ARMAT Drive, on a misty October morning, is beginning to ignite. The fiery reds and yellows that make Washington autumns famous are seeping into the trees and covering the paths. It is a beautiful road, more rural than suburban, and lined with the homes of the sort of people that must have been moving and shaking for quite a while. After a short drive, you spot number 7402. Behind its gently imposing gate is a home typical of the neighbourhood - distinctly American in its forthrightness, but aping a certain English grandeur. In the front garden, however, is an atypical feature: a tall white flagpole, on top of which quietly flies the flag of the British Dependent Territory of Hong Kong. I am met at the door by two Chinese faces; Connie and Frank, a husband-and-wife team, servants of the Hong Kong Government, who show us into a large reception hall that looks for all the world like it might be on The Peak: oriental carpet, Chinese rosewood furniture, Asian curios. Then on the sideboard, clues as to the identity of their boss: a string of good luck cards, addressed to ''Barrie and Mavis''. Almost immediately, there appears Barrie Wiggham, the territory's new ''ambassador'' to the United States and the man entrusted with the task of making sure Hong Kong remains on the minds of its important people. He is besuited and ready for work, but flustered. The AT&T man has just come because the phones aren't working. He also apologises that the house is half-empty, with another shipment of furniture from Hong Kong yet to arrive. After the recent controversy at the hands of the Legislative Council and press coverage concerning the Wigghams' allegedly over-luxurious home, it says a lot about his easy-going nature that we have been invited here at all. Nevertheless, it is immediately apparent that the vaguest mention of the word ''mansion'' will see one ejected back to the crisp autumn pathway. ''It's not a mansion - it's far too small to be called a mansion,'' says Mr Wiggham, explaining that he looked at several homes on the usual diplomatic beltway of Massachusetts Avenue, which he considered too fancy, too grand, and too unliveable. Although it cost US$2 million (HK$15.6 million), and is spacious, with a small swimming pool, tennis court and a separate alpine-lodge-style guesthouse, the only conceivable way it could be judged a mansion is by Kowloon City standards. A two-bedroom apartment in town might have been the choice of a few Legco naysayers, but the uncomfortable truth is that any diplomat living in one would never be taken seriously. Because it probably has more VIPs per capita than anywhere else in the world, Washington DC is one of those towns where status is everything. The house is further out of town than the ''Mass Ave'' cocktail circuit, but the Wigghams intend to use it for frequent entertaining. That, he said, accounts for the distinctly Chinese ambience, and the fact he hopes his domestics will be cooking the best Cantonese food in the capital. ''My wife and I thought that given the job, it would be appropriate for us to give it a Chinese feel - without going over the top,'' Mr Wiggham said. The Hong Kong Economic and Trade office, in a stunning, white high-tech marvel in downtown DC, has been extended to provide an office for Mr Wiggham and an assistant. Although he had only spent four days in it by the end of last week, he was clearly itching to get on with some work and answer the critics of his appointment, his pay and his house. ''I don't want to revive the issue, but I was a little surprised at the reluctance of some people in Hong Kong to recognise that we needed to put more resources into protecting our interests in what is such an important trading partner for us - still thenumber one market for our exports.'' He also felt the matter was personalised in its criticism, and as the then Secretary for the Civil Service, he was in effect gagged from being able to defend himself. With the dust settled, he is now hoping to prove the doubters wrong. He acknowledged that much of his work would be behind the scenes, networking, lunching with the politicians and businessmen who matter - to an extent that would make Hong Kong's power lunch culture seem positively anaemic. ''Not a lot of the job will be quantifiable, but in a year's time I will point to the number of miles I've travelled and number of speeches I've made.'' The starting point of his function is in some senses symbolic, inherent in the fact that the incumbent senior Hong Kong representative, Peter Lo, has a title of Minister, whereas Mr Wiggham will be Commissioner - a name card that provides extra clout when it comes to making sure he does not get sidelined by vital senators and put on hold by State Department staffers. ''The Governor's idea is that I should be adding a more senior tier to the network we've already established. Although for obvious reasons I'm living in Washington DC, that does not mean I'm running the Washington office.'' ''I know from my experience when I came here as Secretary of General Duties before, that Washington and other parts of the States are a bit status-conscious. The level of access you can get in any organisation does depend to an extent on your own positionin your organisation.'' Another role is to co-ordinate the tasks of the DC, New York and San Francisco offices. Earlier this week the chiefs of each office came to the capital for a meeting to assess their tasks. Mr Wiggham also called in the Government's five retained lobbyingfirms, plus its public relations consultants, GCI, for a meeting on future strategy. His other function recalls his former identity in the late 1980s as ''Mr 1997'', spreading the message about the territory and its future. ''I envisage I will spend a lot of time travelling round the States doing the sort of tours our present staff with their own regular commitments have not been so free to tackle. ''What we're trying to do is take advantage of someone of my experience in Hong Kong and my seniority to try and upgrade our contacts.'' For instance, Mr Wiggham has already lined up a West Coast visit next month, followed by Chicago and Boston in early December. He hopes to kill several birds on each trip, making speeches, giving press interviews, meeting businessmen and academics, as well as mayors and state governors. ''A lot of it will be responding to questions on all aspects of Hong Kong, including, of course, the future and how people in Hong Kong see 1997 and beyond. ''There are basic challenges for us trying to represent Hong Kong interests here. One is the very size of the country, and miles you have to travel - even if we were out every day of the week, all of us, we'd still probably only scratch the surface.'' The other problem, he said, was what he termed the ''complex of constituencies'', from the federal government and Congress to the cities and states - which are jealous of their own authority and need to be addressed in turn. In DC, where the most important flesh-pressing takes place, Mr Wiggham intends to first contact the VIPs he has already met on previous visits, including Congressmen and important officials such as Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs. His first diplomatic call on arrival was to the British Embassy and Ambassador Sir Robin Renwick. ''This is a great town for lobbying,'' he said. ''Everybody's at it.'' Several times during the interview, Mr Wiggham stressed trade as his primary objective. In the weeks before his arrival, he was genning up on issues in the Trade Department in Hong Kong, and he said he expects to be on the phone to the department's officials most days. His first task is to oversee the logistics for Financial Secretary Hamish Macleod's trip to Seattle in November for the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum) meeting, and its historic leader's meeting in the presence, among others, of PresidentBill Clinton and his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin. Then there is what he calls the ''annual drama'' of China's Most Favoured Nation trading status, due for renewal next June, although the lobbying will have to begin much earlier. ''My impression is that it will be quite tricky this year. The important thing for us to monitor developments and tailor our tactics accordingly,'' said Mr Wiggham. Other agenda items will be the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. ''We have an overall interest, and we stand for the freest trade possible, so generally we're a little wary of trade blocs. At the same time, we would support anything that would not put up additional barriers.'' When I spoke, Mr Wiggham was celebrating a special anniversary; it was 32 years to the day that, just having left university and got married, he and his wife Mavis got on a ship bound for Hong Kong and the Colonial Civil Service. Having spent all of their working life there - he progressing from the District Officer training ground to the Government's higher echelons, and she as a teacher - is the move a wrench? ''I'm sure I will miss Hong Kong. All aspects of it have been so much a part of my life and the life of my wife and my family that it's difficult to imagine how it will be without it. All I can say is that in the light of the last few days, there's goingto be enough here to keep me very busy, so I hope that emotional strain will not be too great. ''My daughters. who were both born in Hong Kong, were very upset that the time had come for us to leave.'' Although they have both been studying in Britain, he expects them to return to the territory. He sees the position as his last in Hong Kong's service (he is due to retire in three years). Where he and his family will settle then, he does not know. One ambition he has been waiting for the time to fulfil, however, is the essential top-down drive across the States that most reserve for their younger years. By the time he gets round to it, it is hard to imagine that Hong Kong's ''ambassador'' won't have trodden most of the country's soil already.