The sun is blaring on a bright Saturday afternoon, as throngs of mostly middle-aged men and women gather at an art studio at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre. They are all smiles, ready to show off their wares. As members of the China Philatelic Association, some are already longtime friends. They have met for years on a weekly basis to chat about their latest finds and to brush up on their philatelic knowledge. Although their informal gathering is open to all-comers, it has begun to attract more attention lately. Reporters and television crews regularly show up, directing questions at its president Cheung Kam-che. They all want the same story: the stamp mania, fuelled by the coming demise of a colonial era that is gripping the territory. Three casually dressed, middle-aged women who came to the meeting for the first time say they were encouraged by a friend. But they are not speculators, they insist. 'We are just here to take a look,' says one who recalls with disbelief the long queues of buyers outside post offices in recent months. 'We want to know more about stamps so we won't be ignorant about a popular interest.' More people have joined the organisation lately, says Mr Cheung as he helps a young man with a membership application form. 'Please take a copy of our publication,' he told the prospective recruit. Trading in stamps has never been so profitable. As demand booms, speculators - most of whom are from China - lobby hard with increasing amounts of money to buy stamps featuring the Queen's head, many of which have risen by more than 400 per cent in value in the run-up to the handover. They are used as gifts by some mainlanders. It was in 1992 that the last series of stamps with the Queen's head were issued in the territory. Sheets and sets of stamps along with their latest prices are posted on the doors of many dealers' shops. One sheet of 100 10-cent stamps now costs $50, while a stamp bought five years ago for $1.80 fetches up to $100. Individual stamps depicting Prince Charles and Princess Diana, issued in 1989 to commemorate their visit to the territory, have risen in value as well. A $5 stamp now fetches more than $100. Souvenir sheets bearing the royal cipher have also become more costly. The $2.30 aerogrammes issued in January are now worth $18, helped by a printing error. Such lucrative gains were never considered by Mr Cheung early in his philatelic career. When he started collecting stamps as a schoolboy in the 1950s, making handsome gains out of a hobby was hardly a priority. Nor did he anticipate such widespread social attention to philately. 'Stamp collectors are low-profile people,' says the adviser to an import-export trading business. 'We participate in the hobby as we are attracted to the beautiful designs of stamps and the rich insights they offer into different countries. I got mine mostly free from friends and relatives. Some were given to me by past members of the club.' Formed in 1946, his club has 1,400 members, the biggest of the three local philatelic associations. It was founded by former members of the Hong Kong Philatelic Society, which comprised mostly English-speaking expatriates in its early days. 'Our founding members wanted to promote stamp collecting among local Chinese,' Mr Cheung says with a smile. 'But judging by our name, many people today mistakenly think we are a mainland body.' Students were perhaps more devoted to the activity in those days as there were fewer choices of entertainment. A member since 1951, Mr Cheung is obviously bewildered by the recent buying frenzy. He says he never cared how much his stocks of stamps would be worth in time. Like many other members from various backgrounds, his main source of satisfaction comes from creating his own collections. Winning awards at international competitions is gratifying too, says Mr Cheung, a silver-medal recipient on the international stage and a specialist in Chinese stamps. The practice of collecting has been rewarding enough to him. 'I've known about so many things throughout the years,' he points out, 'such as the social, economic and political situations in China. Did you know that none of the stamps issued between the Qing dynasty and the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 featured any sports events? Not until 1952 when the one on gymnastics was introduced.' One avid collector of local stamps, Samuel Cheung, now studying for a master's degree at the Polytechnic University, laments that today's youth are driven by profit. 'They know stamp dealers well and are more interested in prices than anything else.' One exception is a 16-year-old new member, Shum Pak-ki, who developed an interest in philately from her father. But she notes: 'My classmates are only interested in stamps with the Queen's head. I myself want to explore more.' Timing is everything in stamps. When the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions decided to hold a stamp exhibition at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from May 1 to 4 as part of its fund-raising campaign, it could not have timed it better. Planning for the event started more than a year ago. Visitors will be charged admission fees in return for being shown a vast array of local stamps, some dating back to 1864. The union's chief executive, Elizabeth Tang Yin-ngor, however, has doubts about a sizeable turnout of visitors. 'We expect this to appeal to those interested in local history. We are not selling any exhibits.' Mr Cheung of the philatelic association says they do not encourage people to buy stamps in bulk, simply because it requires careful effort and proper equipment to keep them in prime condition. 'Hong Kong is a humid place and stamps can easily turn yellow if they are not properly maintained,' he said. 'Many new stamp collectors do not know how to keep their stocks in good condition. 'Except those who want to study the quality of the plate, real collectors usually do not buy one whole sheet of stamps as it costs more and is harder to maintain. 'I don't understand why the Post Office continued to sell them after announcing in January that it would stop issuing stamps bearing the Queen's head.' Stamps bearing the image of the Queen ceased to be available across the counter on January 25, replaced instead by new designs including those depicting the Hong Kong skyline at night. 'Last-day' covers also went on sale in January. Then, in the middle of March, the rest of the reserve from 1992 went on offer again, resulting in long queues outside major post offices. One elderly stamp collector died after he collapsed in a coma outside the General Post Office while standing in line. A spokesman for the Post Office said the sale was held to meet public demand. Sales of such stamps are now over while the speculative buying and selling continues. But how much longer will the craze last? Many dealers advise people to sell off their stock before it is too late. 'The prices fluctuate,' says one seasoned dealer. The market also hinges heavily on mainland demand. Veteran collector Wong Ming-yu is expecting a drop in prices in the near future due to restraint by buyers from China. He warns that Chinese authorities have already tightened control over stamps brought from Hong Kong. 'Probably due to increased publicity of speculation, Chinese customs officials now tend to check travellers to see if they are bringing in large quantities of undeclared stamps,' he says. In one case, a man was caught carrying about 8,000 stamps worth more than $500,000. Many doubt whether new stamps to be issued before the handover will have as much speculation value. Although they feature interesting designs including migratory birds and the Tsing Ma Bridge, they could be less popular given the new measures announced last week by the Post Office, which has raked in $700 million so far this year from sales of special-issue stamps including those depicting the year of the Ox. It will increase the printing quantity of future issues by seven times over the level a year ago and set a buying quota for each transaction. To avoid queues and chaos, the Post Office has also decided to exercise better crowd control and to sell new stamps on Sundays, opening more counters than previously. It guarantees to meet all advance orders. The next issue of stamps, which will be on migratory birds (with four denominations), is due to go on sale on April 27. Postmaster-General Robert Footman urges the public to exercise caution. 'Experience around the world has shown that the value of stamps can go down as well as up. For these reasons, especially in the light of our commitment to meeting all advance orders and the dramatic increase in our printing quantities, we are advising our customers to consider their needs carefully before deciding to buy. They should act rationally.' Still speculators and dealers are eyeing commemorative stamps to be issued on July 1 in conjunction with Hong Kong's return to China. They are expected to become collectors' items. 'There could be even more serious speculation, depending on the quantities available,' says Mr Cheung. 'I'll certainly buy one set. But only one.'