Friday, 16 September 2011

To hell and back: An expat's life on the edge in Hong Kong

In the 1990s, former Royal Marine Chris Thrall found himself being sucked into a downward spiral in Hong Kong, when his work as a Wanchai bouncer drew him into the world of triads and crystal meth addiction. Now 42, off drugs and pursuing a new life, Thrall reveals how he saw the end -- and found a future -- in his autobiography "Eating Smoke."

CNNGo: Considering your addiction, how were you able to remember things so clearly?

Chris Thrall: Using crystal meth and the psychosis I experienced didn’t affect my memory. I think when you’re young and finding yourself in the world –- especially in such a memorable setting as Hong Kong -– you remember an awful lot, particularly the pertinent things like relationships you had with people and the crazy things you get up to.

"Eating Smoke" is a collection of those memories. I also experienced a great deal of highs, lows and trauma. Incidents you don’t forget in a hurry. There’s probably also a lot I don’t remember and probably just as well.

CNNGo: When was the point when you felt things had gotten seriously out of control?

Thrall: When you’re sliding into addiction you don’t realize things are getting out of control. You just believe that if you can score more drugs then you can make it all good again and everything will be just funky.

The psychosis was impossible to appreciate as it happened, too. I’d recover from a meth binge realizing that some weird things had gone on.

For example, at one point I was convinced that everything in Hong Kong had a secret set of pulleys, cables and motors linking it all up like an enormous pinball machine or a city-sized version of the ghost house at the fair.

Yet after a bender, my mind just seemed to link the experiences to being high and I didn’t feel the need to explore and question them at the time. I just had to deal with the here and now.

CNNGo: Could this have happened to you anywhere, or was Hong Kong partly to blame?

Thrall: No person or place is to blame for anything, certainly not Hong Kong.

Despite the highs and lows, I had an unbelievable time that I wouldn’t have done if I were stuck in an office in Britain. So much so, I felt compelled to write about it, 15 years on.

A raft of factors combine to make certain individuals predisposed to addiction, but rather than bore the reader with theory, I instead wanted them to go on the fast-paced and thrilling journey that I did.

I’ve dropped in the occasional hint of back story so they can work out for themselves how I went from a glowing career in an elite commando force to drug-induced psychosis and working for a Hong Kong triad family.

CNNGo: Although under unfortunate circumstances, you got to know a side of Hong Kong that most people will never see –- how would you describe it to them?

Thrall: Butlins [a holiday camp] for psychopaths. I’ve done my best to detail it in "Eating Smoke."

For me it wasn’t so much learning about the triads but getting beneath the skin of Hong Kong itself. There’s so much more to this unique enclave than meets the un-primed expat eye.

I read up on Hong Kong’s history, its culture and economic positioning. I got stuck into the language and cuisine. I learnt about etiquette, superstition, customs, religion and feng shui. And I made many Chinese friends. Through this I got a better idea of Hong Kong Chinese philosophy, and began to notice the subtler aspects of Cantonese life -– how everything ticks.

If you do this and a bit of research on the origins of the triads, the so-called "brothers of the marsh," their anti-establishment roots, dress code and discreet methods of communication, then you can stroll down Lockhart Road or sit in a Wanchai nightclub and watch it play out for yourself.

CNNGo: Living in the Hong Kong underworld, could you relate at all to other expats?

Thrall: I like to think I relate to all people across all the ethnic divides and that the friendships I write about in "Eating Smoke" show this.

I met a great deal of expats, many of whom were very kind to me. As I got more into the language and culture though and could fully appreciate the concept of "face" -– respect -– I started to resent the behavior of some of the foreign nationals, particularly the ones who talked down to the locals and acted as if they owned the place.

I think that working in a Chinese-run club, surrounded by hard-nut Hong Kong workmates and living in a Wanchai backstreet presented me with something of an identity crisis. I even began to think in Cantonese.

CNNGo: How has the experience changed you for the better? What have you learned?

Thrall: That I didn’t want to see my youth slipping away in a suit; that no one needs to be in a gang or a clique to feel good about themselves; that no matter how much you try to assimilate yourself into another’s culture you’ll always be a foreigner; that I’m now able to empathize with and support others in challenging circumstances; and that there are days when you wake up and the world isn’t the way you want it to be and that’s exactly when you must believe in yourself and strive towards your dreams.

CNNGo: What would you say to yourself now if you could turn back time and meet yourself at Kai Tak Airport when you first landed in Hong Kong?

Thrall: To quote the late [Gonzo journalist and anti-authoritarian] Hunter S. Thompson it would be, "Buy the ticket, take the ride."

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