RATHER than dashing, worldly men with raffish elegance and an eye for the ladies, the detectives at the Shanghai Social Safety Consultancy and Investigation Office are simple retired police officers. The country's first firm of private eyes, they sport bulky homemade sweaters, Mao jackets and unfashionable horn-rimmed glasses, instead of the traditional trenchcoat. Quick dashes to the scene are out of the question as a tight budget forces them to move around on bicycles, or the rickety public buses that lumber through Shanghai. The 10 detectives, all over 60, will not have anything to do with murders. And they turn down affairs of the heart, even though opportunities abound as fat-cat private entrepreneurs take on mistresses and wives get revenge by finding their own extra-marital lovers. ''If we old men started following people around, it would be considered undignified,'' said agency chief Mr Huang Shi. But while defying most stereotypes, the detectives do share with their celluloid confreres from the movies at least two things - hatred of crime and a love for the hunt. Mr Huang, for example, could be spending his days indulging in hobbies such as painting birds and flowers, reading philosophy (he quotes from Goethe and loves the ancient Chinese classic The Book of Divination ), getting together with friends to sing andpractising Chinese shadow-boxing to keep fit. But, at 70, Mr Huang, long-since retired, found his country needed him again. Senior leader Mr Deng Xiaoping's economic reform programme is transforming Shanghai into a prosperous city of neon lights, trendy bars and restaurants, and Hongkong-run department stores. But economic reform has also taken a toll: the rapid changes have left the legal system lagging, and fraudsters are leaping in to exploit ignorance of the seamier side of capitalism. With vast grey areas between what is legal and illegal, the judicial system can scarcely keep up. This is where the Shanghai detective agency comes in, it specialises in cases that the police and courts turn down because it is not clear whether any law has been broken. ''When I saw there were cheats, and that the legal system in our country was not complete, I decided to open this office,'' Mr Huang said. The public response to the Shanghai agency has been enthusiastic. SHANGHAI Social Safety Consultancy has taken on more than 50 cases since it opened last November, and has already cracked 10 of them. One satisfied client was so grateful that he sent the agency a red banner of the sort the Communist Party uses to honour everything from labour heroes to hygienic restaurants. A common form of financial treachery that the Shanghai Social Safety Consultancy has encountered is ''setting the goal that can never be reached''. For example, in three districts of Shanghai, a wily businessman gave small companies raw materials to make sewer covers for him (''it shows they use every possible means to swindle'', Mr Huang said). When the companies produced the goods, he refused to accept them on the grounds they were sub-standard. Arguing that the producers had harmed his business by the delay in delivery, the swindler demanded, and received, financial compensation from the companies equivalent to tens of thousands of Hongkong dollars. In another case, a firm in Guangzhou ordered a big shipment of steel girders from the Shanghai office of what was supposedly a Sino-German joint-venture steel mill in Anhui. Officials visited a mill in the province, met the general manager, and paid the full 2.4 million yuan (HK$3.23 million) for the goods. But the girders never arrived because the steel mill did not exist. As it turned out, the Guangzhou officials had been shown the premises of another steel mill and the ''general manager'' they met had been an imposter. The cheats kept operating their Shanghai office, where Mr Huang and his team tracked them down. They settled the case out of court. Mr Huang's team is not alone in seeing big opportunities for private eyes in China. Pinkerton, the American investigation company whose logo led to the term ''private eye'', reportedly plans to set up offices in China early this year, hoping to help the country polish its international business reputation. The Shanghai private eyes' fee is generally five per cent of the financial loss which they help their clients recover, but Mr Huang said he was not in the business just to make money. ''We all have pensions,'' he said. ''But this agency gives us something to do in our old age.''