Smoke and mirrors

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2003, 12:00am

'I guess we all like to show off,' admits Miki, 25, as she kills the engine and hauls Pink Panther onto its kick-stand. A customised Vespa ET8 150, she had it sprayed bubblegum pink a few weeks ago. 'I ride around town, people look up and see the bike. I like to be noticed.' Being noticed is not a problem: the virulent glow of the bike pulls you in like an electromagnet as it sits in a row of vintage scooters. Granville Circuit in Tsim Sha Tsui has been transformed into an oily catwalk of Italian chrome and wing mirrors, as one by one tootling two-wheelers breeze in and park up alongside each other. It's early on a balmy evening, and in a few minutes the 25-strong crew of the Scooter Power gang will take to the streets en masse.

A bold rebuff to naysayers who mock scooters' tinny engines and consider a bolt-upright riding posture more than a little geeky, the Vespa has never gone out of fashion. Designed by Piaggio in Italy in 1946, it has joined the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle as a machine that makes an artform out of practicality. What Michael Caine did for the Mini in The Italian Job was done for the Vespa 15 years earlier, when Audrey Hepburn plonked herself on the back of one during her 1953 Roman Holiday. Yet unlike the Mini, the Vespa had a major role to play in the evolution of British 'youf' culture.

The term 'Modernist' was originally used to describe groovy cats with a penchant for modern jazz, sharp threads and hip new slang. At its core was the central aesthetic of 'look good, stay cool': during the mod movement's 1960s heyday, Italian scooters (the Vespa and the deceased Lambretta) were essential parts of the mod make-up. Practical, inexpensive modes of transport, they enabled the well-dressed young scamp to travel without creasing his suit, while his ladyfriend, thanks to the low seat and big windshield at the front, could still wear a skirt to the disco. Easily customised with extra fog lights, wing mirrors and sharp colour schemes, the Vespa quickly became a style classic, opposing, in particular, the bigger, more cumbersome bikes of leather-clad rockers.

Naturally, a 1960s British cultural phenomenon does not translate well in 21st-century Hong Kong. Hairy heathens riding big bikes was never an issue here; and rockers these days are mainly executives roaring away from mid-life crises on $225,000 Harley-Davidsons. And for all their style and influence, the original mods were a vicious, tribal bunch branded 'sawdust Caesars' by one judge after the British seaside town of Margate was trashed during the 1964 Easter riots. For the members of Scooter Power, however, their bikes have become a way of life.

'We're not mods in the sense that we don't talk to people who aren't wearing the right shoes,' jokes Gripson Pang, who could nevertheless pass as an extra from movie Quadrophenia in his parka coat and mod trainers. Sucking on a cigarette with studied, catalogue-pose cool, he carefully wipes down his vintage Vespa 150, which he has daubed with King of Kowloon-style graffiti. 'I guess we've taken what we like from Western culture. A lot of us listen to hip-hop, but at the same time I identify myself with the retro look that people associate with these bikes. It feels good to ride something you have put your personality into. '

Scooters remain an excellent choice if you are fed up with traffic jams and have been squashed into one packed MTR carriage too many. A new Vespa is an affordable slice of style, setting you back as little as $27,000 on the road. Combine that with stupendously low fuel consumption (about 160 kilometres to five litres) and you have a winning combination.

For the members of Scooter Power, who ride together every weekend, customisation is the key to self-expression. 'My bike is from 1964,' explains Benedict Leung, 29, whose classic Vespa displays the Union flag in sharp monochrome on the back wheel arches, while banks of extra mirrors fill out the front of the bike. He founded the club six years ago after buying his first Vespa. 'Some of these bikes are like antiques,' he says. 'For spare parts there are a few dealers in Hong Kong, but if you've got an older bike you can find stuff on the internet. And Macau has more scooters than Hong Kong, so at least parts are not too far away.'

Piaggio continues to build the classic ET8 150, a model ridden since the 1960s, which has also been updated as the ET4 125 and the PX200 (the most popular Vespa on Hong Kong roads today). And despite Piaggio's coming up with a fleet of new models that look like their Japanese rivals, there will always be affection for the original Vespa, according to Ivan Che Wing Tat of Mongkok dealer Oscar Motors. 'This is the grandfather of the scooter,' he says, beaming. A self-confessed fan of the bike, he gestures to the gleaming mirrors and clean rubber filling his showroom. 'People will always come back to the Vespa, it has a class and character that other bikes cannot compete with.'

As the neon glow of night settles, one by one the riders kick-start their scooters and peel off in procession. Joey Leung, clad from head to foot in mod-label Ben Sherman, wheels her white scooter into the queue and is delighted to talk about some of her accessories, including a big silver J bolted to the windshield. 'I picked this up in Las Vegas,' she enthuses. What is it about the bike and the associated lifestyle that attracts her? 'This is what keeps me going during the day. Work is boring, riding is something to look forward to. It makes me feel like I stand out from the crowd. People like to stare at us when we go past. '

And she's off into the night, weaving through the narrow streets between hooting taxis. The Scooter Power squad scampers like Fagin's pickpockets among the well-to-do Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs. With their low fuel consumption, easily maintainable engines and ability to beat the jams, the mods' original mode of transport is modish once more.

For further information see and; or contact Oscar Motors, 4 Soares Avenue, Mongkok (tel: 2715 0133).

Right: he wears cotton parka ($790) from Blues Heroes. Shoes by Ben Sherman (inquiries as before). Jeans, model's own. She wears cotton parka ($7,790) by Raf Simons, skirt ($1,190) by APC and shoes ($1,390) by Enrico Antinori; all from I.T.

Below: striped polo dress ($990) from Agnes b. Parka ($790) from Blues Heroes. Shoes, as before.

Far left: she wears striped shirt ($1,190) and pencil skirt ($650) from Agnes b, Style House, Causeway Bay. Waistcoat ($6,250) by Martine Sitbon from D-Mop, Kingston Street, Causeway Bay.

Centre: jacket by Ben Sherman (inquiries: Polo shirt ($1,450) by Wim Neels from D-Mop. Hat ($890) from Agnes b.

Left: parka ($790) and miniskirt ($450) from Blues Heroes, Paterson Street, Causeway Bay. Printed T-shirt ($590) by Teeth from I.T, Kingston Street. Shoes by Enrico Antinori from I.T. Polo shirt ($560) from Agnes b. Zipped jacket by Ben Sherman (inquiries as above). Other girls wear Ben Sherman polo shirts and their own trousers.

Above: T-shirt ($890) by Buddist Punk from I.T. Skirt ($650) from Agnes b. Parka ($7,790) by Raf Simons. Shoes by Enrico Antinori.

Left: checked shirts ($550) by Ben Sherman from I.T. Pinstriped jacket ($3,380) from

Agnes b. Shoes by Ben Sherman (inquiries as before). Cotton coat ($2,980) from Agnes b. Jeans, model's own.

Fashion PHOTOGRAPHER rensis ho

PHOTOGRAPHER oliver tsang

styling cary kwok

MODELS Carrie from Calcarrie's and the Scooter Power Squad