PERHAPS after 16 months' absence from the Hong Kong hurly-burly, former Governor, now author Chris Patten thought people would have forgotten him. Perhaps he thought the economic downturn would have focused minds on concerns other than buying his book, East And West, and getting his signature. Perhaps he had underestimated the McSnoopy-style fad for collecting anything that might become remotely valuable. Or perhaps he had himself forgotten the affection and admiration people felt for him. Whatever he thought, he was wrong. 'It's Patten-mania, isn't it?' said one customer cheerfully as he exited the Hong Kong Book Centre crush in Central on Thursday morning, a signed book safely tucked in his bag, the several hundredth of 700 autograph-hunters snaking their way through narrow alleys between tall shelves. And this reporter, slightly taken aback by the stealing of a journalist's usually sensationalist phrase, had to agree. It was media-mad, certainly, but it was not a media-orchestrated event. Many reporters and photographers were as surprised as Mr Patten was to see the thousands of people standing in line, in some cases for up to six hours and in at least one case for 10, to see him, shake his hand, get their photos taken beside him and gain that all-important signature, 'Chris Patten', written fast but clearly in bold black ink from his ever-flowing fountain pen. Some in the queue were not interested in reading the book, merely in collecting the signature. But for many, the message was clear. A chorus of 'come back, come back' greeted his arrival at one shop. 'We miss you' was a familiar phrase, while 'democracy' fell from many people's lips. Time and again, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa came off worse in comparison. 'He was the last Governor of Hong Kong and I want to acknowledge what he has done for Hong Kong,' said Joseph Choi, who had waited more than two hours at Swindon Book Company in Tsim Sha Tsui on Friday. And what had he done? 'Drive democracy.' 'I would like the Chief Executive to have his knowledge of how to govern Hong Kong,' said Emmy Ho. So he is better than Mr Tung? 'Certainly.' 'He stood up for what he believed in,' said Indian-born, 20-year Hong Kong resident Ibahun Fernando in the Hong Kong Book Centre in Central on Thursday. Yes, that had caused trouble with China, 'but you can't stand up for what you believe in and not cause trouble anywhere in the world'. 'I like him for his intelligence,' said teacher Catherine Ho as she strained to catch a glimpse of the more portly former Governor while he blew on a hot egg tart fresh from his favourite bakery, Tai Cheung in Lyndhurst Terrace, as beaming cook Chan Po-kwan looked on. 'He's so quick, so smart, so clever. This one' - with a wave of her hand and a toss of her head towards Central Government Offices - 'is so slow and foolish.' Even the police, helping to look after crowds but no longer officially protecting this former-boss-turned-private-citizen, were caught up in the excitement. 'Overwhelming support, isn't it?' volunteered one constable outside Wan Chai restaurant Harry Ramsden's, where Mr Patten failed to touch his fish and chip lunch while he slogged to clear the 350-strong queue. Then, leaning forward conspiratorially: 'Don't quote [my name] - but I don't think if Mr Tung wrote a book. . .' In two days Mr Patten signed books for about 3,000 people at one charity dinner, one public speech for the American Chamber of Commerce, and seven stores. First was Times Books next to the Hong Kong Club, then he walked to the Hong Kong Book Centre, then walked again to Continental Books - a French bookshop - on Wellington Street. On Friday he began at the SCMP Family Bookstore at the Star Ferry in Central, then headed to Jumbo Grade in Pacific Place, then to Harry Ramsden's in Wan Chai, across the harbour to Swindon in Tsim Sha Tsui. And yesterday, after visits to the Helena May and daughter Alice's old haunt, Island School, he signed at St John's Cathedral and even at Waterstone's at Chek Lap Kok. Most people had one or two tomes, some had up to 10, making an average of about three for each person. On Thursday he estimated he had signed about 5,000 copies, which over about seven signing hours, works out at an average of 11 a minute - seemingly impossible, except that this reporter counted 100 people through every half hour. At the same rate, by the time he was winging his way to London last night, he could have signed perhaps 10,000 copies to add to the 8,000 or so he had signed during a week in Australia and 1,100 he signed during a day in Singapore on Tuesday. The hand did not suffer, but the constant leaning forward took a toll on his back, he said. From the start, underestimates of numbers and a lack of stringent measures to control queues meant there was a constant danger of falling off the tightrope schedule as he raced from one assignment to the next. Mr Patten the celebrity did not have the celebrity machinery: two or three representatives of publisher Macmillan, including director Chris Paterson, plus harassed store staff could barely compete with determined photographers and punters worried that they would be turned away. On Friday, the under-powered machine toppled. Upset Sha Tin residents were furious when he turned up for his only New Territories visit and planned eighth bookshop - Popular Bookstore - to give only a few words and a few scribbled autographs, then was rushed away for his meeting with Mr Tung. Outraged customers demanded their money back or waved away the offer of a sticker signed by Mr Patten and wife Lavender to be sent from London. Yesterday, during a rare quiet moment as he and Mrs Patten arrived at the Helena May Institute of which Mrs Patten used to be patron, Mr Patten said he was 'embarrassed' by the Sha Tin incident, the more so because he was aware of the charge that he had put more centrally-based Hong Kongers first. In fact, he said, the Swindon queue had been sliced from about 800 to the first 300, but then a raucous extra 100 had forced him to stay. 'The police advised me to sign or they feared there would be trouble,' he said. The response had been beyond his highest expectations, he said. 'If I was doing it again and expected these numbers, I would do less. But the problem might be the same as the queues would be longer.' The strain at times told. Perhaps forgetting how Hong Kong's limpet-like press will attempt to take photos up nostrils or make interviewees swallow microphones if allowed, he pushed and shouted angrily at the blockading media at the first signing, and in return was portrayed as the returning bully on some television channels. Mrs Patten appeared the most worried, only breaking into a wide smile in Sha Tin when crowds of well-wishers grabbed for her outstretched hands. It was Mr Patten's love of the public occasion which made him special - the politician's crowd-pleasing style, his willingness to answer questions from anyone as the people's leader who eschewed the plumed hat, said his driver, John Hui. His wit and irony permeated his speeches, and, using careful diplomatic language, he was careful not to denigrate his successor. 'It's common knowledge that Mr Tung and I have different political philosophies. It's also beyond argument that Mr Tung has worked tirelessly for Hong Kong. I don't think anybody reckons that running this great city is a push-over. Undoubtedly it's been more tough for the chief of the SAR region than for the last colonial oppressor . . . I have very considerable sympathy. I think it would be an unhelpful impertinence for me to say anything more than that.' Rupert Murdoch - the publisher who 'dared not publish' Mr Patten's book, as a sticker says on one version's cover - came in for stinging criticism. Perhaps, said Mr Patten, as a member of Mr Tung's international advisory committee, he would offer thoughts on freedom of the press. But his main message was the same as his gubernatorial statements: Hong Kong people are 'audacious', self-confident, committed, and believe in the rule of law. China had left Hong Kong alone because that was in its interest and 'because of the self-confident way people in Hong Kong have made clear their commitment to living in a free city'. It was a boost to make people who have lost confidence believe in themselves. American Chamber of Commerce chairman Jeffrey Muir said he symbolised 'Hong Kong's coming of age where leaders could speak of issues that had not been a priority. He helped arm this community . . . many people were disquieted but many people were enfranchised'. And if it was said enough, people would believe it, he said. Asked whether simply by being here, Mr Patten was making life harder for Mr Tung, who did not naturally speak in public in the same way, Mr Patten said he would not stop speaking because that was not Mr Tung's style. Yet the reaction to Mr Patten's whirlwind visit indicated which style the turnout-public preferred. Whether he intended to do so or not, Mr Patten has left Mr Tung a very hard act to follow.