Oh for those happy, stinky days in Hong Kong

Singaporeanization is now so far advanced that it will soon be an offence to fry shrimps in a public passage
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The Independent Travel
Hong Kong has billion-dollar skyscrapers, state-of-the-art underground trains and a new airport that cost more than all airports in the rest of the universe put together. But what I loved about the old colony were its stenches.

The wholesale produce market at the western end of Kennedy Town emitted one of the fruitiest, brownest honks I have smelt this side of a French sewer. Even in Central, the air would be variously thick with fish innards, chicken guts or other undefined organic stinks swilling around in the suffocatingly humid air of the South China Sea.

Chinese food is indisputably delicious but it can be pungent for the unsuspecting. A single gram of my favourite dish, known in Chinese as chou dofu - literally "stink tofu" - was roughly equivalent to the distilled essence of the used socks of 10 rugby teams. I didn't care though. The smellier Hong Kong became, the more I appreciated it.

Of course there was an imperialistic logic behind my enjoyment of Hong Kong's pongs. Basically I found it right and proper that colonial territories on faraway shores should emit a suitably exotic reek. This would identify such places as economically inferior to the mother country, whose own air was pure and odour-free.

This was why we all complained about Singapore which failed completely to live up to our malodorous expectations of the East. In contrast to Hong Kong with its tantalisingly smelly waterways, markets and backstreets, Singapore banned offensive smells from public places altogether.

All right, so I was falling into the sad trap of those who think that only other people smell funny. As a matter of fact while expats in Hong Kong complained privately about the Chinese smelling of bad fish, the Chinese were complaining privately about the expats smelling of death. And when I think about it, who wouldn't prefer the garlic and sweet-and- sour fish of Kowloon to the exhaust fumes of Oxford Street?

Not that this is the issue any more. The sad fact is that on my last visit, the smells were very largely gone. No longer did visitors suffer nasal assault as soon as they stepped out of the plane at Kai Tak Airport. Where roasted duck and oyster sauce had once commanded the roof-tops, there was now the monotonous perfume of technology and air-conditioned shopping malls.

The Singaporeanization of Hong Kong is now so far advanced that before long it will be an offence to fry shrimps in a public passage. This is perhaps what Asian Values are all about: never mind a crack down on free speech, this will be a crack down on our right to smell bad.

Before we know it, trained sniffer dogs will be on the trail of secret rings of "stink tofu" cooks, at work in illegal underground kitchens. The police will launch periodic raids on bohemians and rebels congregating round garbage-bins and land-fills. Even BO will become an offence - woe betide any sweaty expats turning up in nylon shirts.

Which is the real irony behind the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong back to China, due to take place in eight days from now. At the dawn of the new millennium, the changing balance of world power is no better illustrated than in the fact that the former imperial power is now olfactorily more interesting than its colony.

As Hong Kong sails into an odour-free century, will wealthy Chinese citizens soon be touring poverty-stricken British cities in search of the mingled organic whiffs of grunge, coffee, curry, blood, dope, dogs, fried breakfasts, french bread and over-ripe veggies? Smells that disappeared from their own lives long ago?

Perhaps the smell-tourists of the future will be regarded in much the same way as the sex-tourists of today, furtively lining up at dusk outside Berwick Street vegetable market in Soho. But I will never blame them. My memories of Hong Kong will be far too precious for that.