It was a familiar enough setting: the vast ballroom of a big modern hotel, good but forgettable. Inside were various tables, laid for a formal dinner. We sat and chatted and looked forward to the food, famous for its high quality. My neighbours were civil servants, reserved and formal.
Then from the corridor outside an unmistakeable wheezing, squealing sound cut through the air, and a line of men in impeccable MacKintosh tartan and trews came swinging in, headed by a drum major holding his silver-headed mace high above his head, the pipers playing the great Highland bagpipes and the snare drummers rattling away with immense skill. The room filled with the magnificent sound, and everyone around me grinned with pleasure to hear it.
The drum major halted in front of the guest of honour, a woman, who poured him a dram of whisky in the approved manner. He downed it with evident enjoyment, and then the pipes sounded again and he led the entire superb contingent onto the stage where they entertained us some more. I've seen a piper lead one of the main dishes of the evening into the great darkened banqueting room at Buckingham Palace, which is as good as it gets. But in this workaday hotel ballroom the effect was almost as electrifying.
It was the Hong Kong Police pipe band that was playing, and the pipers and drummers were all Hong Kong Chinese. Even the guest of honour who handed out the dram of whisky was a leading Hong Kong Chinese official.
Like many English people without a drop of Scottish blood in them, I swell with unmerited pride and emotion when I hear the bagpipes played. If you've seen pictures of the pipers leading Scottish regiments into battle at El Alamein or the Normandy beaches, or remember the lone Black Watch piper playing in the pouring rain at the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, you may know the feeling yourself. I was just surprised to experience it in the ballroom of the Hong Kong airport hotel, that's all.
Still, I've come across the bagpipes in some pretty weird places over the years. In 1990 I was allowed to watch Saddam Hussein lay a wreath at the Martyrs' Memorial in Baghdad. As he stepped back, a strange noise broke out, with something faintly familiar about it: it was an Iraqi piper in Stewart tartan playing Scotland the Brave, not well. For a decade or so after WWI, Iraq was ruled by the British. Nothing else about the experience seems to have stuck, but the bagpipes did.
I've heard the same tune, played slightly better, from a pipe band at a passing-out ceremony held by the Palestinian police in Gaza. The Irish regiments in the British Army are as good as the Scots. Canada, which at one time seemed like the jewel in the Scottish empire's crown, is awash with military pipe bands, but I've heard some great playing by the armies of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia, all of which have their own bagpipe sections. The pipers of India's Assam Regiment are famous for their entertainment value. I've witnessed the excellence of the Qatar Army's pipers, but only on YouTube, I'm afraid.
As the pipes and drums of the Hong Kong Police rattled and squealed, the senior civil servant next to me murmured, 'I was an officer in the old Hong Kong Regiment. I took an oath of loyalty to Her Majesty.'
The last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, decided that when it was handed back he would ensure that it would be a model of good governance, and for its last two years under British rule it came top of the list of the world's most transparent and least corrupt economies. By last year its rating had only slightly changed, and it was still ahead of Britain, France and Germany. The tradition, like the bagpipes, has lasted.
A couple of hours after watching the lone Black Watch piper playing in the rain at the first of the handover ceremonies, I hurried through the magnificent conference centre where the final ceremony had just taken place, on my way to do a live broadcast for the BBC. (Because the rain was even worse by now, my brand-new suit was ruined and my hair was plastered down over my head.) The royal yacht Britannia, carrying Prince Charles and Chris Patten and brilliantly lit up, was sailing majestically through the darkness in Victoria Harbour for the last time, on her way home. Hundreds of Hong Kong people had gathered in the rain to watch, but inside the conference centre a great many local businessmen and government officials were hobnobbing with their mainland Chinese opposite numbers, their backs turned to Britannia as she sailed through the harbour. 'Ah well,' I thought, 'that's what the end of empire means. These people have got a future to make.'
After a year, the gleaming Prince of Wales building, perhaps the finest example of British post-war imperial architecture anywhere, was streaked with mould, and washing hung out of the windows. The Union Jacks had been taken off the cenotaph in Central. People complained that things weren't going quite so well any more. Yet this apparent trend didn't last. Fourteen years on, Hong Kong is wealthy, busy, still excellently run, remarkably independent of mainland China, and, it seems to me, at ease with itself.
As the pipe band marched off and we turned our attention to the excellent dinner, the civil servant on my other side also murmured a confidence to me: 'I've always kept my British passport, just in case. But I don't think I'll need it now.'
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.