Wordjazz for Stevie is Jonathan Chamberlain’s deep and moving tribute to his late eight-year-old daughter, a candid and beautifully written soliloquy born out of the pain of loss but conveying hope, love, happiness and insight.
Stevie arrives in the world when expat Jonathan and his Chinese wife are living on a quiet island off Hong Kong. Although shocked to learn Stevie has Down syndrome, Jonathan and Bern immediately accept the additional challenges this presents, challenges that increase significantly when an operation to close a hole in Stevie’s heart goes horribly wrong, starving her of oxygen and resulting in severe disability. Towards the end of Stevie’s short-but-delight-giving years, little does Jonathan know her failing health is not the only major life-changing event on the horizon.
Wordjazz for Stevie is a remarkable testament to the human spirit, friendship and integrity. Penned with fondness and gratitude, it will appeal to anyone who has faced hardship or prejudice, love and loss, or can relate to bureaucracy and social/cultural difference whether at home or abroad. But putting the textbooks aside, it’s simply a touching and enlightening story that should inspire all who read it.
And if you’re wondering why I choose this title for my review, I opened the book at random and this is what I saw.
When men come back from war they bring the war back with them …
Having read two of Jonathan Chamberlain’s memoirs – King Huiabout a Hong Kong playboy and Wordjazz for Stevie, a touching tribute to Jonathan’s late daughter who was born profoundly handicapped – I was really looking forward to reading ‘The Alphabet of Vietnam’ and seeing how Jonathan turns his hand to fiction. I was more than impressed. It is an exceptional piece of writing, well researched, one that explores the light and dark in every ‘man’s’ soul in a refreshingly unapologetic manner.
The story unfolds through a series of skillfully interwoven narratives: Two psychotic – or perhaps completely sane – Vietnam veterans who bring their sick war games home with them. A brother who comes to question all he believes in an attempt to do what is right. A return to modern-day Vietnam that explores US war crimes and the country’s rich history and culture through a series of cleverly though out vignettes.
‘And then there is love – and love is complicated …’
WHEN handsome young Marine Chris Thrall left the Forces to move to Hong Kong, he expected to make his fortune.
But within months he was homeless, alone and fighting an enemy more dangerous than anything he faced serving his country — crystal meth.
Chris almost lost his sanity and his life after becoming addicted to crystal meth, also known as ice. Now he supports others how to quit drugs and has written a bestselling book, Eating Smoke, about his experience.
Click HERE to read about how Chris’s life was before he quit drugs and showed others how to quit drugs.
He says: “I loved my time in the Marines and the challenges that came with each day. But looking back, it was nothing compared to what I faced at the height of my addiction to crystal meth.”
Sadly, Chris is one of a growing number of the drug’s victims.
Meth is twice as addictive as heroin and more damaging to health than crack cocaine.
After ravaging communities across Asia, Australia and the US, it is now on Britain’s streets, sold for as little as £10 a gram — which is enough to keep a user on a permanent high for nine days.
Chris, from Plymouth, never dabbled in drugs during his time in the Royal Marine Commandos. He joined up at 18 and served seven years, including stints in Northern Ireland, before quitting to launch a marketing firm in Asia.
He said: “I loved being a Marine. I was doing something for my country and earning better money than friends who’d gone to university. But I got involved in an exciting business venture and went to Hong Kong to make my millions.”
Unfortunately, the venture failed and his company went bust.
Chris, now 42, says: “It was hard. I had racked up a lot of debt and suddenly I was jobless.”
He found a job at a Hong Kong firm marketing computer chips after answering an ad.
A few months after joining, Chris walked in on a colleague in the toilets smoking meth, which can also be snorted or injected.
He recalls: “He offered me some and I thought, ‘Why not? How harmful can it be if he’s smoking it in the middle of the day?’ I took two puffs.
“Back at my computer, I suddenly felt this rush. It was like nothing I’d ever felt. I knew I was addicted straight away. The next day I wanted more.”
At first crystal meth — scientific name methamphetamine — made Chris feel fantastic and there was no shortage of dealers.
He says: “I could pick it up on the way home from work. It was as easy as buying milk.”
But things soon got out of control.
Chris said: “I was getting nowhere in the office so I got a job as a nightclub doorman in Wan Chai — the red light district. I thought if I worked at night, I wouldn’t be able to take drugs.
“But that soon went out the window. My addiction was life consuming. I was on it constantly. It overloaded my brain and I began to lose the plot. You’re incredibly tired so you hallucinate. On top of that, psychosis starts to develop. I found myself wondering how to quit drugs.”
A former drug user publishes his memoir of working for the 14K Hong Kong triads
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.
The secrets of Hong Kong’s underworld are revealed in the soon-to-be-released Eating Smoke. Hannah Slapper speaks to author Chris Thrall to separate fact from fiction
In 1995, UK-born Royal Marine Chris Thrall came to Hong Kong to make his fortune. Once here, his business went bankrupt, and a series of unsuccessful jobs led him to work in Wan Chai as a doorman for one of the biggest triad groups, the 14K. Dwelling in the criminal underworld drove him to drugs; he became addicted to crystal methamphetamine, and suffered from clinical psychosis. Now, 15 years on, he is ready to tell his story.
So Chris, how much contact did you really have with the triads?
I had contact with them every day. One of my fellow doormen was a 6’7”assassin that used to be smuggled into China to do a hit on someone and smuggled back into Hong Kong. So from that perspective I was quite up close and personal. I won’t give too much away in regard to my own involvement; I think that would ruin it for the reader. It was a phenomenal insight into the underworld. It could be incredibly traumatic.
What made you want to write this book?
There were a number of reasons. Firstly I think it gives a fascinating insight into a part of life not many people get to know about. One of which is referred to as the foreign triad, which is a Hong Kong crime syndicate made up entirely of expats, who operate using the exact same clandestine methods as the Chinese gangs do, such as communicating with secret hand signs and gestures. Another reason I wrote it is because I thought it would be interesting for people to read a book from the point of view of someone who is slowly slipping into psychosis and mental illness from using drugs. It’s not exactly an area that many people get an opportunity to experience firsthand, and then get to write about afterwards. Thirdly, because I think I had a kind of innate desire to
do something creative and prove myself as a writer.
You claim it to be true – did it all happen exactly as you say?
Exactly. I had a friend say to me a while back on a night out – why didn’t you write the book as fiction? And I said to him “Why would I want to take a story that is so bizarrely insane, it’s got to be one of the craziest ones ever told, and then tell everyone it wasn’t true?” I didn’t have to flower it up, I didn’t have to add anything.
What kind of trauma did you experience?
To descend into mental illness is an incredibly sad thing for anyone to have to go through. I can’t say too much about it, but in the club I worked I was set up to be murdered one night, by these foreign triads that I mentioned. And there was that cold dark moment of reality where you realise you’re about to die. I actually turned it around, but I’m not the sort of person that is easily intimidated.
How much do you think Hong Kong is to blame for making you the way you were?
It probably doesn’t help that Hong Kong has the most hardcore serious drug known to man available in abundance on every street corner, if you know where to look. Hong Kong really brought home to me how cultures can differ immensely. It’s about the philosophy and the psychology. And the Asian psychology is so ancient; it’s so different to the West.
How did you go about getting your story published?
I was very fortunate. I came across this guy called Tom Carter who put together an incredible book called China: Portrait of a People. I came across this article he wrote called Down and Out in Hong Kong and I sent him a message explaining that I actually was down and out in Hong Kong and asked if he would be interested in reading my book. He called me the day after I’d sent it to him saying he’d already got me a publishing deal. It was an incredible moment. The thought that 15 years ago I was that man you cross over the street to avoid, and now I’ve got all these people looking forward to my book being released. It’s a wonderful feeling.
To keep updated and support Eating Smoke on Facebook, click HERE
“Chris Thrall left the Royal Marines to find fortune in Hong Kong, but following a bizarre series of jobs ended up homeless and in psychosis from crystal meth.
He began working for the 14K, a notorious crime syndicate, as a nightclub doorman in the Wan Chai red-light district, where he uncovered a vast global conspiracy and the ‘Foreign Triad’ – a secretive expat clique in cahoots with the Chinese gangs.
Alone and confused in the neon glare of Hong Kong’s seedy backstreets, Chris was forced to survive in the world’s most unforgiving city, hooked on the world’s most dangerous drug.
Engaging, honest and full of Chris’s irrepressible humour, this remarkable memoir combines gripping storytelling with brooding menace as the Triads begin to cast their shadow over him. The result is a truly psychotic urban nightmare …”
To keep updated and support Eating Smoke on Facebook, click HERE
Maverick House has bought the Irish, British, Australian, New Zealand and South African rights to Eating Smoke by Chris Thrall from Hong Kong based Blacksmith Books, an independent English language publisher owned by Pete Spurrier.
“Chris Thrall left the Royal Marines to find fortune in Hong Kong, but instead found himself homeless, hooked on crystal meth and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s largest crime family, as a doorman in the Wanchai red-light district. Dealing with violence, psychosis and the ‘Foreign Triad’ – a secretive expat clique working hand-in-hand with the Chinese syndicates – he had to survive in the world’s most unforgiving city, addicted to the world’s most dangerous drug.”
Eating Smoke will be published by Maverick Houseas a trade paperback in October.
To keep updated and support Eating Smoke on Facebook, click the icon
Jonathan Chamberlain has done history a great favour; filling in what for many a keen observer is a void in Hong Kong’s not-so-distant past.
In KING HUI, he preserves from the sands of time a story like no other; one that weaves its way through the Fragrant Harbour’s colourful colonial heritage; a rich tapestry as depicted by an aging ‘Peter’ Hui, a man that at one time owned all the opium in Hong Kong.
“. . . Scandal and corruption, drugs and pirates, triads and flower boats; the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and the Communist takeover of Canton. Peter Hui was there. He knew everybody and saw everything. This is the real story of Hong Kong, told with the rich flavours of the street . . .”
How true the backcover blurb! But this story is so much more. It’s an invitation into the psyche of the Chinese mind. It’s where East accommodates West, then fellow East, then West again. It’s a rare insight into Hong Kong’s idiosyncratic culture and meteoric rise to become the trading capital of the world, as told, rather refreshingly, from the straight-talking perspective of a local witness and without an Orientalist agenda.
It’s the story of Peter Hui – revered kung fu fighter, slickly dressed entrepreneur, handsome womaniser, gambler, drinker; friend of the rich, the famous, the powerful . . . as well as the destitute, the deviant and the downright dangerous. But most of all it’s a touching story, told with candour and flavoured with nostalgia, from the heart of an endearing old man; one who no doubt realises he is not long left for this world and has a tale he believes should to be told . . .
. . . and when you’re compelled to read the last page of this book again and again as I was, head spinning with thoughts and emotions brought to bear by the life of someone you’ve never even met, you fully appreciate why Jonathan Chamberlain is best placed to tell it.
Here’s my amazon review for Tom Carter’s incredible photo book on China
When a Pixel Portrays a Hundred Thousand Words
A picture painted a thousand words. That was before Tom Carter started taking them. Now, it seems, a pixel portrays a hundred thousand – and that’s for those of us with limited imagination!
I first came across Tom’s work through his travel writing while doing some background research for EATING SMOKE – a book about the time I spent ‘roughing’ it in Hong Kong and China. Not only did Tom’s unrestrained generosity and supercharged positivity towards people and place change the course of my life (in the first of many kindly returned e-mails), but upon purchasing China: Portrait of a People it became immediately apparent how this philanthropic aura extends to the subjects he captures through a lens.
Tianjin to Tibet, Shanghai to Sichuan, Hong Kong to Henan, Tom takes you on a serendipitous journey – river deep, mountain high, citywide, countryside – to reveal the relationship between a vast, enigmatic and relatively unknown land and its incredibly diverse population.
From the birthplace of Chinese civilisation on the banks of the Yellow River, to the birthplace of Shaolin kung fu on the sacred peak of Song Shan, to a proud mother soon to give birth in the Year of the Golden Pig . . . to the growth of the Christian Movement in Hong Kong, rice in the paddies of Nanjing and consumerism in Hangzhou . . . to the demise of traditional housing in Jinan, the death of a puppy in Siberia’s frozen wastes and the resting places of honoured ancestors in Macao, his images usher you full-circle through all walks of life in all of the Middle Kingdom’s thirty-three provinces.
Tom’s discerning eye combines the deliberate, the subtle, the fortuitous, the impromptu and the random to create a candid and affecting collage that juxtaposes young and old, shiny and crumbling, ancient and modern, humble and brash, happy and sad, and beauty with – the occasional – frank ugliness to provide an exceptional up-close-and-personal incite into a proud people whose individuality differs greatly and whose way of life stretches across a millennia, and shows a country so swept up in the paradox of global capitalism that, if not careful, it will look upon China: Portrait of a People in the not-too-distant future with nostalgia as the pre-eminent historical record.
This book took me on a truly remarkable voyage; one that many will be delighted to complete in armchair comfort as they flick through its pages, awestruck by such an undertaking and grateful for its profundity, while others will reach for their backpacks, further inspired to set out and snatch a peek at this extraordinary country and meet some of its colourful inhabitants for themselves.
My only criticism of Tom’s contribution is when he says ‘The snapshots in this book are not meant to be works of art.’
If this isn’t Art, Tom . . . then I don’t care to see what is.