Many people are suckers for cute puppy dogs; others go to pieces over ice cream; some are nuts about lingerie; while more than a few just can’t resist Barry Manilow. But for me, it’s old medical equipment. All those curving, enameled, shiny devices that once inflicted agonizing but life-saving procedures on victims of frightening ailments in carbolic-scented hospitals of wooden floorboards and starched sheets. Safe in the knowledge that space-age ultrasonic, magnetic resonance, keyhole, bio-engineered, nano-tech appliances of micro-chips and colour monitors await me should I ever need them, I delight in this creepy, early-mid-20th Century hardware with all its clunky dials, shiny glass bottles and thick rubber tubing attached to evil-looking nozzles and needles.
Happily, the Appalachian branch of the Hemlock clan, like many right-thinking people, share this retro-that-dare-not-speak-its-name guilty pleasure, and so before they have to head back home we spend an enjoyable hour or two at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science. It is one of the Big Lychee’s little secret gems. The Hong Kong Tourism Board no doubt gives it a cursory nod in its literature, but this is the sort of place they would not expect or want tourists to visit. Not expect, because it assumes an interest in the real past, rather than the fictitious one the travel bureaucracy pushes. And not want, because no landlord makes money when people come here – and the tourism industry is ultimately just a euphemism for the property tycoons.
The museum offers a limited display. It is a pleasant enough old building, where researchers first isolated the bubonic plague bacillus then raging down the hill around Hollywood Road – hence perhaps today’s cluster of coffin shops in the area. Fittingly, it has some SARS souvenirs, including a classic Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services museum quiz; I amaze my cousins by getting one correct answer (from a multiple-choice of Chicken, Dog, Civet Cat and Cow) without even seeing the question. The place overdoes the ever-tedious subject of Chinese medicine, which arguably should not even be in an establishment that has ‘science’ in its title. And then it has the horrifying collection of Dead Ringers-style forceps. And a room full of old operating theatre equipment, including a chloroform mask. And a dental surgery, complete with nightmarish leather chair, back from the days when you got gas for extractions and nothing to deaden the pain caused by the slow, loud drill. Heaven.