A shopping mall owner/operator from the northern Chinese city of Harbin reckons he’s hit on a fresh family entertainment centre concept and he plans to roll out it out to half a dozen new locations around the country.
In an exclusive article for Park World, Sang Hong (pictured above) shares the SongSong Town story and reveals how it was all started by a squirrel.
Later this year Disney will open its first ever theme park in mainland China. However, with such a big population in the country, and also due to distance and financial restraints, it will not be possible for everyone to visit Shanghai Disneyland. That’s especially the case for people in the north of China.
I consider SongSong Town to be a completely new experience for children. Traditionally when the mum goes shopping they leave the kids at home. We want to provide a place for children to play while their parents are shopping. If you can satisfy the kid, you satisfy the whole family. When the kid comes to play there will be another three or four family members who will come and spend time in the mall. Some will come for four hours; others will stay for as long as 10.
In China there are hundreds and thousands of malls, but because of e-commerce young people are getting used to buying things online, and lots of malls are shutting down or looking for a way out. So we are the next step, moving on from traditional malls to somewhere people come also for recreation, to play and to learn.
The shopping mall is called LeSong Plaza. SongShu is the Chinese word for squirrel and in the north of China there are lots of squirrels. Kids love them! There is also a famous river in the area called SongHua, so that’s why I chose the name SongSong Town and named the main character of the story SongSong. Previously the mall’s full name was LeSong Shopping Plaza, but now we have named it LeSong Culture Plaza because as well as SongSong Town on weekends we have concerts, people painting and lots of things to do. We are trying to introduce a new lifestyle. There may be other malls with kids’ zones, but for us Thinkwell has designed an entire area with things for kids to do.
We also have a lot of volunteers who help out in SongSong Town as we invite kids who are disabled or from poorer families to come and play for free. We are currently working on an initiative called the Box of Love, where we ask kids to bring in toys they don’t need any more, clean them up and then we pass them on to kids living in poverty. Harbin is my home town, so I’m very passionate about this.
One of the things that is great about our location is that we are in the centre of the city; you don’t have to drive for 45 minutes to get here. Before SongSong Town opened, daily peak guest circulation in the mall was 30-40,000, but now on weekends, it would be 60-70,000. Even in winter the guests can be 40,000 per day. In turn this has allowed us to increase the rent for the shops, so although SongSong Town makes lots of money there is added value for the mall.
There have been people from more than 10 other cities come to visit us and learn from what we do, however I am not worried about them copying us. Sure, they could easily go to some other designer and do something that looks similar, but to create something truly like SongSong Town it needs to have stories behind it.
My daughter lives in Los Angeles, that’s how we met Thinkwell. I think at first they didn’t think I was serious, but last year we finished the design and this year we are open. The construction was quick but challenging because we had to keep the shopping mall open in the daytime, so all the work had to be done at night. I learned a lot from Thinkwell, and if others in China are looking for a designer I would definitely recommend them.
I have a plan now to take SongSong Town to other cities, like Beijing or Wuhan. Within three years I would like to have six outlets, licensed or partnered with local mall operators.
We have lots of merchandise for sale in Harbin: SongSong Town plush, bags, badges, luggage tags, everything you can think of! As well as some books, we are also making an animated film featuring the squirrel characters with a focus on environmental protection. Somebody teased me that I want to create my own Disney in China, but really we are just a little themed garden inside a shopping mall.
Sang Hong is the president of Harbin Lesong Culture Development Co Ltd and was in conversation with Owen Ralph
The SongSong selection
SongSong Town is a 10,000 sq m themed fantasy environment offering a wide range of activities for small children and their parents. Here are some of the highlights: live show theatre; mirror maze (Adrian Fisher Design); mini Segways; bumper saucers (flying saucer-shaped bumper cars); Ride the Train (Wattman Trains); merry- go-round; pirate ship play structure with sand pit/ball pit; climbing wall; paint your own Chinese paper umbrella; sand art; clay sculptures; art classes; the art of chocolate; make newspapers; write letters at the post office; learn to read; digital drawing; make-believe tea room; barber shop; cafes, shops and birthday party room.
Nuts for squirrels
Open since May 1 at LeSong Culture Plaza in Harbin (Heilongjiang Province), Mr Sang expects SongSong Town to attract one million guests in its first 12 months – not bad for an attraction inside a shopping mall.
“We see a lot of mall owners now that want to add an attraction, but it is usually just a small amusement park,” notes Kelly Ryner, president of Thinkwell Asia in Beijing. “What we loved about Mr Sang’s vision was that he wanted to create a really rich, story-based environment with original characters. He came to us wanting squirrels! There’s also an educational side to it; it’s not just show and ride.”
Ryner is also keen to highlight LeSong Plaza’s themed food court. “Mr Sang had us overhaul the floor above SongSong Town as well, calling it LeLe Way. It’s part Little Italy, part Little England and part little Paris. He’s also made sure that every food vendor in there fully themes out the inside of their spaces as well. It’s a world away from the typical American food court with a bunch of sterile fast food environments. And this is why families will happily spend up to 10 hours visiting SongSong Town, the romantic dining floor, and the other mall facilities at LeSong Plaza.”
Thinkwell Asia now hopes to assist Mr Sang as he embarks on his plans to roll out the SongSong Town franchise to other Chinese cities.