Celebration illumination: A light-laden flotilla commemorates the reunification of Hong Kong and China


On June 30, the British empire ceded its prized colonial jewel, Hong Kong, to China. To mark the passage of Hong Kong to the "motherland" after 156 years, a solemn ceremony was held at the just-completed extension to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Using 650 lighting fixtures including a number of PAR cans, Great American Market products such as GamColors, GamColor CineFilters, and GamFusion, and a Strand 500 Series Lightpalette, lighting designer Jim Tetlow created a variety of dramatic yet dignified looks for the occasion. These were appropriate for a gathering that featured Prince Charles, China leader Jiang Zemin, outgoing Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, and incoming Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

But on July 1, the first full day of Chinese rule in Hong Kong, the dignitaries had dispersed and it was time to party. That evening, The Better Hong Kong Foundation (BHKF), a coalition of pro-China businessmen in Hong Kong, and public relations and corporate sponsorship firm CSS International, put on the Hong Kong 97 Spectacular, the largest live show ever set entirely on water. The Spectacular was staged in picturesque Victoria Harbour, against a backdrop of skyscrapers specially illuminated for celebration cheer.

Produced by Los Angeles-based Don Mischer Productions (DMP), which created the much-acclaimed opening ceremonies for last year's Summer Olympics in Atlanta, everything about the event was outsized. The festivities included Hong Kong's biggest-ever fireworks display, mounted on a regatta of eight barges and 12 tugboats, and the largest laser show ever seen there, courtesy of Los Angeles-based Laser Media Inc. Several US-based lighting firms, including Light & Sound Design (LSD), High End Systems, Vari-Lite, and Xenotech, also barged in on the gala--quite literally, as it turned out.

When the Spectacular was staged, CSS International noted that it boasted the largest flotilla parade in the world. The company also mentioned that it was produced in the shortest lead time ever for an event of such magnitude, with 900 creative staff members and local volunteers, and an estimated cost of $10-13 million. That's the kind of world record that tests the capabilities of every company involved, says LD John Morgan, who coordinated the lighting for the evening with globe-trotting consultant Bob Dickinson. Having collaborated with DMP on the Olympics, Dickinson and Morgan accepted its sea-based challenge in the Pacific Rim.

"Bob became involved early this past winter, but then the project went soft and he took other work," Morgan relates. Once the BHKF had decided to proceed after a period of reevaluation about its concept and contents, "the show then reemerged, 60 days outside of when it was supposed to happen. Bob called me and said, 'Would you like to take it over?' I said yes, and then we got to Hong Kong and found ourselves in our own version of Waterworld," he jokes.

The Spectacular, conceived by the organizers and DMP as a tribute to the past, present, and future of Hong Kong, pulled out all stops and employed nearly three dozen barges in its one-hour running time. Each barge had its own theme and lighting dynamic. The first, Pearl of the Orient, was designed as a tribute to Hong Kong's internationalism. The barge was designed to float a 50' (15m) inflatable pearl mounted on a centerpiece platform, surrounded by a cascading water fountain and lasers, and concealing more than 100 Vari*Lite(R) VL6(TM) spot luminaires and VL5Arc(TM) wash luminaires.

The Pearl of the Orient was then joined by the 31-barge Sea of Life flotilla, each one decorated with three-story-high lanterns symbolizing the provinces of China and Hong Kong's Chinese heritage. Led by an authentic Chinese junk, the barges lit up in sequence, one every 10 seconds as they took a few laps around the harbor.

In the next, land-based section of the spectacle, City of Lights, building lights on both the Kowloon and Hong Kong sides of the harbor were switched on and off in a synchronized display. Rounding out the Spectacular were Unity, which depicted the joining of Hong Kong and China as boats from the two sides of the harbor met in the middle, and the fireworks-filled Celebration, choreographed to excerpts of Chinese composer Tan Dun's Symphony 1997 and Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Two barges were outfitted with banks of Xenotech 7k Britelights for additional spectacle.

Lighting-wise, the Spectacular was designed to saturate the 2.5-mile-wide by one-mile-long (4x1.1km) harbor with colorful excitement, which would dazzle not only the estimated one million who crowded the site but also international TV audiences. Senior production manager Steven Lenchner, a former production manager for Imero Fiorentino Associates, was on hand to greet the crews DMP and Morgan had selected for the task, and pass out the cellular phones and pagers that kept everyone in touch. With LSD vice president John Lobel in charge on- and offsite for the Spectacular, the firm's Newbury Park, CA-based office assembled and shipped the bulk of the lighting gear to Hong Kong, with Vari-Lite sending its own equipment and crew. Kevin McCarthy, sales and market development director of Laser Media, oversaw that company's activities as the first of July loomed closer.

Lenchner says that incessant rain for days prior to the Spectacular dogged the lighting crews, who gathered offshore on Lantau Island in Hong Kong's New Territories region to test and refine their handiwork on the barges, built by Chinese crews. May marks the beginning of typhoon season in Hong Kong, which participants say made matters miserable for a stretch. Besides rainwater, the event was also steeped in politics. "The BHKF was viewed as being pro-China, while the Convention Centre was in British hands. They were very obstinate about us using it, and our time there was very limited. It was very difficult to get land-based positions near the Centre," which fronts Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong Island.

By the time he arrived in Hong Kong, Morgan had mapped out a lighting design, via Sony digital camera images sent to him through the internet by a territory-based associate. "That was an invaluable tool," he says. "I'd never used one before, but it really helps if you have to do a big project like this and have no time to do an onsite survey. The whole project was a whirlwind, day and night, a mile out on the water, with five marine locations and four on land."

The political issues that swirled around the center, where Xenotech Britelights needed to be placed to punch up the proceedings ("We were working for the communists, we were celebrating communist rule," was the attitude Morgan says he got), paled next to the simple survival issues that unfolded in the water. "I brought over the most experienced gaffers I could find from Los Angeles, and every one said they'd done some crazy things in their lives, but nothing like this," Morgan says. "My first day in Hong Kong, I received a marine briefing on the dos and don'ts: Watch that you don't fall into the filthy water, the current will sweep you away, etcetera."

Morgan credits marine coordinator James Ring for helping the lighting crews find their sea legs in the murky waters off Lantau, as personnel and equipment shuttled between land and water on barges, docks, cranes, speed boats, and ferries. "When you work on water, you figure out a normal load-in situation and triple it," he says.

Morgan says a major lighting issue centered around the Pearl of the Orient. The inflatable pearl collapsed beyond repair in the rain and wind, exposing the gear to the elements. "The inflatable was supposed to act as a skin to protect the lights illuminating it from within, but when it didn't work out we had water from the fountain surrounding the lights pouring all over them. I had to pull the color changers off the MoleMags we were using--they were history with all that water--and put bags over all the Vari*Lites. We went from having a balloon pearl to an arty 'pearl-like' super-structure, painted white, but we were able to get some looks on it." The faux pearl also suffered a serious programming problem when a Celco Navigator used to control the fountain crashed two minutes before the show began, but LSD had provided a spare that was quickly shipped from shore.

LSD was in the right place at the right time for this project. Lobel says much of its gear for the Spectacular had just come off Yanni's Forbidden City gig in Beijing (see "Postcards from Yanni," page 106, October 1997 Lighting Dimensions). The huge, all-important Showpower generators and other equipment, like High End Systems F-100(TM) performance fog generators, Dataflash(R) AF1000 xenon strobes, and Cyberlight(R) automated luminaires, were mostly exported from home. "I think we sent half a container from Beijing, and six or seven tons of air freight from L.A.," Lobel recounts. "By cleverly utilizing what was already halfway around the world and carefully allocating budgets between shipping and rental, we managed to do this at something approaching their budget."

Despite the wet weather, Lobel calculates that only a few items perished in the fray. "One thing we learned was that when you do projects on salt water, provide a lot of lubrication for everything and anticipate damage. There was considerably more weather-related corrosion than we anticipated, much of it from the water that poured out of the Pearl barge fountain. However, much of the cable and many of the PAR cans we sent, which were drenched, were going to be retired anyway."

Lobel says one of the "real joys" of working in Hong Kong was watching the Chinese crews rig the Sea of Life flotilla with locally sourced rope light. Credited as a "ropeologist" on U2's latest tour (see "U2's super POPMart," page 52, July 1997 Lighting Dimensions), Lobel says the Chinese "made some phenomenal scenes with their rope light. There was a tree of fortune, a garden with a bird flying across it, a dolphin dancing across a 'sea' of glimmering blue rope light in a five- or six-circuit chase, and others, all animated in several steps. About half the barges had these rope light sculptures built on metal grids that were 40' (12m) long and 15' (5m) tall; most of the others had 3D puppets--horses, dragons, and pandas--made from bamboo and silk and internally illuminated. All were just wonderful."

Part of the Sea of Life was a barge called Million Rays of Light, which lived up to its name. The barge was dominated by a large mirror ball, set off by four 70kW Lightning Strikes units inside, and ringed by another Lightning Strikes unit, an assortment of Cyberlights and Dataflashes, plus 300 star strobes and 200 PAR cans sourced from LSD. "That was a true lighting show," Morgan says. "And an incredible programming job by Paul Sharwel, using a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II. With just that one console he put together a 21/2-minute loop that went off again and again as the barge went around the harbor."

The LD also lit a Sea of Life barge that housed 80 Chinese drummers, uplit with 150 work lights he calls PC-500s (the little 500W units were sourced from Price Club; he and Dickinson came across them while lighting the Olympics). Morgan, who also used 400 of the PC-500s on the Pearl barge, mounted Dataflashes behind the drummers "to do a lot of great chases. I love Dataflashes when they're programmed correctly." The LD himself pitched in with the programming of the Xenotechs that were eventually placed for use at the convention center; "at one point we lost console power to those and me and the Chinese crew moved them ourselves--manual moving lights."

For the City of Lights and Celebration sections, Laser Media's laser systems went all out--but not as much as local officials feared. The company had provided laser illumination for Hong Kong's Chinese New Year celebration in February, but McCarthy says its "conservative bureaucrats" needed persuading. "When we were there for Chinese New Year, they were afraid our lasers were going to burn down buildings and knock planes out of the sky. We had to educate them about laser use and safety, and ultimately they liked what we did and invited us back. A cooperative attitude is the key to making things work overseas; if you butt heads with officials, you're going to lose. DMP appreciated our expertise with local customs and hired us to return."

McCarthy and Laser Media design services director Scott Cunningham headed a team that alighted in Hong Kong in mid-May. "We placed two 40W YAG lasers, the brightest made, on the Kowloon side, and two at the Convention Centre across the harbor," McCarthy says. "We also had two of our full-color laser systems positioned in a 60'-tall [18m] tower on the Pearl barge. For the City of Lights section, we coordinated with John Morgan and Bob [Dickinson] to have the lasers highlighted, and not washed out by the other equipment. The combination of the land- and barge-based systems made the show look really good."

McCarthy recalls that just two hours before the 9pm show the rain let up, allowing the lighting and laser effects to be viewed to their best advantage. The barges were towed into the harbor earlier on July 1. From his vantage point watching the show, Lobel says the "history-making" spectacle more than compensated for the loss of LSD equipment to the local crews. "We fully expect that our star strobes, feeder cable, and zip cord will help stock some of the Chinese fleet for the next several years," he laughs.

For Morgan, the Hong Kong 97 Spectacular marked a sea change in his own career; after several years of award-winning collaboration, the LD split with Dickinson following this project, to join Los Angeles-based Design Partners Inc. "It was great working with Bob, but it was time to take the next step for myself," he says, adding that the Spectacular was a test of mettle he will long remember. "It made the Olympics, the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life, seem like a walk in the park. But everyone maintained a great attitude. And the audience, which expected to see just a fireworks show to commemorate this important moment in their history, saw something far beyond what they imagined, which was gratifying for us."

ORGANIZER The Better Hong Kong Foundation

PRODUCER Don Mischer Productions Don Mischer, executive producer; David Goldberg, producer; Adam Bezark, artistic director; Steven Lenchner, senior production manager


LIGHTING DESIGNERS Bob Dickinson, John Morgan

LASER EFFECTS Laser Media Inc. Kevin McCarthy, Peter Callahan, Scott Cunningham, Lee Gipson, Kim Hallmark, Martin Kowlowski, Rocky Marks, Mike Moorhead, Ken Schmitt, John Willemse

FIREWORKS Sid Howard Fireworks International



HONG KONG GROUND CREW Glorious Entertainment Productions Norm Choi


LIGHT & SOUND DESIGN CREW Simon Carous-Wilson, Bill Cherrington, Kate Marx, Ian Tucker, Michelle Turner

VARI-LITE CREW Scott Gowdy, lighting coordinator; Matt Firestone, programmer; Steve Oleniczak, Bryan Feingold, technicians

LIGHTING EQUIPMENT (1,400) LSD PAR-64s (48) LSD Molefays (48) LSD MoleMags (100+) Vari*Lite VL6s and VL5Arcs (12) High End Systems F-100 performance fog generators (50) High End Systems Dataflash AF1000 xenon strobes (24) High End Systems Cyberlights (5) Lightning Strikes units (4) Laser Media LM-8 40W high-power solid-state YAG lasers (2) Laser Media full-color laser systems (30) Xenotech 7k Britelights (2) LSD ColorMag consoles (12) ETC 96-way 2.4k dimmer racks (2) ETC 24-way 6k dimmer racks (8) ETC Expression 2X consoles (2) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles (2) Jands Instinct 24 consoles (1) Celco Navigator (2) LSD Power Distro Centers (175) LSD Quad boxes (500) star strobes (600) 500W work lights