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"Er, I would like to know if my son will be happy in his life," I say.

"What do you mean happy? Happy in work or in love? In what happy?" he shoots back. I settle for an area that is always fertile ground in education-obsessed Hong Kong. "Happy in his studies," I reply.

Mr Ng nods and produces several coins, which he proceeds to shake. He then makes some calculations in Chinese. "Your son must not have a closed mind. This is what you need to work against," he says firmly. And that is the end of that. I am relieved of £8 and dispatched with the ghost of a smile.

Across the road from Man Mo, the antique dealers and bric-à-brac sellers of Cat Street are doing a modest trade. There is a handful of mainland Chinese browsing here, noticeably better dressed than in the old days when their badly cut hair and cheap suits ignited sniggers from the locals.

Here you find a vast array of Maoist memorabilia for sale. There are Chairman Mao watches, copies of the Little Red Book in every size, statues of Mao and Mao badges. Mr Ming is tending a stall so Maoist, it looks like a mini-museum of the Cultural Revolution.

"Who buys this stuff?" I ask.

"Only the foreigners, only the tourists. Not the Chinese," he tells me.

"But he killed millions and yet people still buy it?" I ask.

At this, Mr Ming laughs. It is a long laugh as if I have entirely missed the point. Business, after all, is business.

At some point in Hong Kong, no matter how careful you are to keep to quiet streets, the density of the city will start to close in. There are more than 6,000 people to every square kilometre and there can be days when it sounds as if every one of them is talking at the same time. So when the claustrophobia strikes, I head for the islands. There are 262 outlying islands and several are served by regular ferries. For me the pick of them all is one of the smallest and most remote.

To reach Kat O, up near the border of the Chinese mainland, you need to take a taxi to the pier at Wong Shek, about an hour's journey from Hong Kong. Riding down the hill towards the harbour with my friend and translator, Choi Li Hung, we pass cattle grazing by the roadside. There are no high-rises out here and the roads are narrow and winding with glimpses of the South China Sea at every other turn.

The day is gloriously sunny with a warm wind blowing across the Pearl River delta. To make the final stage of our trip to Kat O, Hung has arranged a speedboat taxi. There are several speedboat owners who will take a small group to Kat O and wait to bring you back for around £80.

Of course there are cheaper and easier islands to visit. A round trip to Lamma Island, much nearer but also far busier at weekends, is roughly £2, while the island of Cheung Chau with its numerous seafood restaurants and hiking trails can be reached in 30 minutes for a similar price. So why travel further and spend more?

Quite simply because Kat O is one of the world's most spiritually refreshing places. From the moment we head out of the harbour I feel a growing lightness. It is partly to do with the joy of emptiness after so much crush, but also the certainty that out on the pastoral edges of Hong Kong, I am beyond the reach of all vexation. As we pass the stilt houses of the fish farmers, I let my hand fall into the water. It is warm and clear and shoals of tiny fish flicker back and forth beneath the boat.

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