The Monkey King, also known as Sun Wukong, started out as fables shared among families in ancient China before it was turned into the novel Journey to the West, considered to be one of the four greatest books in Chinese literature.
From there, the epic tale of the character and his adventures in escorting a Buddhist monk to retrieve scriptures across various regions has been adapted into numerous forms, including stage plays, operas, animated series and toys. Now, a theme park in Beijing will be based on the legendary Monkey King. It is scheduled to open by 2019.
The project is being managed by United States-based design and production company Thinkwell. As the industry’s leading player, Thinkwell has worked with the some of the world’s leading studios and companies on developing intellectual property and brands, museums, exhibitions, as well as theme parks and resorts. Their projects include Harry Potter at Leavesden Studios in London and the snow park at Ski Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
“They took a risk by hiring an international company as the Monkey King is such a beloved Chinese character. But they knew from the moment we met them that we took this project very seriously,” said Kelly Ryner, president of Thinkwell Asia, who added that they have also been helping their Chinese partners develop their own intellectual property rights for the Monkey King.
At Thinkwell’s new office in the central business district in Beijing, large piles of drawings of different characters from the tales of the Monkey King can be found on the desks of the creation team, and they account for just a fraction of the work in progress.
Having heard little of the story before they were approached by Luoyang Zonhon Zhuoyue Estate in 2010, every member of the team has since spared no effort in understanding the story and its significance to China’s culture, so much so that they at times think they actually know more about it than some of their Chinese counterparts, said Ryner.
Thinkwell’s executives believe that theme parks and entertainment centers in China have immense market opportunities, especially with major events such as the Winter Olympic Games in Zhangjiakou taking place in 2022.
Besides the Monkey King theme park, the company is also keen to create Chinese versions of their US projects, which explains why it decided to open an office in Beijing. The staff numbers in the Beijing office are expected to grow from its current manpower of 33 to 65 before the end of summer this year.
“People are looking for things to do but they have less free time than they used to. That’s why they want to spend their time well. That’s why they are demanding high quality experiences,” said Randy Ewing, vice president of Thinkwell’s design department.
Ewing said that Thinkwell is committed to delivering a thoroughly immersive experience with the Monkey King theme park, saying: “We are not trying to insert foreign ideas into Chinese products. Rather, with these local stories, we want to create unique Chinese products. At the same time, we also have to make sure that our projects can attract tourists who are coming to China.”
The upcoming Shanghai Disney Resort would raise the level of expectations in the Chinese market and this will spur more developers to look for reputable firms like Thinkwell, said Ewing, who has managed 20 projects involving theme parks and museums.
Paul Redding, vice president of Thinkwell Asia, noted that the company doesn’t necessarily need existing content to succeed, saying that they can help clients develop original stories based on a theme before creating intellectual property and brands that are commercially viable.
“You have to keep in mind who is your audience and how you can tell the story to make it entertaining. It’s about creating interesting characters and actions and repackaging it into a format that the audience can enjoy,” he added.
Redding used EonTime World, a themed amusement park in China’s northeastern city of Harbin which was developed by Thinkwell, as an example. The company had brought to life the unique stories it created based on the Dream Bunnies and the Time Weaver, characters from Chinese mythology.
To Redding, the recipe for success doesn’t lie in having the fastest ride or the biggest space. Rather, it is the emotional connection that the experience offers that drives visitors to come back.
“You can spend all your resources to build the fastest and tallest rides now. But that will all go to waste in just a few years because someone else is going to build something even faster and taller,” said Redding.