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season of discontent

For generations, the beginning of autumn marked the start of Hong Kong's tourist season. Typhoons and weeks of summer rain were things of the past. Humidity dropped dramatically, the days were sunny and warm, and outdoor activities such as hiking became an eagerly anticipated pleasure.

A guidebook to Hong Kong written in 1893 recommended a visit during autumn, as 'from October to the middle of January the skies are generally very clear and the rainfall slight'.

The anonymous author described views of Hong Kong's magnificent coastline, which could 'be seen till it is lost to view in the distant horizon; the island of Pedra Branca [a lonely rock now known as Pedro Blanco], distance 50 miles [80km], is clearly visible in moderately clear weather'.

Barely a century later, 'moderately clear' autumnal visibility means less than 20 per cent of that distance, before the choking pall of sulfurous-brown smog obscures everything.

Carl Crow's Handbook for China, published in 1933, extolled 'the winter months from November to February' as the most pleasant time to visit Hong Kong and enjoy 'trips to The Peak and motor drives to Repulse Bay, on one of the finest drives in the world', with expansive views in every direction.

Looking out from The Peak, Crow wrote, 'eighty miles [130km] to the north, if the day is clear, may be seen a grey speck, which is Canton'. Now, on an autumn day, the grey specks seen from The Peak are pockets of Kowloon.

Autumn also saw passengers disembark from passenger liners and aircraft, enthusing about Hong Kong's views.

Returning from London not long ago, on a particularly filthy afternoon, the passengers in front of me were vocal with disbelief at Hong Kong's air quality - 'even worse than we had heard' - and expressed their relief at deciding not to stop in Hong Kong but continue the same night to Sydney.

The view from the window on almost every flight these days - unless coming from mainland cities that are even more grossly polluted than here - must evoke similar reactions.

With strong southerly winds and plenty of rain to wash out the skies, Hong Kong's summer months are rapidly becoming 'the new autumn' for visitors - at least it is possible to see something in the distance. And an abundance of air-conditioned malls offers retail-saturated respite when the heat and humidity outside become too much.