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.
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“Chris Thrall left the Royal Marines to find fortune in Hong Kong. Sacked from a bizarre series of jobs, he found himself homeless, hooked on crystal methamphetamine 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 that unbeknown to the world works 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…”
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“Chris Thrall left the Royal Marines to find fortune in Hong Kong. Sacked from a bizarre series of jobs, he 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 that unbeknown to the world works hand-in-hand with the Chinese syndicates – he had to survive in the world’s most unforgiving city, with addiction to the world’s most dangerous drug…”
- The Man in the Mirror -
I stared into the largest shard of blood-splashed glass.
“Do I know you…?”
“You’ve never known him at all…”
Sitting on the filthy concrete, I convulsed occasionally and whimpered like a sick dog. I hadn’t slept for days, the crystal meth pulsing through my veins denying all refuge from the madness enveloping me.
Now that the anger had passed, I found myself suspended in a ghostly calm, trying to focus my mind and piece together a life as fragmented as the mirror I’d smashed. I needed to make sense of what happened and put a stop to the Voice.
I leant forward, slowly, to examine the claw marks in my scalp and a haunted face I hardly recognised.
“Is this me…?”
The only thing still familiar was the eyes – although now they were bloodshot and yellow with pupils raging deep and menacing. I wondered if these black abysses would dilate further, triumphing over the turquoise rings around them, heralding the madness had claimed my soul.
I was in my flat, the Killing House, with its strange blood splats on the walls, not knowing whose blood it was or how it got there.
The Voice had named it that after the Special Air Service’s anti-terrorist-training house at Hereford Camp back in England. I’d seen it in the film Who Dares Wins and on a visit to the base during my own military career.
In my mind, people surely suffered a terrible death up here, the top-floor apartment of an decaying tenement in a rundown part of Wan Chai District.
As a mosquito whined in the glow of an underrated bulb, the sound of cats wailing, dogs barking and the hustle of the street scene below hardly made it up to the solitude of my smashed up hovel.
It may well have been a dive, but I called it home, a humble abode by day but an enigmatic one that came alive at night, a place I loved a great deal more than the two-bedroomed new-build I owned in Plymouth. It was a fleapit with character…my very own piece of Hong Kong…That’s exactly what it was.
“Where’s it all gone…?”
“I don’t know…I don’t know where…”
Memories of better days floated up out of the insanity like bubbles of clarity rising to burst atop a glass of mad soda…
…dining on top of the World Trade Centre with Dan, as teenage marines on our first proper holiday. Windows on the World they called that place, its lift shaking as it went up a hundred floors of a building already swaying in the downtown Manhattan breeze, then the ritziness of gold, marble, glass, and satin tablecloths, lobster, with strawberries and more of New York’s awesome skyline to follow.
I’d chuckled to myself as the elderly toilet attendant ran the gold-plated taps and, with a respectful smile, handed me soap and a towel – only three days earlier we’d been lying armed to the teeth and covered in shit in a ditch in the Belfast countryside.
After our meal, the evening just got better. A limousine picked us up with the girls from Texas and we drank a load more champagne.
“Yeah…a great night…”
I’d left the Forces to run my own business in Hong Kong – or Heung Gong, to use the colony’s rightful title: the Fragrant Harbour.
But that was all bullshit now. I had to think about my family. Despite all the difficulties over the years, they were always there for me, my friends, too – the real ones, not the superficial ones struggling to understand themselves in this ego-fuelled city. There was no way I was going home, though, a failure with a bankrupt dream. How could I do that?
None of them would recognize me anyway. They certainly wouldn’t like the dump I lived in, the amount of drugs I took, or that triads followed me home, again, the other morning. I knew they were tailing me – hardly surprising after the bizarre chain of events unfolding that night…
An inch from rock bottom, I’d taken a job as doorman in Club Nemo. As with many nightclubs in Asia, although owned by a local businessman, the dominant crime syndicate organized the security, bar, prostitutes and drug deals. In Wan Chai, this was the Fourteen-K – said to be the most ruthless brotherhood in existence.
It was ‘Paul’ Eng, a cross-eyed psychopath, who’d asked me to come and work for them. He was the resident Dai Lo, or ‘Big Brother’, a middle-ranking triad who managed Nemo’s and the mobsters who ran it.
I was leaving the club the night they set me up to be murdered. I hadn’t been scared…okay…a little, but I wasn’t going to show these guys that. If they had put themselves in my shoes they’d have realised I was tougher than I looked and wouldn’t have played their sick game in the first place.
Laughed at them I did – frickin’ gangsters with their expat cronies and weird secret hand signs. I was still laughing when glancing over my shoulder I noticed a black Mercedes stalking me slowly from a distance through the morning-after litter adorning the Jaffe Road.
I was heading back to the sanctuary of my flat, off my face on the meth I’d smoked the previous evening and looking forward to smoking some more, wondering if this would be another twenty-four hours clocked up without any sleep.
As the terror began to take hold, I decided to give them the slip by scooting up a back alley – a dark stinking shortcuts that crawled with fat rats thriving on scraps thrown out of the backdoors of restaurants. They weren’t ordinary rodents, either. These dirt-matted mutants only scurried out the way so they could watch with contempt as you passed through their patch, jeering as stale water dripped down from antiquated air conditioners.
I ducked into the doorway of one of the grey buildings and shot up the backstairs, heart pounding the living daylights out of my ribcage, my breathing frenetic.
After several futile attempts at smashing through the aging exit door, I found myself out on the roof, desperate for a place to hide and fumbling in the leather pouch around my waist for the Mini Maglite and chain.
Illumination I didn’t need – only the blunt force the torch delivered when connecting with someone’s head. I’d never had cause to use it in the club – at least not as a weapon. It had come in handy at the end of the night, though, for scouring the disco’s dirt-caked floor searching for any drugs or valuables the customers may have dropped – a trick I learnt from Di Su, the ‘Violent Hand’ assassin.
They may well be coming with their meat cleavers – after all, that’s a triad’s prerogative – but it wouldn’t faze me. Not much does when you’re a mental ex-marine flying high on the world’s most potent drug. I would do my utmost to f### ‘em up, and badly if necessary. This wasn’t a place to mess around. There are no Queensberry Rules in Wan Chai.
Still, a hiding place might prove worthwhile.
Scanning around I spied a recess set down into the roof like some kind of utility shaft. I grabbed the rusting ladder but only managed to get a foot on a rung before slipping, falling headlong into the darkness and – “Umph!” –landing on some god-awful mess below.
“F###! What the f### is this?”
Somethingbroke my fall, but it was far from pleasant. I sensed hair and cold, hardened flesh and a stench – “Urrrh!” – that would have been unbearable in anything less than a crisis.
It wasn’t just rancid, dead and decomposing…it was human, my mind flashing back to a corpse I’d stumbled upon on a riverbank in Cairo.
The next thing I knew the Maglight was on, and because of this being Hong Kong, where situations can always get worse, I believed what I saw.
I don’t know if it was a mother and her baby, or a woman and a baby. Nor what she’d done or why. What I did know was she’d been hacked to pieces as a result.
Her face – what was left of it – still contorted with fear, as if she’d realised death was imminent, grimaced and, after the chopper sliced from crown to ear, her features had stayed that way.
I wondered if her tormentor had lopped her arms and legs off before or after that fatal blow, as they now lay awkwardly against her torso.
The little boy was on his back, draped across her midriff, with eyes gently closed and mouth slightly ajar, as if in peaceful sleep.
His tiny belly wasn’t so composed. Through a single slash, a rainbow of entrails spilled onto the woman’s emaciated chest, time and bodily fluid welding them together.
I tried to back into a corner but could barely move my own limbs. Bodies or no bodies, I would lie low here until the danger passed. Although the meth had stolen it all – friends, health, career, possessions – I still respected myself and could sit in the darkness next to two corpses and say, “F### ’em! F### ’em all…!”
The Chinese have an expression: Life is meat. It explains how the country can lose a hundred people in a coal mining accident, hide it from the world and carry on the next day, business as usual. Well, I had my own saying as I listened to my heartbeat in overdrive: Meat is life.
Besides, waiting shit out in adverse conditions is what the Forces train you for and the Royal Marines are the best at it. Lying up all night in an ambush position in the Norwegian Arctic has that effect on you. I could wait. I could wait as long as necessary…
I awoke later that day on the Hawaiian-patterned mattress covering my rickety bamboo bunk – the one I’d built to make use of the room space I didn’t have. Cold in the tropical heat, ravenous and shivering with exhaustion, I gathered my thoughts and contemplated my next move.
It slowly dawned it was dark already and I should have been back at work by now. I reached over, flicked the light switch and checked the Casio G-Shock.
It had gone 10pm. I was over two hours late. Along with pawning my treasured Swiss watch, it was another reason to feel like crap.
I threw off the rough blanket lying across my midriff and eased my legs over the edge of the bed, hopping the five-foot drop to land unsteady on my feet.
In amongst the other junk littering my gone-to-pot attempt at tatami flooring was a crumpled page from an old newspaper. As I shoved a Marlboro between my lips and set it alight, an aerial photograph on the yellowing sheet caught my eye.
It was some kind of brick construction set into the roof of one of the colony’s tower blocks. Filling the recess, as well as my attention, was the picture’s focus. It looked as though someone had tried to create a grotesque three-dimensional Picasso using real people…although in reality, the woman and baby had been hacked to death in signature triad revenge.
An eerie déjà vu spread slowly through every cell in my body, like a banshee’s wail building to a crescendo that both chilled and electrified my being.
Frantically I scanned for the date on the newspaper…
…May 15th 1995…was threedays before I arrived in Hong Kong…
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