Hong Kong's most popular civil servant usually puts on one of her more colourful outfits when she attends a distinguished gathering to make a big speech.
So when she addressed the Asia Society yesterday, why was Mrs Chan wearing the black polka-dot dress with a high-necked Mandarin collar that she wore last September to the meeting with Vice-Premier Qian Qichen at which she was asked to 'better support' the Chief Executive?
Mr Qian's remark was seen as the clearest indication leaders in Beijing were unhappy with her, and one of the factors that might have triggered her decision to resign before her term was due to end in June next year. Unfortunately, observant members of the press did not get a chance to ask about any coded message.
Mrs Chan's speech was, however, sprinkled with veiled references, such as: 'Currying favour, political correctness, second-guessing and shoe-shining would not get you very far' in the neutral civil service. In many ways, Mrs Chan was repeating the same message she has been expounding for the past few years. But she delivered it with added vigour yesterday. So serious was her tone that after a few minutes, one wondered if she might omit the characteristic broad smile.
But she failed to disappoint. The grin came when she expressed satisfaction at the growth of the number of women in the administrative service.
One other thing sure to bring a grin was the light-hearted protestations from tycoon Gordon Wu Ying-sheung that he was a democrat at heart - he had, after all, named his son after US founding father Thomas Jefferson. Mr Wu asked Mrs Chan who would protect the interests of the 25 per cent of the population who paid tax when the 75 per cent who did not held power in a full democracy?
Did Mr Wu mean no taxpaying, no vote, asked Mrs Chan. No, just a balance, replied Mr Wu.
Ronnie Chan Kai-chung, chairman of the Asia Society Hong Kong, added to the levity with a slip of the tongue, saying yesterday's was the second largest function the society had held. The first was in May 1997, when 'Chief Executive-elect Mrs Anson . . .' was the guest of honour.