REVIEW Meth madness in Hong
Kong Eating Smoke
by Chris Thrall
Reviewed by Kent
HONG KONG - This city can be
dizzyingly fast-paced and hard to grasp even when
one is straight and sober. Try living and working
here on a daily diet of crystal methamphetamine.
That's what former Royal Marines commando
Chris Thrall did - and he lived (barely) to tell
the tale in this memoir of his harrowing, 13-month
Hong Kong sojourn.
Thrall's time in the
city - from May 1995 to June 1996 - started
promisingly enough as a business venture but ended
as a descent into a meth-induced madness that made
it impossible for him to distinguish the real Hong
Kong from the hallucinogenic
show of drug dealers,
prostitutes, triads and paranoia that had taken
over his mind.
Indeed, by the time Thrall
has finished his 417-page odyssey, the reader,
too, does not know what is real about his Hong
Kong experience and what is not.
portrait of a crystal-meth addict, this book works
rather well; as a portrait of Hong Kong, which it
is also intended to be, it does not.
big problem with Thrall's Hong Kong perspective is
that he left what was then a British colony 16
years ago; another, of course, is that he was
ripped on meth most of the time he was here.
That said, Thrall's long, hard fall into
addiction and Hong Kong's underworld - delusional
as it sometimes may be - often makes for
fascinating reading. Kudos should again go to
Blacksmith Books, a small Hong Kong publisher
building a reputation for unearthing stories and
writers who would otherwise never see the light of
day. Thrall's disoriented narrative has found
a substantial audience in the city; for weeks, it
has been riding alongside such books as Amy Chua's
internationally acclaimed Battle Hymn of the
Tiger Mother on Hong Kong's best-seller list.
It isn't Thrall's prose, however, that has
been the chief attraction of his book. His
writing, while at times amusing, is also littered
with cliches and stereotypes - from his
"beady-eyed" Indian landlord to a Chinese
restaurant manager who delivers a public thrashing
to a worker for dropping some plates, this latter
account presented as if it were the order of the
day in the city.
What is captivating about
Thrall's increasingly paranoid narrative is his
hellish depiction of his drug addiction and the
dangerous underworld into which that addiction
takes him. It is not often that the average person
in Hong Kong meets a drug-besotted,
twenty-something Englishman who works as a doorman
for a nightclub run by the 14K, the city's biggest
triad, in a seedy section of Wan Chai.
Seeing him now, it
is hard to imagine the broke, stoned and homeless
wreck who in Eating Smoke winds up
wandering the mean streets of Hong Kong dogged by
paranoid nightmares in which triads, Filipino bar
girls, his landlord, his neighbors, his expat
friends and just about everyone else in the city
has teamed up against him in a vast conspiracy
whose secret language consists of ominous coughing
and hand signals.
Meanwhile, the author
has also lost all contact with his family in
England and let the mortgage lapse on his house in
Plymouth, which has been repossessed. The meth so
churns his bodily system that he goes days without
sleeping - which, of course, gives him more time
to smoke more and more meth.
The drug also
kills Thrall's appetite, so his weight drops
dramatically, and when he does eat it tends to be
a diet of raisin bread and condensed milk. He
sweats profusely, at one point stinking up a
McDonald's so badly that other customers take
offense and leave - or did Thrall, in his
paranoid, meth-induced state, just imagine that?
In one of the many bizarre incidents in
the book, Thrall decides - after losing a series
of jobs (including one as a primary-school
teacher!) - that he has suffered enough failure,
humiliation and ridicule as a gweilo
(foreign devil) living in Hong Kong. It is time to
prove himself once and for all to this brash,
loud, mocking city in a most original way.
As Thrall tells it:
I'd lost everything - business,
possessions, health, job, friends, likely my
house back in Plymouth - but most of all I'd
cast aside the chances to claw back some
self-respect and show the conspirators, the
doubters and the backstabbers I wasn't anyone's
fool and could work this thing out for myself.
There was only one option left to make
it all good, to show them all I was still here,
still in control, still unafraid. It was time to
go and jump off one of the 40-meter-high cranes
into the harbor. That would do the
Fortunately, Thrall never finds
a crane that meets his specifications; instead,
with only HK$450 (US$60) left in his pocket, he
decides to spend HK$300 on a guitar that he does
not know how to play. And things only go further
downhill from there.
Thus a young former
royal marine who had arrived in Hong Kong with big
dreams of business success and the smile and
confidence to match winds up a babbling,
drug-crazed street person 13 months later.
It's a gripping story - but it's the story
of a drug-crazed Englishman's delirium in Hong
Kong, not a Hong Kong story. There are intriguing
glimpses of the city's business world, triad
culture and debauched expat life in Wan Chai. But
they add up to little more than a sketch of the
city at the time Thrall was here, and many of the
author's perceptions are unreliable as they are,
by his own admission, distorted by his drug habit.
The book is also far too long for the
story it tells. Long after the sleepless anxiety
and paranoia that crystal meth induces have been
established, the hallucinations and delusions go
on chapter after chapter, as do the author's
frequent, clumsy attempts to demonstrate his
woeful Cantonese - which, it seems, are intended
to add up to a serious effort to identify with the
city's Chinese culture but, on the contrary,
underscore a facile disconnect.
reading Thrall's story includes enduring some
painful prose. Take, for example, his description
of an attractive English expat he meets at a bar
in Wan Chai: "She had a well-rounded figure,
tractor beam eyes and lips designed like a docking
bay for pleasure craft."
And of the
14K-run club for which he briefly serves as
doorman, he writes: "This was a bar run and
frequented by gangsters. They took care of their
own affairs, and anyone going to the police would
end up looking as though they'd tried to wet shave
using a samurai sword on a roller-coaster."
In the end, Thrall's memoir is a tale of
expat innocence, excess and self-destruction. But
it says far more about the expat who wrote it than
the city in which his story is set.
Eating Smoke: One Man's Descent into
Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong's Triad Heartland
(2011) is published by Blacksmith Books. ISBN-10:
Kent Ewing is a Hong
Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached
at email@example.com Follow him on
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