As they lower the Union Jack in Hong Kong tonight and make way for the return of China, we bid a virtual goodbye to the old British Empire. Handing over power to the various national communities has taken up one half of this remarkable century.

In this particular case, of course, with a display of military force storming across the border, the notion of a new-found freedom for the local people is hardly the issue at stake.

But it is in accordance with the principles of the modern world and Hong Kong will no doubt survive and prosper, a colony of importance out of all proportion to its size, when you consider that the island itself is roughly on the scale of Arran.

I had always intended to be in Hong Kong on this historic day, even inquiring about hotel accommodation on my last visit in 1988. Yes, they were beginning to anticipate the event as far back as that.

For some reason I never did harden up the arrangement and now, as everyone from Prince Charles and Tony Blair to Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath lines up for the great farewell, I'll watch the mighty spectacle on television and rekindle fond memories of a bygone day.

In my own youth, the magic of the Orient was somehow symbolised by Hong Kong, a romantic shimmer on the other side of the world, so far out of reach that you only dreamed about ever seeing it.

Within my rural orbit, the few people who had been to places like Hong Kong and Singapore were regular soldiers of the Gordon Highlanders, dashing figures who came home on leave all bronzed and chief-like, with tales of another world which left us open-mouthed.

It was not until I discovered the travelling opportunities of journalism that Hong Kong became a possibility. So it was, a quarter-of-a-century ago, that I headed east to Singapore, across the Causeway to the jungles of Malaysia, and finally towards the extraordinary conglomeration which is Hong Kong.

I'll never forget coming in to land at Kai Tak Airport, through a funnel of skyscrapers, so close that you could almost have picked the washing off the bamboo poles which projected towards the flight-path.

The airport was in Kowloon, the fashionable urban centre which makes up one of the three main elements of Hong Kong. Like the hinterland of the New Territories, Kowloon is on the mainland of that Chinese continent, separated from the bustle of Hong Kong island by a strip of water which you crossed in those days by the famous Star Ferry.

The island itself was a seething mass of humanity such as I had never seen before, overcrowded tramcars clanging past from another age, wizened women with children on their backs, garish neons beckoning the hordes, and, everywhere, colour and noise.

So this was Hong Kong. Yet drive up the mountain towards the peak and you could find yourself in a quiet country lane, gazing down on the chaos below and wondering how such a juxtaposition could possibly exist.

Along the Chater Road the lights were twinkling brightly. At the fashionable Mandarin Hotel the tones of the cabaret artist had the familiar ring of Moira Anderson.

On the seedier side, the bars and clubs of downtown Kowloon and Wanchai reminded you that you were very much in the world of Suzie Wong. Hong Kong was a place of contrasts. You could negotiate a grotty staircase or a rickety old lift and find yourself in a nightclub of such plushness as the western world could not have matched.

And here and there, the hint of sinister activity, the threat of the Triad movement which had nothing to learn from the Mafia when it came to brutality. But crime and corruption were not confined to the street gangs.

I had arrived in time for the scandal of the police chief and his deputy, who had fled the scene as a commission began to investigate their dubious ways.

I remember being intrigued to find that one of the men seeking to bring his former bosses to justice was a contemporary of mine from schooldays in the North-east. Alistair McNutt, who had climbed the ladder of police promotion in Hong Kong - he is now a top security boss

in Bahrain - was none other than the minister's son from the village of Udny

in Aberdeenshire.

So I absorbed the wonders of Hong Kong, realised that the Far East was a world away from the life I had known - and vowed that I must see it again. And I did, in the years between, but it had become even more crowded and rather less appealing than I remembered. Now there are parts of the Orient which I prefer.

On the night I flew out from my last visit, nine years ago, contemplating the size of the jumbo jet as we headed for London, I knew little of the fact that another plane of this exact type was preparing to take off from Heathrow.

It was destined for the United States, via the Scottish route. And by the time we had touched down at London, PanAm flight No 103 had exploded over Lockerbie.

These are some of the memories which will linger as the royal yacht leaves Hong Kong tonight, sailing down the sunset of the British Empire.