HONG KONG. The town where every woman wears a cheongsam, where tai tais bathe in champers and crushed diamonds, and where evelyone says evelything the wong way lound. Hong Kong. Where kung fu is a GSE subject, Yellowthread Street a swanky address and 'chinky' laundrettes do a nice line in number 39 (chicken chow mein). Hong Kong: what a town! What a joke. But the trouble is the joke is on us, and not everyone knows it's supposed to be funny. It would not be an exaggeration to say that your average working-class citizen in Britain, America, Australia or wherever knows little more about Hong Kong than that opening paragraph would suggest. Maybe it's in the water, perhaps it's the pollution, but Hong Kong does tend to throw up some spectacularly bizarre tales. Add to that the sprinkling of ignorance, confusion and downright laziness that comes into play whenever an overseas publication endeavours to 'cover' a local story, and you get some of the most amazingly contradictory, confusing and downright incorrect tales imaginable. To vast swathes of the newspaper-reading world, Hong Kong is a moonlit sound stage peopled by inscrutable villains, an army of Suzie Wongs and more Charlie Chans than you can shake a stick at. Consider, if you will, the fact that the following story was actually published on May 17, 1992 in a British national newspaper with a daily circulation of more than one million. 'Ravine Lunatic'. 'A rickshaw driver got so fed up with two bossy passengers who told him to run faster up a mountain road that he dumped them over a 600 ft cliff! The bodies of the whingeing Aussie tourists were found at the bottom of a ravine in Hong Kong, and puffed out driver Harry Tai, 33, admitted manslaughter. After being jailed for five years, he told the Supreme Court: 'They ordered me to speed up just so they could get a nice breeze. When they called me a dumb Chinaman, I flipped.' Now how did we miss that story? Can't have been following the court pages closely enough. That, of course, was a classic case of fabrication. The real problems occur when papers run stories based on fact but embroidered by cliches and myths. That's where the Suzie Wongs come into play and 'they-eat-dogs-you-know' anecdotes are wheeled out. As well as things like this... 'Hong Kong Phoey' 'Boat builder Sam Pan, 42, was acquitted in Hong Kong of the murder of his partner, J. Unk, 45. Police thought they had a watertight case, until taxi driver Rick Shaw, 29, confessed to the murder.' Sunday Sport, 5.7.92. And this. . . 'A cook was arrested in a Hong Kong Chinese take-away - for murdering 10 people and then serving their fried remains.' The Daily Sport 25.8.92. Humans? Never. We only eat rats and cats here, not humans. But seriously, why do so many people get it so wrong? 'It's because they all read Noble House - I think James Clavell is largely to blame,' said Reuters correspondent Diane Stormont. 'They come here expecting it to be really exotic and wild but it's not - it's more boring. They expect Suzie Wong and all that but it's all gone by the way. 'Why do they expect that? Maybe we're not doing our jobs properly. Maybe we're not getting the message across properly. I don't know.' Humorist Nury Vittachi of the Far Eastern Economic Review put his finger on a geographical problem he noticed when he was editing the popular 'Lai See' column in the South China Morning Post. 'I reckon Hong Kong is the most famous 'unlocatable' place in the world. Everybody's heard of it - but no one's got the faintest idea where it is. A friend of mine once got a letter addressed to 'Discovery Bay, Lantau Island, Macau, Singapore, China.' It mentioned every major hunk of land in the vicinity except the right one. 'The Boston Globe in 1991 ran an item which said, in its entirety: 'In Hong Kong, goldfish are considered standard office equipment.' The headline was: 'Sort Of Like Paper Clips'. I don't use fish to stick bits of paper together, do you? 'But I do think it's important to remember that some of the archetypal images are actually true: there are people in pointed hats and baggy trousers working in the fields, even in Hong Kong today,' said Vittachi. The problem, however, often lies in the presentation of those archetypal images, especially when important political issues are at stake. Consider, for instance, that watershed year for Hong Kong, 1989. It was of course the year of Tiananmen Square - an event that magnified Hong Kongers' fears for the future. The clamour for passports became deafening, all kinds of crazy relocation schemes were suggested for the people of Hong Kong, and journalists from around the world flocked to the territory discover the reality of the situation. Some, like the News of the World's intrepid correspondent, also found sex. 'TARTS WHO PROMISE 'WE'LL PAY YOU'' ' - They beg for escape to Britain'. 'Gorgeous call-girls, trained to fulfil a man's every whim, are offering their punters an astonishing deal - WE'LL pay you! 'The only condition is that the client has to MARRY the hooker for a year. 'It's all part of a desperate bid by terrified Suzie Wong girls to flee Hong Kong before Britain hands it over to Red China in 1997. 'For the almond-eyed prostitutes fear they will be imprisoned - even executed - by the strait-laced communists who will take over their city. 'One of the frightened vice girls - tantalising Tammy Leung - sidled up to me in a steamy smoke-filled nightclub. 'She leaned over and whispered huskily in my ear: 'please marry me'.' This wonderful piece of reporting continues with quotes from a '58-year-old English lawyer' about the various 'centuries-old arts of oriental love-making' in which these almond-eyed lovelies are steeped: you know, things like 'the love lotus' and 'the passion fruit' that Hong Kongers are supposed to get up to every night with their various concubines. The story is illustrated with pictures of a Thai or Filipina dancer at a Wan Chai girlie bar (caption: 'Sin City: Exotic dancer in one of the sex dens'), a picture of a distinctly south Asian-looking barmaid (caption: 'Living in Fear: One of Hong Kong's good-time girls doomed to fall under the grim communist rule') and a shot of a neon nightclub sign. Our hard-working newshound managed to elicit a quote from a hostess at the Red Lips Club, and claims that sex was offered him over the phone within hours of his arrival in Hong Kong. Instead of accepting he made his way to 'the sex-for-sale Pussy Club in the heart of the notorious Wan Chai red light district' (it was there that sultry Tammy Leung pleaded with him to make her his wife and promised him $50,000). But then sex has always sold tabloids and always will. Chin Chi-ming's exploits received gleeful coverage, and the story about old pensioner prostitutes in Shenzhen was gleefully picked up by one British paper which unfortunately got its geography mixed up and had the officer on the spot, a Hong Kong policeman, explaining how it cost 'five Uan (about 20p) for a nude peek, ten (40p) for a book grope' and so on. And let's face it, tabloids also provide us with cracking headlines. Among my favourites are 'Lag-aagh louts!' on top of a story about the fatal chopping of a barman, and the one which appeared above a report about a lorry driver being hit on the head by a vase thrown from a block of flats as he was eating at a dai pai dong. It was of course 'Hoo Fling Ming'. Alas, ignorance can also lead to insults. As in so many fields, the Daily Sport managed to take the biscuit for well-balanced and sensitive reporting when it ran a piece in April 1990 which read, 'China yesterday slammed Britain for trying to persuade 20 countries to give passports to Hong Kong citizens.' The headline? 'Chinks' fury'. That, however, is the tabloid way, and, as one reporter on Britain's Evening Standard pointed out, at least the British papers are running Hong Kong stories now. 'Certainly over the last few years the standard of reporting about Hong Kong has improved - look back through the cuttings and you see very little that is inaccurate. The level of awareness has improved because the profile of Hong Kong internationally has risen dramatically. 'But the headlines have always been fun. I remember doing one story about Prince Andrew having a night out in Hong Kong and going to the American Chinese restaurant in Wan Chai. I scrambled a story together and it came out headlined 'Sweet And Sour York'. Were Hong Kong a more sensitive place, one could imagine the local population up in arms about being given such a misleading press around the world. But Hong Kongers really prefer to keep their heads down and concentrate on getting on with it. 'I'm not an expert on the international press, but generally they seem to follow stereotypes,' said Dr Chan Yu-shi, head of the journalism faculty at the Baptist College. 'But Hong Kong people have little awareness of this - they pay very little attention to overseas reporting. I think the real problem with the overseas press comes when they generalise about something like freedom of speech.' But, as Dr Chan well knows, few international editors are interested in things as mundane as freedom of speech. Oh no. Not when there are burning issues like Hong Kong's tai-tais to contend with. Magazine coverage of the territory ranges from the Jan Morris to the really awful, but no publication has yet managed to better this January's Marie Claire with its 'How Hong Kong Women Spend Their Millions' classic. It wondered out loud what would happen to our dear clothes-horses in the run-up to 1997 ('should they be packing their Louis Vuitton bags and heading for the West or brushing up on Mandarin?') before eliciting some stop-'em-dead quotes from the rich and famous: Pansy Ho Hui: 'I'm never surprised by anything that happens here. A man could give $10 million to a movie star just because he likes her. She doesn't have to be his mistress, it could just be for a few dates. It happens every day in Hong Kong.' Flora Cheong-leen: 'My ex-husband was very, very rich. He gave me everything. I could spend $1 million a day if I wanted to.' Alice Chiu: 'I have nine cars, but when I go out I always drive the smallest because it's easier for me to park.' My favourite line in the piece is 'one wife I know asks her husband to buy her jewellery every time he gets a new mistress' because, you see, that is us, isn't it? Myth begets myth and it is sometimes hard to work out where the fiction starts and ends in Hong Kong. In this brief trawl through the journalistic net, it was even possible to turn up a food writer with a couple of old chestnuts. 'There's a culinary myth about Hong Kong that I have read over the years in several publications,' says award-winning journalist Kevin Sinclair. 'It's so ludicrous it makes me laugh, but I have no doubt many thousands of people think it's true. I have seen this written about French, British, Germans, all by people who swore they got the facts from someone who was present. 'A couple (French in the most common version) go into a Causeway Bay restaurant. They have their poodle with them. Staff make a big fuss about the pooch, patting it and giving it a bowl of water. Nobody can speak a common language so the staff indicate they want to take the dog outside the eating area. Charming people, the French couple think. The dog is led away and the pair happily try to make sense of the menu. This, they point. And this. And this. The helpful staff show them garlic and parsley. Yes, the gourmets nod. The food arrives. They tuck in. Delicious. Tres bon. Magnifique. 'They dine well. Pay the bill and leave a big tip. As they go, they ask for their dog. The dog? The staff look at them as if they are mad. The poodle? One young staffer grins helpfully and rubs his tummy. The dog was the main course. The French promptly faint. 'This is patently nonsense. Another linked fiction is the repeated claims by foreigners that if you go into a restaurant and order chicken or beef, you are liable to get snake or dog. Rubbish; snake and dog costs 10 times more than fowl or cow.' And so on, and so on. But if there is any consolation to be had from all this, it came from the least likely of sources. Diving eagerly into the National Enquirer, that pinnacle of all that is good in American journalism, the first Hong Kong item to catch the eye was an extended picture caption describing Wharf's land-locked ship shopping centre in Whampoa. But wait, there was not a single factual error, exaggeration or Suzie Wong to be seen in the piece. Underneath it, however, was a story beginning 'A pooch name Buffy saved her own life ... by calling 911!'. How utterly ridiculous. As everyone in Hong Kong knows, dogs can't sue the phone. All they're good for in fact is a swift sizzle in a wok and a garlic garnish.