Hong Kong handover: Spring reveals its first green shoes

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The Independent Online
To me, they looked like a pair of green suede shoes. But to my hosts, they signified the beginning of Hong Kong's humid summer season. Two weeks previously, when they had been placed under the bed, the platform pumps had been black leather. Now they were covered with a fine layer of green mould - with added springy lushness in the inner sole.

This year, Hong Kong's annual battle against humidity has begun early. In one of the hottest Marches that most can remember, humidity reached 92 per cent. This is significantly higher than most springs, which tend to be enjoyably sunny and balmy affairs - but significantly lower than the 97 to 98 per cent humidity that will come in high summer.

Then, the battle will become an all-out war, with its citizens employing huge fans, de-humidifiers, airconditioners and a variety of silicate products with names like Superman Dry.

You have not known perspiration until you have known Hong Kong in high summer. Your linen shirt, carefully ironed in your cool, airconditioned apartment, will become a dish-rag, welded moistly to your back, within minutes of your stepping outside. Dark pools will appear under your arms.

If you are female, that carefully blended foundation will slide inexorably down your face, while your beautifully coiffed hair becomes a rats' nest of damp tendrils round your shiny face.

As workers switch throughout the day from the humid, heavily polluted streets, where their pores open, to the icy cold of most airconditioned offices, where their pores close briskly around the grime of outside, skin complaints multiply.

To combat this, many women walk around town with white handkerchiefs held over their faces, carry small handheld fans, or submit to the rigours of their local beauty salon.

Men are far from exempt. The reason Hong Kong has so many successful tailors is not the tourist dollars, but the number of men whose sweaty knees go straight through their trousers as they traverse the island's many flights of stairs.

Everyone has a humidity horror story to tell. My own occurred while living there when, after a two week trip to Britain, I returned to find my bedroom door closed. I opened it to be confronted by a soft gush of spores. The room smelt as musty as a pair of three-week old socks. I opened the windows and turned on the fan and airconditioner, but the smell remained.

Then, I opened the ward- robe. I have never seen the film Alien, but I am reliably informed that this was a close thing. Every item of clothing I had, every designer label (this was Hong Kong), every cleanly laundered office shirt, was covered in a fine sprinkling of pale green.

This was nothing to the leather goods. My leather trenchcoat, my pride and joy, and worse, my much-loved leather trousers, were indistinguishable from astroturf. I could not pick them off the rails without the aid of rubber gloves.

The dry-cleaners were very understanding. They see this every summer. But the alienesque leatherwear had to be done by hand. Under the instructions of a long-term veteran of the humidity wars, and aided by a grimacing flatmate, I attempted field surgery. This involved large bowls of soapy water and numerous sponges. Even then the fungus had an unpleasant tendency to creep back after a couple of days if not monitored - especially in areas where one sweats the most - leading to some embarrassing moments of public mouldiness.

I got off lightly. One visiting professor at a local university - who wishes to remain anonymous - had packed away some of his most important papers in sealed boxes. When he opened them some months later, nothing but a green fur remained.

On my most recent visit, the mould was restricted to the curtains and walls of my room. The walls wash down easily and you get to live with the smell.

And frankly it is a lot easier to sleep when you consider that among Hong Kong's sharply divided social strata, mould is a great social equaliser. Those who suffer from the worst humidity are not the poor workers on the streets of Kowloon, but the hyper-rich residents of the exclusive Peak district. I wonder how Anson Chan looks in green suede shoes.