HE should have looked like a bum, a bag-man, a wino or any other New York misfit as he walked dejectedly down a trench of brown slush in the middle of 42nd Street, a string of yellow taxis emitting curses in four languages behind him. But some hard-to-identify quality about the old man caught the attention of passers-by watching from the kerbs. 'He didn't look like a store Santa Claus, you know?' said Milly Kablinski, 14. 'He looked like kinda how the real Santa should look.' Her comments were echoed by dozens of observers, ranging in age from three to 71. Perhaps it was that his white beard looked real, despite being stiff, half-frozen and full of ice crystals. Perhaps it was his physique, since the bulging costume seemed to be filled out by a real stomach. Perhaps it was the sad, sincere smile that he flashed at people who stopped to greet him. Whatever it was, large numbers of people - mostly children - started following him as he trudged past the New Victory Theatre and climbed into a podium at the edge of Times Square on that fateful Christmas Eve. That was when he made the announcement that shook the world: 'My name's Santa Claus,' he said. 'And I'm turning myself in.' The full story came out a few hours later in an interview on the Larry King Show on CNN. Mr Claus, who admitted entering the United States on a passport bearing the pseudonym Kris Kringle, told the show's producers that he would only agree to be interviewed by children aged 13 or under. Two 11-year-olds, Melissa Wong and Charles Petrie, both of O Henry School on 17th Street, were roped in to do the interview at short notice. 'I cannot go on living a lie,' declared Mr Claus dramatically. 'There are so many untruths told about me, and I thought I should better come clean.' 'But you're real,' said Charles. 'Oh, I'm solid enough,' said the old man, patting the front of his substantial torso. 'It's all the other stuff which isn't true. The Toy Kingdom at Number One, North Pole. The team of 50 magic elves who make the toys. The reindeer-based distribution system. It's a load of baloney.' 'Really?' said Melissa, her legs swinging excitedly from side to side. 'There's no Toy Kingdom at the North Pole?' She leaned so far forwards in her seat that she momentarily slid off the front. Santa Claus spoke conspiratorially as he helped her back on to her seat. 'Well, if you really want to know. They don't come from the snowy wastes at all. They come from the sub-tropics. The vast bulk of them come from . . . Hong Kong.' 'Hong Kong, Japan?' said Charles. 'Hong Kong's not in Japan, dorkbrain,' scolded Melissa. 'It's in Singapore.' 'Yep, Hong Kong,' said Santa, immediately looking more relaxed, now that his secret was out. 'I have several toy production centres, but the biggest in the world is Hong Kong, in the Far East, where I have 554 individual toy-making operations, making US$2 billion worth of toy animals and US$564 million worth of dolls. I haven't even been to the North Pole in years.' There was a moment of silence, and then Melissa jumped slightly, signifying that a producer had squawked into her ear-piece that she should ask more questions. 'Er - and what about the elves? Are they in Hong Kong, too?' she said. 'There's no team of 50 magic elves, for a start. There are tens of thousands of toy-making operatives, and most of them live in Guangdong, China.' 'China, Japan?' asked Charles. 'China's not in Japan, goofball,' snapped Melissa. 'It's in Taiwan. How many toys do you send out?' Santa picked up a file marked Hong Kong Trade Development Council Research Department and started peering through it. 'I'll tell you exactly. Last year, my Hong Kong team sent out HK$69 billion of toys to the children of the world. That's about $9 billion in American dollars. This year, we expect to send out about 10 per cent more - a new world record.' 'Gee,' said Charles, the awe showing in his voice. 'That must be an awful lot of toys.' 'It sure is,' said Santa. 'Of course, they range from little plastic animals of half a buck or less, to working child-sized automobiles, costing hundreds. If you average them out to, say, US$12, that's about 800 million toys.' Both Charles and Melissa were dumbstruck by this news. During the silence, viewers could just about hear the tinny voice of the apoplectic producer screaming into the children's earpieces. Melissa was the first to recover. 'Have you got them on you? Can we see them? Where are they?' 'They're all around you,' said Santa. 'Almost exactly half of them come to the United States. Have you seen toys labelled Mattel, Fisher-Price, Hasbro, Tyco, Ertl, Universal Matchbox, Playmates, VTech? In your toy boxes at home, do you have Barbie, Snoopy, Garfield, Ninja Turtles, Jurassic Park toys? All from Hong Kong.' 'Did you bring any Hong Kong elves with you?' This was Melissa. 'We don't call them elves, we call them staff. And most of the actual toy assembly isn't done in Hong Kong any more. In the old days, both the toy-making department and the distribution department were in Hong Kong. Today, nine out of 10 Hong Kong toys are made in Guangdong, China, before being sent over the border. They all get distributed from Hong Kong.' 'Yeah, I know, by the reindeer,' said Charles. 'Donner and Blitzen and Randolph and all those guys. I saw the movie.' 'It's not Randolph, you pinhead,' said Melissa. 'It's Rupert. Rupert the red-nosed reindeer.' Santa was sitting back in his chair saying nothing, but slowly shaking his head. 'What do you mean?' asked Melissa. 'It isn't Rupert?' The old man smiled. 'There aren't any reindeer. I had to retire those guys years ago. According to the stories, I'm supposed to deliver presents, by reindeer, on Christmas Eve. But I have at least 800 million children waiting around the world. If you estimate Christmas Eve as lasting 12 hours, that's 0.000054 of a second per child. Not possible, however hard I worked the reindeer. The animal welfare people would have my guts for garters.' 'So how do you do it?' asked Charles. 'Logistics,' said Santa. 'To put it in a nutshell, the team hold this mammoth toy fair called the Hong Kong Toys and Games Fair every January. There's one coming up in a few weeks, actually, January 10 to 13. I'm expecting 23,000 toy distribution specialists from 110 countries to visit, and sort out what toys are going to be sent where. Then we spend the rest of the year sending them out to all the countries of the world.' Melissa had a question. 'Do all the toys go to kids like us?' 'That's an interesting question,' said Santa. 'And the answer is this, no. Until recently, most of them did go to Western kids. But I'm having a huge number of requests now from Asian kids, especially China and Japan. And I've also had lots of orders from here.' He pointed at the globe which formed part of the studio setting. 'See this place here?' He pointed to South America. 'Do you know what that's called?' 'Sure,' said Charles. 'Denmark.' 'That's not Denmark, you geek,' said Melissa. 'That's the Falkland Islands. That's where Mrs Thatcher lives.' 'This is called Latin America,' said Santa. 'My offices in Hong Kong have been getting orders for millions of dollars worth of toys from children here, particularly from Brazil and Paraguay. That's good news for my Hong Kong staff.' 'I've got a question,' said Charles. 'You don't have to put your hand up, you're not at school, you dweeb,' said Melissa. Charles dropped his hand and said: 'Do you keep a list of all the toys in the world?' 'I do,' said Santa. 'It's a book called Hong Kong Toys, published by my partners at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. I'm very proud of it. It was listed in the Guinness Book Of Records as the biggest periodical in the world, ever. The January 95 edition has 2,012 pages.' The two children literally started to drool at this news, Charles dribbling on to his chin. 'Wow! Can I have a free one?' 'Sure,' said Santa. 'You can have one each.' He reached into his pocket and took out two small envelopes. 'Hong Kong Toys is now out on CD-ROM.' The old man leaned back in his chair and became ruminative. 'Funny how no one realised that Hong Kong was the Toy Kingdom. I guess I must be pretty good at being discreet.' It was warm under the studio lights, and Mr Claus had accidentally let his red jacket flap open. There, on the inside pocket, were three words that didn't mean anything to the children, but registered to the viewers watching on Cable TV from half a world away in Hong Kong: 'Sam The Tailor.'