Quacking Up in Hong Kong

Rubber Ducky, you're so fine/ And I'm lucky that you're mine/ Rubber ducky, I'm awfully fond of you.

It is difficult to say just what made Hong Kong, of all places, fall absolutely in love with the Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's giant yellow rubber ducky, which was towed into Victoria Harbor three weeks ago. But fallen in love it has.

Indeed there was a palpable sense of loss when the 16.5 meter creation went flat a week ago, a victim not of disaster but routine maintenance. The deflated duck left children crying and even a few adults pushing back tears. It was a sad time around the harbor.

But there was relief on Tuesday. Hundreds of people cheered when the duck returned to its place of honor on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. The walkway off the Star Ferry was so crowded with ducky devotees that it was difficult to walk in the area. The duck, strange as it seems, somehow makes the city a better place.

The duck arrived in Hong Kong on May 2, following visits to Osaka, Sydney, Sao Paolo and other parts of the world. And even after three weeks as an adopted fowl of Hong Kong, it is still almost impossible to get close to it because of the thousands of people who line the dock, gazing at a big bobbing duck that after all does nothing more than its regular-size counterpart does in a child's bathtub. At 9 am Thursday, a businessman who got off the Star Ferry to walk to work in a nearby office building said he was stunned by the number of people who were just standing there, looking at the duck.

"What are they doing? Are they a bunch of hillbillies?" he asked, apparently too busy to get the whole duckgeist.

Despite one suit's sour mood, Hofman appears to have been right to have created the duck. He said he came up with the inflatable creature "to amplify the healing power of the classic bath buddy. Its playful presence revives the happiness of life's simple pleasures, beyond the usual barriers of language and culture." It seems to work. A duck craze has taken over, the latest of many periodic fads to inundate Hong Kong --but it is different. It is gratuitously nice, and fun, for no discernible reason, a near miracle in this city.

Little yellow ducks have sold out across the city. Restaurants ("Have a quack bite") have made up duck recipes. Ducky cookies are selling at Al Molo and BLT Steak in Harbor City. Strawberry Forever is selling ducky-shaped ice cream. People are wearing yellow duck accessories. Thousands of miles away, an Australian shop that sells baby accessories online has reported a Hong Kong-fueled boom in rubber duck orders, with people buying them by the dozens.

"First we had a couple of online enquiries about our ducks, both from Hong Kong," shop owner Alisa Crook told the Newcastle Herald. "Then people were ordering 10 or 20 each, nearly all to Hong Kong addresses." Thinking fast, Crook bought up all 400 rubber duckies she could find in Australia to sell over the Internet.

All this ducky desire is reminiscent of past Hong Kong crazes, although for different reasons. When new stamps are issued by the Hong Kong Post Office, lines stretch for blocks, made up of people seeking first-day covers for resale later. A few years ago, when cake shops started giving away coupons for free cakes, people went wild, ending up with dozens of cake coupons - so many that some shops went out of business because there were so many free orders to fill.

Perhaps the biggest craze of all came in September 1998, when McDonalds started giving away plastic Snoopy dolls clad in 28 kinds of national dress with the purchase of an Extra Value Meal. People stormed the golden arches. Fistfights ensued. McDonalds outlets across the territory put barrels outside of their stores for people who bought the meals, two or three at a time, and threw the hamburgers away so they could get their hands on Snoopy in his various costumes in the mistaken belief that collecting all 28 would deliver valuable sets for resale later. Snoopy sets can still be found on shelves in some Hong Kong homes, presumably waiting for the value to go up.

A similar Hello Kitty mania swept the city at about the same time, compelling the Maxim's restaurant chain to partner with Sanrio, the Japanese company responsible for the Hello Kitty dolls, to open three Hello Kitty Caf?s to reap the benefits; a few months later the cafes closed when the craze ended.

But the big yellow duck seems different. It is a cheerful and innocent visitor to the harbor that just sits there and reaps the admiration. It is has no potential resale value and it is free for everybody, a rarity in a city dedicated to ruthless getting and spending. There is nothing to collect. It is typical of Hong Kong that when the duck went flat a rumor quickly circulated that it had been deflated by mainlanders throwing lighted cigarettes at it, a measure of the suspicion and irritation with which many of Hong Kong's 7.5 million people view the 27 million tourists from China who arrive in the city each year.

"I thought that once it got deflated, it wouldn't come back again. So now that I see that it's back, I am very happy," 28-year-old Bonibell Lee, carrying a three-dimensional duck tote and wearing matching yellow rain boots, told Agence France Press.

Hong Kong recently has been through a miserable stretch of stormy weather, including a burst of "black rain" on Wednesday, a condition in which rain exceeding 70 millimeters falls in an hour, closing businesses, the subway, schools and markets. Yet through the continuous peals of thunder and flashes of lightning the duck remained a bright yellow vision in the gloom.

It was good to see it. The duck made Hong Kong cheerier and we will miss it when it leaves on June 10 for an as-yet unnamed American city. Come back anytime, duck.