The return of a gold futures market to Hong Kong yesterday opens a new chapter in the city's colourful history of bullion trading. The timing itself was diverting, given that gold is a safe haven in troubled times. Conceived in the calm before the approaching financial storm, the futures market has arrived right in the middle of it. That is a contrast with a decade ago, when gold futures trading on the old futures exchange - now merged into Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing - was suspended after 18 years because of low interest. It had become uncompetitive with other exchanges, and investors preferred to trade through banks and bullion trading firms. Its return also coincides with a changeover to an electronic trading system by the Chinese Gold and Silver Exchange Society, which supplies the local jewellery trade, after 98 years of trading by open outcry. An official at the gold exchange has not ruled out an eventual merger between the two bourses as a result of increased co-operation. The city where a free market in gold thrived from 1949 to 1970 during a trading ban by the International Monetary Fund is now unrecognisable. At that time, Hong Kong's market in the metal catered to demand from the mainland and later Macau, which was not subject to IMF restrictions, as well as to the city's Chinese banks. Unfortunately, gold smugglers took advantage of the situation to use the city as a base to also ship narcotics, leaving a stain on Hong Kong's reputation that took time to shed. Time will tell if trading in gold futures will take off now. The price of gold is well off recent highs, but price surges have attracted investors, and electronic trading on the exchange may be expected to increase turnover. At a time when the value of paper money looks increasingly ephemeral, the allure of gold has endured. Yet, despite its long history of gold trading, Hong Kong's status as an international gold trading hub is by no means assured. It is to be hoped that the launch of gold futures will help fend off competition for that position from regional rivals.