Chris Thrall - Marine, Addict & Triad Drug Psychosis in HK's Criminal Underworld

[15/08/11] 

In 1995 Chris Thrall left the Royal Marine Commandos to pursue a business in Hong Kong. Within a year he was homeless, addicted to crystal meth and working for the 14K, Hong Kong’s most feared triad syndicate. Now based in the UK, he has since written a book about his experiences called Eating Smoke.

Can you give us a brief synopsis of the book?

In 1995, by the time I landed and settled, my business was on the rocks and I found myself stuck on the other side of the world. No longer in the military, no longer with my golden egg (my business) and so there I am living in Mong Kok not wanting to go home because there was nothing back in the UK for me but not really having anything of substance to do in Hong Kong. Within 7-8 months I’d become addicted to Crystal Meth.


How did you get into drugs?

As a lot of people were in the early 90s, I was very much into the dance culture in the UK and I experimented with party drugs. To be honest, I had quite an unbelievable time and it was an eye-opener to a part of life that I’d never seen before. Then, when I first arrived in Hong Kong, I didn’t do any drugs except smoked a bit of weed which I used to buy from the young triads that frequented Chung King Mansions.

I did that for about three of four months but I was working at this crazy computer company when a colleague bumped into me as I was walking into the toilets. There was a strange smell. He looked at me and said, “Chris, you like to smoke a bit of weed. Have you ever tried this drug before called ice?” I said I’d heard about it but never tried it so he offered me some. Putting all the drugs I’d ever taken to one side, this drug just makes you feel incredible. I’ve tried my best to explain it in the book but it was just the most pleasurable feeling of being gently high. Of course, little did I know where it was going to lead to.

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How did you start working for the triads?

In short, I got fired from pretty much every job I had in Hong Kong and after a series of failures I’d managed to blag my way into becoming a DJ at the biggest night club in southern China. I’d never done it before. That only lasted a few days because they’d actually wanted an MC to get the crowd going so there I am, back in Hong Kong, having lost another job and things were desperate. I’d burnt all the bridges available to an expat and I thought I’d try one last guy who I knew worked in the red light district in Wan Chai.

When I got to the job where he worked, he wasn’t there, so I was directed to go and speak to the triad boss. I didn’t know he was a triad at the time because, like most expats, I was quite naïve. I only found out later when because one of my friends told me he was the most evil man in Wan Chai. He’s what you’d call 'dai lo' which means big brother. I asked him where my friend Glen was and he said he’d gone to Thailand. He then offered me Glen’s door job and I accepted. That’s the simple way the Chinese do business.


Were you on meth at the time?

By this point I could pretty much only function on meth. I wasn’t actually spending that much money on it because the drug is so potent you only need to buy it in small quantities. It keeps you awake for days and days, filling you with this intense energy. I’d buy it in Chung King Mansions, off an expat friend who’d smoke vast quantities every day - it was everywhere.


When did you realise you were surrounded by triads?

On my first day’s work as a doorman there was an English expat at the bar who called me over and said, “You’re Chris right?” He seemed to know more about me than I knew about myself. He looked around the bar and said, “You realise all these guys are triads?” Of course my ears pricked up. He explained the various roles of the people working in the bar such as one of my fellow doormen who was a street fighter. A real Hong Kong hard nut, born and brought up in Wan Chai’s filthy back streets. The other doorman I worked with was a hired assassin who’d be smuggled across the border into China to take somebody out before being smuggled back into Hong Kong.


What horrors did you see the triads commit?

We had an incident in the club on the second night. The owners of the clubs in Wan Chai aren’t triads, they’re just businessmen but they have to pay protection money to the syndicates. The triad boss was drinking with the bar owner as well as a couple of Thai prostitutes. One of these girls stood up to go to the bar and she just collapsed. Her friend started jumping on her and I initially thought they were just playing around but when I looked at the girl on the ground, her face had gone blue. I immediately jumped off my bar stool by the door and ran over. I pushed her friend off and started administering first aid. It was quite clear she’d overdosed and when I looked up for help, expecting everyone to rush over to offer jackets to keep her warm, everyone was standing stock still. They were staring at me with black eyes, void of any compassion. I continued to look after the girl but the triad boss soon came over and said, “Throw her in the alleyway.”

I looked at the owner of the club, David, who wasn’t a triad and was the more human of the two. I told him she needed an ambulance or she’d die. This put him in a quandary. He either had to side with the triads and chuck her in the alley or agree with me and save the girl’s life. His eyes were flicking from side to side before he told everyone to listen to me. There was one English guy in the bar and he asked me whether I needed a hand. I whispered for him to call an ambulance. He laughed, thinking I was joking – as if someone hadn’t done that already. And I said to him, “Take a look around you.” He saw what I’d seen and said, “Yeah bud, I’m on to it.”

The ambulance arrived and stretchered her out but I’d broken a golden triad rule – if the boss tells you to do something, you do it without question. What I’d done in my naivety to help this girl, is make my triad boss lose face. I think it was only because I was a westerner that I got away without suffering dire consequences.

chris-thrall-6

Were you ever nearly killed?

The more time I spent working for the club, the more I noticed there was clique of gweilos who got on incredibly well with the triads. Almost too well. I don’t want to ruin it too much because I want the reader to see it through my eyes but wherever there's gangs and violence you'll find intimidation as well and I started to notice these westerners in the club. They used all sorts of secret hand signs to communicate and they kept dropping me hints as if to say, ‘Come on Chris, if you look hard enough you can see what’s going on here and you can become one of us.’

One night it all went horribly wrong and they set me up to be murdered in this club. I’m afraid I can’t say much more than that without spoiling the book, but essentially the harder I tried to be assimilated into and understand Chinese culture, the more I kept putting feet wrong – like I did with the Thai prostitute. I was doing my best in a western way to be accepted but of course I was committing constant faux pas and one night it all came to a head and the club started to fill with some of the hardest men Hong Kong had to offer and their expat cronies. They weren't mincing their words and they said, "Gweilo, you're going to die tonight."


How were the drugs affecting you at this point?

Around this stage I started to experience clinical psychosis and I was started to get real, life-like hallucinations. I was starting to think there was some sort of conspiracy. Everything became very confusing and I couldn’t work out whether there was a global conspiracy, whether it was related to the triads or the foreign triads. For instance to me the text on the back of a book might contain some kind of subliminal instruction. If I tried hard enough, I thought I’d be able to understand the cipher and get the key to this thing. The unique thing about Eating Smoke is the reader gets to experience drug psychosis through my eyes.


Why do you think your life crashed so comprehensively?

I didn’t do very well at school. I was one of those people who was told they were a failure. For example I failed English miserably. It was actually through taking crystal meth that I began to think I had some aibilities. It makes you really creative. It breaks down all the barriers placed on you before and you suddenly find out you have certain skills you didn’t know you had. I started writing a few poems and song lyrics and was very surprised by them. They weren’t going to win any awards or anything, but my god, for someone who’d been told they were a failure at school, it really showed me I wasn’t.

My life wasn’t easy however. My parents are lovely people but when we were young they didn’t get on well. They had issues and it meant I went to four or five schools before I was nine years old. When your parents can’t get it together and you have no stability in your childhood that causes you to become a fractured adult. I suffered abuses at school from teachers – violent ones – for reasons that certainly weren’t my fault as a six year old. They traumatized me and when I got introduced to crystal meth it was the key in the lock I thought I’d been looking for all my life. I thought, ‘this is what it must feel like to be a normal person. I don’t want this feeling to ever end.’ That’s where the dangerous cycle of addiction kicks in because you just start to crave that feeling which you assume is 'normality'.

I thought I was a big, tough Royal Marine but circumstance and drugs brought me to my knees.

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When did psychosis set in?

I’d just got a flat in Wan Chai and back then it wasn’t like it is now. It was aging, crumbling and I lived in the filthy back streets. It wasn’t the neon Hong Kong you know – it was the scene for many a good gangster movie. I’d had to sell my Rolex watch to get the flat – and it was just a cold, bare concrete floor.  A working Philipina from the red light district approached me and said she need somewhere to live. I told her she could stay and while we stood there shivering I realised she was also a wreck from taking the drug so I went to buy her a blanket.

I left her there and went down to the Hennessy Road where I found a stack of blankets in a shop window. I picked up the top blanket and it was one of those grey blankets you might have in the army or something. Rough and woolen. I picked at the label to see the price and there was one word in small red letters saying, ‘Waste’. I thought I knew what it meant. I thought it was one of the blankets that the North American settlers and American army deliberately gave to the native American Indians infected with small pox and tuberculosis to wipe out the indigenous population. I couldn’t believe they were being sold in Hong Kong. I was riveted to the spot and suddenly this cold, dark terror descended over me and I reaised something had been going on since I'd arrived in Hong Kong but I’d been blind until now.


Many people who’ve experience traumatic episodes in their lives say they wouldn’t take the experiences back because it made them who they are. Are you one of them?

I’m exactly that person. Some people die through taking drugs. Some people never recover. Some people develop mental illness and then have to live with that for the rest of their life. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve stepped over the fence so to speak. I’ve experienced a side of life that most people would never get to see. Not just working for a Hong Kong crime gang. Not just experiencing a drug addiction and to be mentally ill but I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to come through that to the other side. I do appreciate not everyone’s that lucky and it’s a terribly traumatic thing for families to have to go through drug addiction. However, I had such an incredible experience that I was prompted to write about it – it was so interesting – and I have no regrets.


Are the triads as dark as you imagine?

The 14K, the brotherhood I worked for, are always cited as the most ruthless brotherhood in existence and yeah, they are a complete law unto themselves. One of my fellow doorman, he was an English guy sat on the door by the steps at the club where he was working one night, and a transit van pulled up. 12 or so traids came out the back with meat cleavers and engaged in what’s called a cutting. They slashed this guy to bits. His face was criss-crossed with scars – when I met him – from where they’d just chopped at his head. And that’s what you call a revenge attack and the crazy thing was it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. They got the wrong gweilo. We’re not talking about modern Chinese who’ve been educated in universities abroad, we’re talking old school Hong Kong.

 

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What are your favourite things:

Piece of Clothing? Do training shoes count? If not I’d have to say a woolly hat I got free with a bottle of Jägermeister in Austria
Author? Alex Garland for 'The Beach'
Photographer? Tom Carter for 'CHINA: Portrait of a People'
Gadget? Swiss Army knife – although when exploring the world’s jungle corners, my machete wins the day, hands down.

 

 

If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

Thor Heyerdahl. I’d love to hear about his expeditions: living on a desert island for a year and sailing the Kon-Tiki raft across the Pacific Ocean.

 

What of your values/principles has changed the most during your life?

Materialism. I think when you cut up the credit cards and start pursuing your dreams, life becomes more rewarding.

 

What's your biggest vice today?

Yorkshire Tea – It’s good gear, man!

 

What music are you listening to at the moment?
 
Empire of the Sun’s ‘Walking on a Dream’ album and Phantogram’s Mouthful of Diamonds track.

 

What was your favourite place in Hong Kong?

Lamma Island.

 

If you could change one thing about Hong Kong what would it be?

As a scuba diver and surfer, I think I’d pass on the man-eating sharks!

 

What’s your abiding image of Hong Kong?

The skyline, the hectic streets, the harbour scene, the incredible cuisine and wonderful people – I could go on – all blend into one amazing impression. There’s no other place like it.

 

Would you ever live here again, and if so, why?
 
I think that’s a topic for another book!

 


 
 

Eating Smoke: One Man's Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong's Triad Heartland

Available at www.blacksmithbooks.com & www.amazon.com
www.facebook.com/EatingSmoke

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