Sat, Dec 20, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Gadget-crazy Hong Kong snaps up walkie-talkies

ROAMING RADIO Two-way radios, which can even be worn like watches and have a range of 3km, are gaining popularity as a cheap way to stay in touch

AP , HONG KONG

Shoppers in Hong Kong check out a display of walkie-talkies on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

As if 6.8 million mobile phones weren't enough -- that's one for every man, woman and child in Hong Kong -- people here are now finding a new way to talk while they walk: The walkie-talkie.

Fans say the two-way radios are good for chatting up new friends or listening in on strangers.

Some wear them like wristwatches, recalling the old Dick Tracy comics, as gadget-crazy Hong Kongers snap up thousands of walkie-talkies to satisfy their irresistible urge to stay continually connected.

The trend has been gaining momentum since the government relaxed controls on walkie-talkies earlier this year. Consumers can now use devices with a range of up to 3km without a license, and new frequencies are open to the public.

"It's fun, but practical, too," said financial analyst Andrew Lam, who recently bought a two-way radio for around HK$350 (US$45) after his friends started using them. They said they enjoyed the novelty of talking with strangers.

Lam, 40, said he bought the walkie-talkie mainly for hiking trips, but soon started tuning in on other people's conversations -- apparently without any luck at tapping into juicy ones.

"I was nosy and wanted to see what other people were talking about," Lam said. "They usually talk about general stuff. People would ask: `Is somebody here?' But I wouldn't respond."

The craze isn't threatening Hong Kong's ubiquitous mobile phones -- which still ring in restaurants, cinemas and church services -- but walkie-talkie dealers are happily counting their sales.

At Hong Kong-based manufacturer Tsuen Shing Enterprises, spokeswoman Rosanna Chan reported sales of more than 10,000 sets in October -- five times as many as in September.

At Motorola Asia Pacific, marketing and communications manager Mildred Wong estimated sales of at least 48,000 sets since February. Business is growing as Christmas nears, she said.

Customers are not just trendy hobbyists, but businesses like fashion chain stores whose staffers need to communicate between departments.

Some popular walkie-talkie models let users scan channels, setting up conversations that could be described as a cross between an Internet room and a mobile phone call.

Walkie-talkie fan Leo Lam said he and his girlfriend use theirs like short-range mobile phones when they're overseas -- avoiding expensive cell phone roaming charges.

"I got them for my girlfriend and me before our trip to Shanghai," said Lam, a 27-year-old translator who spent HK$350 on a pair of walkie-talkies that can be worn like wristwatches.

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