ACROSS the horizon the South China Sea shimmered languidly, while on the spacious and well-manicured lawn of David Tang's picturesque Sai Kung retreat the sun scorched down relentlessly yesterday afternoon as I sipped tea with some of the lovelies who willnext month be vying for the Miss Asia title. (Hot and sticky work, I hear you sympathetically remark, but someone had to undertake it.) The tea party was hosted by ATV (with the gracious permission of you-know-who) to welcome back the 18 contestants to this year's contest who've just returned after a two-week visit to Britain. During the overseas trip they were filmed doing the tourist rounds including visiting the cathedral city of Bath - Governor Chris Patten's old hangout - which has taken on must-visit status for most Hongkong tourists to England. Speculation reigned among the assembled as to whether the Tang presence would grace the occasion. But the absence of a flag fluttering from the pole mounted on the patio indicated that he was not in residence (it transpired he was returning later in the day from a business trip to Vietnam). Being the frightful fashion victims that they all are, the girls bought heaps of clothes during their trip. Virginia Wun, 21, said: ''I've never bought so many dresses and shoes in my life. The shopping was wonderful, especially at Kensington Market.'' According to former Miss Hongkong runner-up Cynthia Cheung, who is acting as image consultant to the beauty pageant, the girls wanted the chance to show off the summer clothes they bought in England. ''And what better way than at a very English tea party,'' she added. Thus Laura Ashley was much in prominence, together with ribboned boaters and Portobello Road jewellery. Cynthia, who studies in Los Angeles, is using her holiday to help groom the contenders as a favour to her friend Ellen Liu who fashions the images of ATV's stable of stars. ''I think the first thing we all did when we got back was to catch up on sleep. We never had more than three hours of sleep each night,'' she said, tell-tale eyes concealed behind dark shades. At the party, where additional glamour was provided by actress Sain Chan, the girls were given a wonderful incentive to go for it. It was announced that this year's winner will receive $3 million worth of prizes. That called for a toast in typically English tea - Darjeeling, of course.