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Hongkong's Masked Ball

The one thing that can save the city is decent toothpaste

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION believes travel to Hongkong should be avoided at all cost. I agree. Travel to Hongkong should be free. Why pay when flights and hotels are empty? There are other good reasons to travel to Hongkong. You thought Singapore was clean. Wait till you see Hongkong. People wear masks, they wash their hands five times a day and any chicken that so much as coughs, attempts to cross the road, or has sweaty armpits, is history. A million chickens thought they could get away with bad breath. They were wrong.

Forget "Man in the Iron Mask". Welcome to Hongkong, "World City", where for HK$4 you can be the Man in the Surgical Mask or, for HK$15, the Man in the Monkey Mask. This will prompt you to ask: "WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING HERE?" It shows the Hongkong marketing slogan works. Visitors are encouraged to help keep the city clean. They can do this by donning a state-of-the-art N95 "monkey mask". This fits snugly over the nose and mouth and its heavy-duty moulded fibres can keep out everything, from germs and fried dofu fumes to fresh air and oxygen.

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As with any state-of-the-art gadget (like a modern bathroom that requires a pilot's licence to manipulate the three-way shower toggle) the N95 must be handled with care. As the packing label cautions: "Misuse may result in sickness or death. For proper use see supervisor or call 3M at 1-800-267-4414."

A mask that needs a supervisor and carries a toll-free number, has my instant respect

A mask that needs a supervisor and carries a toll-free number, has my instant respect. If you're visiting Hongkong to help keep the city clean, DON'T MISUSE YOUR N95 MASK. You MAY use it as a breast enhancer (please use two), an umbrella, or a parachute. Do NOT use it to rob banks. Such "misuse" may case death. Bank guards carry lethal weapons. These, of course, are not your worry. The mask will asphyxiate you within a minute on its own and you will slump gracefully beside the teller window - in slow motion if you're a professional.

There is something rakish yet reassuring about masks. Lunchtime in Hongkong is like wandering into a vast operating theatre, a panoramic set from Chicago No-Hope. What could be safer? There is an aura of mystery. Is your date smiling? Grimacing? Sticking her tongue out? Is she a she at all? Are you actually dancing cheek to cheek with her father, whispering sweet nothings into an eager, hairy, sixty-something ear?

It has been scientifically proven that people can run faster than bugs

Visitors who cannot handle an N95 might try an AK-47 which is far more effective at stopping people sneezing on the metro. Or they might try a cheaper surgical mask. The most popular variety is green. This is why Hongkong is called a green city. It is. I wear one. I change it each day. Not because the germs are going to get me but because I have suddenly realised the truth of something my mother and my wife have been trying to tell me over the years. My morning breath is a biological stew that can take out an armed battalion in three exhalations, depending on wind direction. With a surgical mask on, my life is in serious danger. With an N95 I would be up there with the chickens. Don't be alarmed then at the shocked expressions on commuters' faces in the MTR. They've simply inhaled their own air for the first time. These are brave people at the frontline who still eat garlic for breakfast. PEOPLE, CHANGE YOUR MASKS EVERY DAY.

There are only two foolproof choices for protection against atypical bugs. You can run. It has been scientifically proven that people can run faster than bugs. Or you can don a sealed head-to-toe Spiderman costume. Your teenage kids will suddenly start talking to you because you’ve stopped wearing trousers belted at the chest. Immigration officers will be equally animated and may take you to a VIP room for a chat. The only downside is that you must then do heroic things like leap off tall buildings and so on which has a higher fatality rate (almost 100 percent) than atypical bugs (six percent). A Darth Vader outfit is an option that goes well with a black Armani jacket and the neon light is excellent for evening strolls.

My question is, how do you recognise an atypical bug? Does it wear Gucci shades and a Hilfiger T-shirt? Or does it blend with the local populace and wear Giordano? Doctors and fashion designers are working on this. Meanwhile, whatever you do, don't sneeze or cough, unless it's in public. After everyone has run away, pick your park bench, movie theatre seat or restaurant table. Remember, the atypical bug is less fatal than normal pneumonia, less infectious than influenza and nowhere near as frightening as a soiled baby nappy. But bad breath can kill.

More on HK and SARS at Fearbusters. Also see HK Department of Health and the US Center for Disease Control.

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