ONCE, I worked next door to a chap named Gareth who used to make his secretary cry. If he had been passed over for promotion or one of his children had bitten him that morning he would call in his secretary and make her cry. She was a woman with no man in her life and no real feel for the alphabet, which left the filing system in some distress and her too, so she cried easily. Later I hawked some service or other to a great Kwun Tong industrialist in his office high above the nullah. Surrounded by priceless porcelain he would reduce his secretary to a sobbing heap of cheap fabric on the carpet, not because he was an inadequatetoad like Gareth but because he was an intellectual monster who steamed with hatred at the sight of lesser life forms. I decided it must be a truly awful thing to be a secretary in Hongkong and swore I would never become rich or consequential enough to have one, and so spare us both the degradation. It was surprising and rather touching to hear then that there is such a thing as Secretaries Day. This year it falls on Wednesday, and it has about as much to do with the rhythm of the seasons as the end of the financial year. ''An international festival'' was how Mr Sherman Leung, honorary secretary of the Hongkong Association of Secretaries, described it. ''It started in the United States and it has become popular in Hongkong over recent years.'' Mr Leung believes it ''upgrades the profession and promotes a secretary's social status''. Certain businessmen, who probably have secretaries, hope the day will promote greeting cards, $10-a-stem flowers, desk top-sized boxes of chocolates, and hotel luncheon tables packed with dutiful executives and blushing Girl Fridays. ''They are smart, these hoteliers. Sometimes they invite secretaries to lunches specially to improve relations with a company.'' Now we have a real secretary talking: Katherine, personal assistant (PA) to Mr Roger Moss, finance director of the Mass Transit Railway Corporation. ''They know the secretary to the managing director of a smallish representative office is the one who really selects where people eat and visiting executives should sleep.'' I asked four secretaries what they thought of their ''day'' and their social status. These girls have phone voices that tinkle like a bell in the cage of a canary, and minds like kitty hawks. ''Oh, it's a good idea,'' Katherine said, softening. ''It makes the boss think and it reminds the outside world about us,'' said the modest secretary to Mr Simon Murray of Hutchison, who swore me to secrecy over even her first name. Lucy, secretary to property developer and China adviser Mr David Chu Yu-lin, agreed. ''It lets us appreciate our importance and it is good if appreciation is shown.'' Dissent came only from Amy, secretary to Ms Christine Loh, Legislative Councillor and arch political rival to Mr Chu. ''It is of limited usefulness,'' Amy said. ''People will memorise the day but not what the secretary has contributed.'' Having said all that, not one of the four expected their bosses to do anything about it come Wednesday. Lucy thought some secretaries might get themselves together to swap notes but, at best, found it ''difficult to say'' what a boss might do. Mr Murray's lady factotum was practical. ''There could be nice flowers - which will brighten up the office - but at this level they are far too busy to take you out.'' Amy admitted to having received flowers in the past, even a trip out to lunch. She is not exactly holding her breath though. ''Dinner would be more exclusive anyway.'' Katherine seemed quite startled that something personal might happen to her. ''I have never expected anything throughout my entire secretarial life!'' I thought she might run into the stock cupboard until the threat passed. They all seemed a great deal more intent on what bosses could do to sweeten every day, not just one. Although clearly attached to their present bosses, the shadows of Gareth and the monster of Kwun Tong seem to hover around the personal secretary's fate. ''Mustn't shout'', ''mustn't be impatient'', ''mustn't get angry'' were the most urgent and often repeated rules, as though, somewhere back down the career line, there had been somebody who had been at least one if not all three. Consideration, understanding and tolerance were what the ladies valued most in the boss men in their lives. Given those, the professional relationship had boundless possibilities in the '90s. Amy saw greater equality between the two players than 10 years ago. ''The social rights between men and women have improved. So the relationship between boss and secretary has too.'' Some bosses would be startled to learn from Mr Leung that their PAs are''business partners''. Mr Murray's PA is a lucid constitutionalist on the matter: ''Young secretaries have demanded their human rights. They are more vocal with the boss and now they can reason with the boss. The old days of condescension have gone. They have won the right to reason.' Katherine invests more importance in softly, softly second guessing. ''You share his feelings. When he is in a bad mood you have to consider that he is unhappy about something that has nothing to do with you. Be considerate. Concentrate on thinking aheadfor him. Take things step by step and in the end you can communicate more frankly.'' Gentle Katherine was faintly amused when I suggested secretaries might be required to perform functions beyond their job descriptions, in areas of grey verging on darkness lit only by neon. All the ladies agreed this happened in smaller companies and to an acceptable degree was inevitable. ''In small outfits, it is difficult to avoid entertainment and trips out to drinks. It is a way of keeping up with what goes on,'' Katherine said. ''Socialising public relations and optimising your talents,'' is how Mr Murray's secretary described it. ''I have read about that in the papers and seen it on TV, but it has never happened to me,'' Lucy said, with what I am certain was not a tinge of regret. Read about what exactly? The proverbial sexual harassment of secretaries? ''The sort of abuse you might get is to be sent to Central Market to buy chickens for your boss, as happened to a colleague of mine once,'' Amy said. ''The other sort of harassment is quite common here, though. Some girls are happy with it because they might get a better salary. Some are scared. They don't know how to refuse.'' The ladies are fond of their particular gentlemen, though. Strong is the aversion to working for other women as bosses. ''I reject that. Forget it,'' Katherine said emphatically. ''It would be difficult to get along with clashes over fashion, over hair.'' Mr Murray's secretary ''. . . never would. It's just human. The working relationship would be too touchy. There would be jealousy over men, clothes; I've seen it happen. A woman executive should have a male secretary''. In Mr Chu's office the mood was far less certain. ''I don't know why the others don't like it. Personally, I don't think working for a woman is such a bad idea,'' Lucy mused. ''If you had a good relationship it could be even better than working for a man.'' Across town at the office of Mr Chu's sparring partner on the recent debate over race in politics, there was the proof of the pudding. Amy has worked for Ms Loh for two years. ''You don't necessarily have the same number of problems as you can get with working for a man,'' she said. ''Actually I do work for men here anyway . . .'' There was a pause to consider the destination this narrative line could arrive at. ''There is no great difference between male and female considerations. Women tend to prejudge each others' tempers.'' All was safe again between the sexes. Mr Leung told me there would be a Hongkong Professional Secretaries' Week Exhibition at Cityplaza in Tai Koo Shing from Thursday to April 25. Will the girls sit there doing it for us? ''We are the Magic Hand,'' was how one of the secretaries described themselves. Can we see it? Better, might we not play executive to their PA for 15-minute periods in return for a donation to the retirement fund? If we can, I will spring a Magic Hand demand on one lady a very senior Whitehall person once sprang on me when I was younger and his very temporary private secretary. ''Wolfendale'', he said through the intercom, ''get me the Queen.'' I did not know you could, but you can and I did.