Freak and you shall find

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 January, 2011, 12:00am

Hong Kong sets itself apart from much of the rest of Asia with its mish-mash of East and West, the ancient and modern, the commercial and the spiritual, and the seemingly normal and bizarre served up at the same time - and often on the same plate.

New arrivals might find Hong Kong a bit strange, but even long-term residents can make the most of its eccentricities by visiting the quirky places that really capture the spirit of the city. Some of them might be literally right under your nose.

Abandoned villages

Scattered throughout the New Territories are the Hong Kong equivalent of the US Wild West ghost towns, where villagers appear to have just got up and left the instant they decided to migrate mainly during the 1950s. The tiny island of Yim Tin Tsai off Sai Kung is a good example - lessons seem to have just finished at the crumbling schoolhouse, an unfinished game of mahjong remains in progress in the living room of one vacant home, and the ghosts of a prosperous past float through the deserted alleyways.

Whampoa Garden ship

Hung Hom was a dockyard and shipbuilding centre for the first half of the 20th century, but its past was erased by the gentrification that bought massive housing developments, and hotel and office complexes. However, first-time visitors who aren't aware of the area's history are usually perplexed at the sight of the huge fake concrete boat filled with shops and a cinema moored in the middle of Whampoa Garden.

Discovery Bay

Even if the rumours of rampant wife-swapping are exaggerated, the enclave on Lantau remains strange enough to make the list. Hong Kong Resort Co runs the development with a mind-boggling array of rules and regulations, such as bans on running and tree climbing. Restrictions on private cars and taxis have led to residents buzzing about in golf carts - and numbers are strictly limited, causing prices to rise above HK$1.25 million per buggy. DB reportedly provided the inspiration for the dystopian gated communities in British author J.G. Ballard's later novels.

The 'devil beaters'

Found out your husband has a mistress? Got a gripe with your boss? Revenge is at hand in the form of the 'devil beaters', the scary old ladies who mostly congregate under the Canal Road Flyover in Wan Chai. For HK$50, the devil beaters will invoke the powers of the malignant 'white tiger' spirit, write your enemy's name and birthdate on a piece of paper, and vigorously beat it with an old shoe while yelling out a curse. The practice began among rural women who worshipped the white tiger and kept paper images of it at home to keep out rats and snakes. The tradition mysteriously transformed into the shoe-beating ritual of today.

Museum of Medical Sciences

This red-brick Edwardian house in Mid-Levels was originally called the Bacteriological Institute, and played an important role in the fight against the plague in the early 20th century. In the basement you'll find the blood-curdling morgue, with rusty bone saws and other autopsy tools, and the top floor features freaky models of Chinese medical students in Qing dynasty dress dissecting rats infected with the plague. Don't miss the X-rays of bound feet.

Noah's Ark at Ma Wan Park

If we built a theme park featuring a 'full-size replica' of Noah's Ark, we'd be tempted to play up the Biblical story of the great flood a bit, or at least get a gweilo dressed as Noah to stroll about casually greeting people. Sun Hung Kai Properties vice-chairman and managing director Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong apparently thought otherwise and instead filled his 25,000-square-metre, four-storey vessel with truly strange 'educational' theatres, exhibits on random subjects such as classical music and dinosaurs, and - of course - a backpacker hostel.

The RMS Queen Elizabeth

Resting on the seabed near the Kwai Chung container port is part of the sunken wreckage of the RMS Queen Elizabeth, an ocean liner once operated by the Cunard Line. Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's father bought the ship in 1970 and planned to refurbish it as a cruising university, but it was destroyed by a fire in what some said was an insurance scam. The wreck was featured in the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun as a covert headquarters for MI6, and parts of the hull were later used as landfill for Chek Lap Kok airport.

Dragon Centre roller coaster

Apart from the same bargain clothing chains and fast-food outlets found at most shopping malls throughout Kowloon, the designers of the Dragon Centre in Sham Shui Po decided to include something to make it stand out from the crowd: a roller coaster. The rickety contraption provides a hair-raising ride that extends past the guard rails and makes shoppers feel they're about to plunge nine stories to the ground floor. As a bonus, the mall is located at the end of the Apliu Street market, where pirated pornography is sold next to knock-off power tools.

Kowloon Walled City

The famed walled city may have been demolished in 1993-94, but memories of the teetering mass of illegal buildings live on at the Kowloon Walled City Park. The city remained Chinese soil after the New Territories were leased to Britain in 1898 and became infested with crime, drugs and vice. Now it's an attractive park modelled on the classic Jiangnan-style gardens and inside the city's original Qing dynasty administrative headquarters is a display outlining how the city went from a southern Chinese outpost to a den of iniquity.

Nina Wang's empty buildings

When Little Sweetie died, she not only left behind a wrangle over her HK$100 billion estate, but also a string of empty buildings - most notably the 95.5-metre tower on prime Repulse Bay land designed by Lord Norman Foster. The building is sometimes referred to as 'Nina's tomb' and sat empty for eight years after it was completed in 2002 due to outrageously high prices and a thwarted conversion into a hotel, baffling a local property sector where empty flats are held in the same regard as a hole in the head.