IT IS fortunate for Hong Kong's tourist industry that the playwright, Sir Noel Coward, visited Hong Kong in 1929. It was the same year in which he wrote his famous song Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which contains the immortal lines: ''In Hong Kong, they strikea gong, and fire off a noonday gun, to reprimand each inmate, who's in late.'' Coward got it wrong. The purpose of firing the noonday gun was to let people know when it was midday. In the Victorian era the poor could not afford watches. He probably got it muddled up with Quebec in Canada, where they fire both a noonday gun and also an evening gun, the original purpose being to alert the drunken and licentious soldiery that it was time for them to return to their barracks, where they would be reprimanded if they missed roll call. As ''Quebec'' does not rhyme with ''gong'', but only with ''rebec'' (a medieval three-string instrument) and ''xebec'' (a three-masted Mediterranean vessel), we must allow him poetic licence. The legend behind the noonday gun is that it was fired every day at noon as a penalty for a breach of protocol caused by the firing of an illegal 21-gun salute by some grovelling sycophant to herald the arrival of the taipan of Jardine, Matheson and Co, sometime in the 1860s. Coward wrote his famous play Private Lives, while in bed with the flu in the Cathay Hotel in Shanghai. It is not an easy play to perform. ''I've seen it massacred many times,'' he said. ''An amateur group in Hong Kong decided that it was the play to do.Only four characters. Two sets. It was really terrible. Poor blind fools.'' On March 20, 1968, he was in Hong Kong on holiday and was invited to fire the gun. He was delighted. When he arrived at Jardine's East Point godown - he was late - consequently so was the noonday gun, which boomed out three minutes after midday.