Life with the Triads

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Author Chris Thrall

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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The All-time Hong Kong Tale

King Hui: The Man Who Owned All the Opium in Hong Kong

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.

Chris Thrall is the author of Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland

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When a Pixel Portrays a Hundred Thousand Words

Here’s my amazon review for Tom Carter’s incredible photo book on China

CHINA: Portrait of a PeopleWhen 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.

Click this link for the original article: CHINA: Portrait of a People

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