of hours to go through the whole thing. So as we began, there was a lot of conversation um amongst the teen mostly starting you know in California at the offices in Glendale - which I think is really important right to know because it was always kind of interesting to me that we’re building a theme park that’s going to be for Chinese people in China. But we originated the design in Los Angeles, California you know so there was always a little bit of uh in my own head and then clearly as we started to delve in, this recognition that there’s this cultural canyon between us that we needed to bridge - and we weren’t as conscious of that in the beginning. Um, so there’s the cultural issue and then there’s the like you said, how do you build basically a castle park as we call them the classic Disneyland park in a country where they have no relationship to Disney really very little historical relationship. So, we kind of started there, we started with this idea of are we going to come up with new stories, new attractions, new rides, you know do we want to approach this, and I think I don’t know if you read the Bob Iger’s on opening day when he said the classic line that Disney, or Shanghai Disneyland is going to be authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.
So we came up with that term, and it was interesting I was on the team that started to work the terminology at the very early you know our vision and mission statement - and we really came back to saying we do want to stick with sort of the Disney core stories, but how could we make sure that they’re infused with familiarity or distinction.
Craig: How do you figure out what is going to work with this new audience?
Mellissa: We did a lot of market research, and we posed a lot of questions in the beginning about you know trying to really ascertain the level of um exposure to characters. Disney had penetrated China before this park, there’s no question. There’s been some actually even Mickey Mouse cartoons that have played in some of the early years there, which is super surprising to me. So there had been even some historical exposure for amount of the movies had made it through you know the censorship process and have been shown, and then Disney English was also really big in the country when we arrived which means there was a whole sort of pre-school level of students who you know been exposed to learning English through Disney characters. So there was a base level of Disney there, and then we you know we kind of probed the question back and forth like how you know how much do we want to change. For instance, there is no frontier land in this park. That was a big decision that got made early on because when we really started asking people, we really got down to questions like about like style of architecture and like you know we show people pictures, you know classic market research - and that happened all across the country. A very early recognition was frontier land has no penetration you know like the old west is really a specifically American nostalgia. So, alright that was we realized yeah, no reason to put a frontier land. Specific to Tomorrowland, this Tomorrowland does not have a Space Mountain. Um has Tron Lightcycle Power Run. First of all, we realized Space Mountain - no historical reference there, nobody’s going to care whether it’s in the park or not in the park there right, where here in the states people you know would raise holy hell.
So there was a certain amount of liberation to some of our choices because we realized oh we don’t have Disney fanbase in China - we’re building a Disney fanbase and also we thought that Tron in some ways was a better fit for the kind of rapid acceleration of technology and the technology story. We were very conscious in Tomorrowland of the fact that we were building a land, and so we really recrafted the entire story really um we did not set it in a specific time in place. We kind of thought of Tomorrowland as a palette. Its design with harmony with nature being its underlying theme. So the architecture, the building materials, everything that was really based on this kind of circular spiral um organic, design motif. But the land itself is essentially a huge artistic palette for an ever-evolving, ever-changing series of events. Things were changing in that park all the way up six months before we opened - and a lot of it because we were learning things as we were going. I mean it was a super steep learning curve, there were some very harsh awakenings that were pretty public about building that park. We opened very far behind schedule, went very over budget, um and I think in large part I would say, that was driven by cultural clashes.
Craig: How do you then make the park you know distinctly Chinese?
Mellissa: All of the guest amenities are Chinese. So all of the food, primarily, there are some things that are you know classic Disney-like - churros and Turkey Legs.
But, primarily all the food there is Chinese. Of course all of the people who work in the park are Chinese. There is a classic authentic Chinese teahouse that was built with of all classic Chinese design, Chinese workers, Chinese materials. It was interesting the choices, and I’ll say this as a designer, but a lot of the choices made at the ground level were made to reflect Chinese motifs using Chinese materials using the classic building traditions you know they may seem obvious but at the same time those are not things we would be doing in other parks you know these are very specific decisions that got made on a much bigger scale in this park than in other parks. We realized too as we were building that the pride that the Chinese have and the pride that they were feeling and you know with the government as our partner - they would drive us, our partnership would drive us to say well we want to make sure the castle is the biggest and the tallest and this is a little off-book but I think it’s okay to say because I think that pride is something that I think is really a good thing. They as a country really want to feel like they have things to offer their population, and that’s the way that I sort of felt like it felt to me living there was, you know they want the biggest, tallest castle because you know they want to be building this park so that the people that are being you know rapidly brought into middle-class in China can feel proud when they go to the park that they have something that’s you know really like world class and the best, and some of those words would come up.
Craig: What was it like dealing with the Chinese government in completing this project?
Mellissa: The negotiations in the beginning, as you can imagine-as things started very high level and very much in conference rooms before we got to the real building design and building peice of it- we were in a very formal, very culturally formal setting. Going into a conference room and you've got the government on one side and we’re on the other side. Just how does one interact? And all of those sort of cultural cues. A lot of back and forth, and followup. I think that was a little surprising to me. I mean there were points where the negotiations were very tenuous in the beginning. So I very much felt like “oh my gosh, I might be getting in the middle of something here, or I might say something or I might do something, that could screw up a 3 ⅓ billion dollar project.
Craig: Scrap the whole project!
Mellissa: I mean cause there was, I have to say - you know I’m trying to think of ways to say this that dont...I don’t think I’m under any NDA anymore which is really interesting - But you know, there were people that I would be sitting across from who were probably in line to succeed in the Chinese government. I mean these were high level Communist officials. And they were being tasked with making sure this park happened. I mean everyone was at the table with similar reasons, we all wanted the same thing. But there were times when it got pretty tense. So that was very intriguing to me; to be party and privy to that. But once we transferred the focus of our efforts to Shanghai and the Shendi group was essentially the construction arm of the government that was our partner on site everyday, once you get into that day-to-day, again I think, the biggest challenge was that there's this huge schism in that country when we were there. It's that you've got first-world technology, in terms of cellphones and some infrastructure that the government is pushing, and you've got these massive construction companies, which also do business around the world, who have lots of resources and lots of massive equipment, but you've got a construction workforce that is untrained, unskilled, young, doesn’t know what the heck they are doing, is basically working with rudimentary tools at the ground level. And I think it's fair to say that's kind of a metaphor for what's going on in the whole country. There is an educated, rapidly accelerating technological workforce and then there's a host of the majority of people that are definitely being - I don’t want to say left behind because I am definitely not in a position to make that statement - but that was on a day-to-day level, that was probably my biggest challenge. Is this even possible that we can build this park with the skill of the workforce we have?
Craig: Your concern was at that level, at that time, can we even do this?
Mellissa: Yeah. I have to say that I was primarily focused on the storytelling and the show set design and the media design, all the things that go in the buildings. But you can’t put that stuff in a building until you have a building to put it in.
So I was out there on the job site, with the construction crew and the construction foreman all the time, pushing - pushing - pushing. I think it's fair to say but it's also something that you hear, that's not news. The fact that the urban workforce is primarily made up of unskilled young people, primarily coming in from rural villages. I definitely saw that, everyday.
Craig: Going back to your government talks, I don’t know how much you can divulge, but you mentioned there were some very tense moments. What were some of the issues that both sides, Disney and the government, were so tense about?
Mellissa: The biggest sticking point in the beginning was money. They were super shrewd about the dollar investment that they wanted to make. Because the government is the primary stakeholder, that money has to get approved by all sorts - you know Shanghai City Council or whatever it is called. The City of Shanghai is involved and the government of China, all the investment levels. There was some major pushback on money. Lots of pushback around the land itself. Lots of discussion on who got to control certain pieces on the property. That's definitely not public knowledge. What's really interesting, and this is probably getting in the weeds - but construction contracts - the government controls all of those things. So the construction bidding process was very contentious. Very challenging. And then continued to be all the way. And I think in some ways we saw both the power of the government and we saw how ineffectual the government could be. And that was really interesting to me. I think that was the piece where I was super fascinated the whole time I was there. Which was the saviness of the people that were there, the people who were in a position to have a certain amount of resources, but how they were able to do workarounds the government. I loved that part. That was really intriguing. So the construction companies would figure out ways, even though they were mandated by the government to hold to certain things. It was really interesting to see the way they negotiated around that. And often how they had us in a vice grip. And I always thought that was to their credit.
Craig: Working on this project, what do you think you learned about yourself? Being in China.
Mellissa: It factors into my life on a daily basis. Some things that were kind of purely pragmatic, but also deeply spiritual. I deepened my own spirituality living there. I deepened by connection to the Earth. This is going to be weird but it will show you the weird dichotomy that comes together there. We all use WeChat. The minute you arrive in China, if you’re not on WeChat, you're going to regret it. So we were all super connected via WeChat and I started to use it for everything in my life. So I found an organic farm office, nextdoor to where I lived. I got connected with them and realized they were connected to this organic farm that was out towards the airport. So I was getting a weekly CSA basket of organic produce, produced in China - in one of the most polluted countries in the world. I didn’t have the soil tested or anything but I went to the farm and saw the way they were farming. It was delivered to my door, into my refrigerator.
Because of WeChat! I could get organic produce and other things delivered to my house, seven days a week, almost 24 hours a day - delivered via bike messenger. It changed my relationship to sustainability. And I think it was my launching into the idea of how technology can be used to help radically change peoples lives. And then I think the other thing was my friendships with my Chinese colleagues. I formed friendships for a lifetime. I spent time in peoples homes. I met their grandparents and I helped make food. I felt like that community, that cultural community there, is something that I came away with say, “that's something I want to incorporate into my life in a much more active way.”
Craig: You saying this brings me back to that Tomorrowland plaque at Disneyland, “That tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals”. That ‘ideals’ was always a weird thing for me. Cause science and adventure kind of make sense. You've got Space Mountain, all this new technology in Tomorrowland. But the ideals was like, what are the ideals of tomorrow? And you going to Shanghai and building this land, you kind of being there found this new futuristic ideal for yourself. For the world in a way.
Mellissa: Absolutely! And I think that was our ethos. This harmony with nature and then building community through community. And it is interesting, for all the myriad of challenges and issues from the top down in China, I do think that there is that underlying core of that 5,000 year old culture that you can see manifested there on a daily basis. This is something that we can learn from, a lot! I hate to ripple this out too widely, but at the same time, I really do feel like when I came home immediately to the election of Donald Trump and the countrywide level of anxiety that I feel here. Obviously because I am a citizen here, so I am more closely associated with what's happening, but I also think it has exposed these kinds of challenges that we have in our own culture of maintaining the underlying ethos. But then also the fascination, admiration and respect that grew within me for that culture. I've left Disney since then and have moved to Oregon and am partnering with a sheep ranch but part of what I've moved forward to do was influenced by my time and learning in China, a large part of it. Closeness to the land, the respect for seasons and cycles, the relationship they have with their food, the relationship they have with their culture. All these things were deeply meaningful to me when I was living there.
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