Life with the Triads

Author Chris Thrall

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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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