IN CAPITALIST Hong Kong, even icons can be had for a price. And for a brief time, $2 million would have let you reef the sails on one of its last sailing junks - a craft whose image has been flogged for nearly half a century in advertising and promotional campaigns - and float off into the sunset. In the end, the sale of the Duk Ling was withdrawn on January 23 - but the uncertainty over its future serves as both a metaphor and catalyst for Hong Kong's search for a replacement promotional icon for the Hong Kong Tourist Association's red junk logo. It is a divisive issue. The city's officially recognised logo signifies little more than the art of misrepresentation and should be junked for one which accurately reflects Hong Kong in the new millennium, argues one camp. There haven't been sailing junks for nearly half a century. On the other hand, the HKTA points to research that shows the junk as the most instantly recognisable symbol of Hong Kong. So is the territory in need of a new logo? 'A number of people have noted that the junk is a long-gone symbol of Hong Kong which has little relevance today,' HKTA chairman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee declared recently. The 'batwing' junks - so named because of the shape of their sails - used to characterise what was considered one of the strongest and most seaworthy vessels on the seas. As early as the ninth century, the flat-bottomed boats were ferrying merchants to Indonesia and India. More recently used in fishing fleets, two boats would work at night alongside each other, connected by poles laid from hull to hull and from which were hung lanterns to attract reef fish. By the early 1960s, however, the junks'days were numbered as massive coastal overfishing forced fishermen to go further out to sea, made easy thanks to affordable, reliable marine engines. Although some shipyards still turn out traditional junks, for instance in Macau and up the Pearl River in Fukian province, Hong Kong's last junk shipyard, in Tai Po, closed in the early 80s, says local historian Jason Wordie. The 18-metre, all-teak Duk Ling ('clever duck') was launched in 1955 out of a Tsuen Mun boatyard, says Frenchman Pierric Couderc, who has owned the boat for 15 years and has a contract with HKTA for its promotional use. 'From the first time I saw Duk Ling I have been very emotional about her, as she represents the cultural heritage of Hong Kong,' he says. The ship has appeared in movies such as the remake of Around The World In 80 Days and The Story Of Bruce Lee as well as many commercials. So when HKTA announced in November that the junk logo, which it first commandeered in 1965, might be forever dry-docked for something more modern, Couderc promptly listed Duk Ling with a marine broker. 'I was extremely shocked,' he says, conceding that HKTA provides 80 per cent of the boat's income. His HKTA contract is not due to expire until this March, however, and the move appears to have come as a surprise. 'We were not aware that the Duk Ling was up for sale,' said an HKTA spokesman after the South China Morning Post informed the association that the boat was posted on a Web site. 'Naturally, we would be disappointed if it were no longer available and we would have to start looking at alternatives, but it is highly unlikely that we would consider buying it ourselves.' Some consider Duk Ling's authenticity more appropriate for a Nathan Road hawker than a maritime museum and would not grieve over its departure. 'It doesn't sail,' Wordie says. 'It's basically a motorised junk - a good fake, one of those utterly faux things which Hong Kong is so good at producing. Sailing junks haven't been in use for so many years - icons change and this one is ready for retirement. It seems to reinforce the impression: Come to Hong Kong and see all these cliched images of East meets West, Old meets New.' Since November, HKTA has succeeded in soliciting more than three dozen new logo ideas, which it refuses to make public. But the bald fact is that Hong Kong harbours few outstanding alternatives to the junk image, says Dr Bob McKercher, associate head of Hong Kong Polytechnic University's department of hotel and tourism management. 'The skyline? Not distinct enough. London has Big Ben, France the Eiffel Tower, New York the Statue of Liberty, but Hong Kong, though it has spectacular architecture, doesn't really have an iconic building.' The Tsing Ma bridge may be a brochure staple but McKercher says it makes him think of San Francisco. The Peak? Mountains aren't so unique. Star Ferry? Not world-renowned enough. And though a junk can be seen as perpetuating a myth in the same way as Wan Chai's infamous Suzie Wong, McKercher says any logo should really be judged on its ability as a marketing tool to evoke a place or product. 'The second hardest thing to do in marketing is create awareness, an image. The hardest thing to do is uncreate it,' he notes. And so HKTA announced on January 11, 'after long deliberation and consultation', that it will retain the red junk logo. Couderc, days later, informed HKTA that he had taken Duk Ling off the market, hopeful of renewing his contract. HKTA appears to be supportive: 'The happy outcome is that Duk Ling will be staying in Hong Kong for the foreseeable future, and we will continue to make use of it. 'Of course, this doesn't have any bearing on our continuing to use the red junk logo,' it adds. On the subject of the logo, it adds: 'The key criterion was how the symbol was perceived by potential visitors - and the feedback from HKTA's worldwide offices, industry contacts and visitors themselves was strongly in favour of retaining it. Docking the red junk, it was felt, would be wasting a priceless asset that HKTA has built up over many years.' And so HKTA has whittled down the nearly 40 proposed logos to a shortlist of two junks, both 'designed to convey a sense of forward movement while emphasising Hong Kong's fusion of modern and traditional cultures'. Both red, one has the batwing sails, the other has the city's skyline etched in white on its sail. HKTA won't divulge the other logo ideas because it wants the public to have the final say, and the discarded options would only serve to confuse. A research team is polling 'a random but demographically representative selection' of 500 local residents and 500 visitors. Another 1,000 opinions will be canvassed from government officials, chambers of commerce and the travel industry. No date has been set the decision to be announced but HKTA itself has targeted a cut-off of April 1, the date of changes to its name (the Hong Kong Tourism Board) and constitutional amendments. It refuses to reveal which logo has received more votes to avoid influencing people's decisions. McKercher, for his part, went for the plain junk without the skyline because 'it's straightforward and easy to reproduce'. One way or another, Hong Kong's image is on a junk ride to the future.