HIDDEN in a tower behind a walled garden, the leafy tops of trees swaying slightly above the bustle of a grotty corner of Prince Edward, the Portland Residential Creche looks like something out of a fairy tale. Many of the 100 children under two who currently live here are legally, if not literally, orphans and all need a fairy godmother to guarantee a happy ending. The holder of the magic wand in this case is Anita Tong, supervisor of the creche and the person responsible for feeding, clothing, cleaning, teaching and playing with the hundreds of children who have called the creche home. A former nurse, she came to work at the creche in 1979, tired of the suffering involved in hospital work. 'In the hospital there were so many sad things,' she says, 'working with babies is always happy.' And so it is. Inside, the creche is no longer a magic castle but down-to-earth and cheerful. Brightly lit rooms, hung with pictures, are filled with dozens of babies and toddlers, all of whom are tottering, squeaking, smiling, screeching and laughing. The youngest is three days old, the eldest two years. Most are here because their parents - prisoners, drug addicts, hospital patients - can't cope, or can't take care of them. One day, hopefully, they will go home. About 20 per cent have been abandoned by teenage or unmarried mothers and are waiting to be adopted. In one room, a crocodile of toddlers is being walked to the toy cupboard. In another, the one-year-olds are taking wobbly first steps. In a third, the nine-month-olds and under are rolling around their cots, experimenting with push-ups; next door, newborn babies lie peacefully staring at the ceiling, beaming at any face that comes near them. Some walk, some talk, some can only smile ... but they all drink milk, 140 kilos of powdered formula a month, to be exact, drunk from 200 bottles, all of which are scrubbed out and sterilised in a machine the size of a deep freeze. The older children also have congee, fruit juice and cereal, bought in bulk and dished out in sittings. There are 75 workers at the creche, of which 53 are responsible for childcare, working in shifts; that's one adult for every eight babies during the day and 12 at night. Feeding is a never-ending process. And then there is cleaning up afterwards. There are no wasteful, expensive disposable nappies for these children but eco-friendly wash 'n' wear cotton diapers. Tong buys about 4,000 a year. They are washed, frequently, in three huge, industrial washing-machines. She also buys about 1,500 bottles of baby-bath annually, enough to make sure every child gets a good scrub every day. These are the basics, provided by the taxpayer. For toys, treats and excursions, the things that minimise the institutional nature of the children's existence, the creche relies on donations. The government provides the minimum amount of clothes and benefactors provide the rest. Manufacturers occasionally donate slightly damaged stock and the staff sew on buttons and darn holes to make the clothes fit to be worn. Tong is grateful but forced to admit that sometimes the givers' ideas of gifts are terribly impractical. Soft toys are out, for example, because they need to be sterilised. Party frocks are useless, too, because the staff have no time to fiddle about with complicated fastenings or hand washing. They need one-piece romper suits, woollen underwear, summer shoes and T-shirts. Cash donations are also put to good use. Some goes on big items to make the staff's workload easier, which gives them more time for the children. The smaller washing-machine has finally collapsed after 10 years, and Tong must consider allocating precious resources to buy a new one. They need new plastic trunks to store clothes and a cabinet for keeping all the toys tidy. More fun was last month's splurge on half a dozen toy cars, just the right size to help the older kids learn to walk. 'People always give those small, handheld toys,' says Tong. 'So we buy these cars ... the babies love to use them.' At Lunar New Year, the older children will be receiving lai see packets with sweets inside and learning how to say 'Kung hei fat choi'. Recently, Tong organised an excursion to McDonald's, where 40 tots got their first taste of fast food. There are trips into the outside world every month, to supermarkets ('So they can learn about shopping'), swimming-pools or, at Christmas, to see the lights in Tsim Sha Tsui. Simple pleasures, standard for children in ordinary families, are major operations when dozens of kids are involved. Often staff volunteer for extra duties so the children can take a trip; the Junior Police Corps offered its services for the Christmas lights excursion. With so much effort made to create a family atmosphere, it isn't surprising the staff become attached to the children. During the holidays, especially Lunar New Year, Tong finds it hard to leave her charges behind. 'Most of our babies are taken home by their parents but some have no place to go and I really want to take them home. But, as a principle, the staff cannot take the babies home.' She claims to have no favourites, 'I mustn't put too much feeling on one child, it's fairer to put more concern on all the babies. I have to do that because, if I pay more attention to one or two babies, the other staff follow my example and pay attention to only one and perhaps neglect the others. Although there may be some who are very clever or very beautiful, I have to keep [my preferences] secret.' But there are some she remembers longer than the others and many with whom she stays in touch. Staff often keep in contact with those who move on to orphanages for older children, like Po Leung Kuk and St Christopher's, and visit regularly. Tong's pride and joy is the notice-board which is filled with photographs of children who have been adopted, usually overseas. Tiny black-haired children are sandwiched between adoring pink parents and blond siblings: at the beach, the pool, the amusement park or guest-of-honour at a birthday party. She rarely gets to see these babies again, though, since local parents tend not to tell their new children they are adopted and foreigners rarely come back to Hong Kong. But she has dozens of photo albums, filled with pictures fromthose parents who do stay in touch, sometimes writing every month to let her know that the children are thriving. And last month, a British boy came into see her. 'I still recognised his face from when he was a baby. He is about 12 years old now.'