Laura's straw hat puts Patten in the shade

THE Hong Kong press were beside themselves. After two weeks without a glimpse, Governor Chris Patten's teenage daughter, Laura, had been spotted in the beauty salon of the colony's 108-year-old Ladies' Recreation Club along with her mother, Lavender, and younger sister, Alice.

The 17-year-old had not been sighted since she left a local hospital following an operation to remove her appendix. Never in Hong Kong's history had an appendix aroused such attention.

Laura's arrival two weeks ago marked the first episode of The Pattens, the closest the territory is ever likely to get to a British-style soap opera of its own. Eyebrows were raised at her choice of mini-skirt and straw hat at her father's inaugural speech. The sober-suited Mr Patten was almost upstaged. The South China Sunday Morning Post proclaimed: 'You have a lovely daughter, Mrs Patten,' and praised her fresh approach to style.

The Chinese-language press was not so kind. The Tin Tin Daily News said Laura looked dressed for a picnic rather than a state ceremony. But within days its dismissive attitude had turned to concern. Hong Kong's press wondered why Mr Patten had arrived for his first Sunday morning church service without his family.

Television cameras followed the new proconsul from Government House to the local hospital, where surgeons removed his daughter's appendix. Mr Patten himself gave television updates on her progress.

'When Laura walked down the steps of the plane wearing a mini-skirt, it was something we had not seen in Hong Kong before,' explained Simon Beck, assistant editor of the Sunday Morning Post, which has helped create the Laura phenomenon.

'You would not look twice at Laura in the United States or in London but in Hong Kong, where governors have all been stuffy Foreign Office mandarins, it is different. It is the whole Patten family which has captivated Hong Kong, and his openness is reflected in his daughter's image. Her style has raised eyebrows and shocked people here, but it really is a breath of fresh air,' he said.

To mark the second week of Lauramania, the Sunday Morning Post published a feature on how Hong Kong girls 'can look like Laura'. Laura-like models were pictured posing in Laura-type straw hats and mini-skirts. The article predicted that her choice of hat would lead to a boom for the territory's milliners.

'With Laura Patten appearing stylishly casual in a wide-brimmed hat at her father's swearing-in as Governor, hat sellers are predicting big things for the Laura look,' it said. It even speculated on the country her hat was made in.

One fashion buyer said that unless the hat was a haute couture item, it was probably made in the Philippines or China. No one speculated on where her father's grey suit was tailored.

To Hong Kong's media the Pattens represent light relief from the gloom of Britain's conflict with China over the colony's planned airport and Peking's hostility to the territory's elected democrats.

But there are signs that even Mr Patten was unprepared for the intensity of the media coverage he and his family have been subjected to. His initial openness to requests for interviews has been replaced by a concern to shield his family.

Aides are irritated by constant requests for interviews with and information about Laura, but Mr Patten is said to find the phenomenon amusing. The media obsession with the family is unlikely to diminish, and they are likely to come under even greater scrutiny. Alice Patten, 12, begins school next term at the Island School, and the television cameras will be fighting for pictures.

(Photograph omitted)