The 41-year-old world number 228 scorched to seven-under at par-70 Fanling to put himself in contention.
The 41-year-old world number 228, who defeated then world number one Tiger Woods to win the inaugural HSBC Champions in Shanghai in 2005, scorched to seven-under at par-70 Fanling to put himself in contention.
A run of birdie, birdie, eagle at the turn laid the platform and after only just surviving the cut on Friday, Howell roared up the leaderboard to be tied for second as play continued in round three.
Howell, who matched the course record held jointly by Chris Wood and Lucas Bjerregaard, arrived at the European Tour 2017 season-opener after taking six weeks off to recover from a foot injury.
"I got the most out of the round in the end and I'm delighted to have made that move here," he said.
"Having not played in six weeks, it would be a nice way to start the season with a top five, top 10 finish," added the Englishman.
Howell has only won twice since his HSBC Champions victory, the most recent being the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in 2013, and he admitted he had not had a vintage year.
"This whole calendar year has been a real struggle for me with injury," he said.
"Czech (Masters) and The Open, really, were the highlights of last season. But yeah, so it's been a while," he added.
The clear highlight of Howell's round was his eagle on the 367-yard, par-four 10th, when a mighty heave off the tee left him with a makeable putt.
"I just gave it a rip and it came up to about 12 feet, once again the putt went in to make the most of the gamble off the tee," he said.
"So things were really going my way. I had holed a bunker shot on nine, as well, and around that turn was a really pivotal stage."