Bygone HK theme park comes back from the dead

Old-school HK amusement park makes a comeback
Old-school HK amusement park makes a comeback

Eighteen years after its closure, Lai Yuen Amusement Park - a nostalgic symbol of childhood for many Hong Kongers - will make a flash comeback in Central Harbourfront, Hong Kong.

In its heyday, Lai Yuen, Hong Kong's largest theme park in the postwar era, was every child's thrill, and even where the mother of Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou's mother once worked.

Now, anyone feeling particularly nostalgic can visit the "pop-up" version from Friday through early September.

Lai Yuen Amusement Park

Visitors can expect retro rides and attractions, such as bumper cars, merry-go-rounds and even an ice rink. There will also be a digital resurrection of Tino, the park's famous elephant, which can eat, poop and spout water thanks to robotic technology.

"The entire concept is all about retaining the original flavors, the local favorite delights yet incorporating cutting-edge technology," Duncan Chiu, chairman of Lai Yuen Amusement Park, told CNBC.

Reviving the park cost about 60 million Hong Kong dollars (US$ 7 million), and it isn't clear whether the effort will see much of a financial return. Three theme parks might be a crowd: Hong Kong's 7.2 million people already have Disneyland Hong Kong and Ocean Park on tap.

The park has some positives in its favor. "Lai Yuen is located in a very prominent and easily accessible site for both residents and tourists," said Chris Yoshii, vice president of economics and global director for leisure and culture services Asia at Aecom, which publishes an annual ranking of amusement parks.

However Yoshii thinks visitors will compare price and value of Lai Yuen to Ocean Park and Disneyland Hong Kong, which "offer very comprehensive facilities," he told CNBC in an email interview.

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And it's not all about profit for Chiu.

"My father spent [a lot of] efforts running Lai Yuen for 37 years. After his retirement, we still loved to talk about our [Lai Yuen] stories," said Chiu, son of Deacon Chiu, who was a property magnate, the founder of Far East Bank and an entrepreneur who acquired the theme park in 1961.

The park may be targeting mainly Hong Kong's middle-aged cohort as those who grew up from the 60s-80s would likely have the most wistful remembrance for Lai Yuen. Chiu is confident that the theme park "can offer a linkage across different generations of families [in] authentic Hong Kong style."

Chiu also likes the concept of "pop up" theme parks, because "it gives us more flexibility in terms of how we set the rides and attractions, we can shuffle it a bit every year and make it look new," he said in a CNBC interview.

If the response is positive, Chiu intends to open Lai Yuen for another round next year, and possibly turn Lai Yuen into a regional brand to launch into other cities.