Back where his nightmare began

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am

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When a former British Royal Marine commando stepped off the plane at Kai Tak Airport he nurtured dreams of making it big in one of the most exciting cities in the world.

It was 1995 and Chris Thrall had moved to Hong Kong to oversee the expansion of a successful network-marketing operation he had built up while serving in the army.

But this is no hackneyed expat tale. Less than a year later, his dream was in tatters. After working as a doorman at a Wan Chai club run by the 14K triad society he found himself homeless and hooked on drugs.

Now Thrall has returned to Hong Kong for the first time to publicise a book, Eating Smoke, he wrote about his downward spiral into the city's seedy underbelly.

The 41-year-old even went back to some of his old haunts, a journey that conjured up very mixed emotions.

'It's surreal for me now and also frightening to an extent. I was wondering if anyone still knew me, if they ever had a problem with me because of the person I had been because of my drug addiction,' he said.

'But Hong Kong has changed since 1996. Now it doesn't seem so harsh in Wan Chai.'

Born in Bromley, England, he joined Britain's elite Royal Marines Regiment at 18.

After active service during the conflict in Northern Ireland and training in Arctic warfare and survival, he earned his parachute 'wings' and served as part of a high-security detachment on an aircraft carrier.

With the money he'd saved in the army he set up a network-marketing operation and came to Hong Kong in June 1995.

But after a few months his business was on the rocks and he was stuck on the other side of the world, his hopes of making a fortune shattered. He was living in the top-floor apartment of a decaying tenement in a rundown part of Wan Chai.

He didn't want to go home because there was nothing back in Britain for him, but he had very little worthwhile to do in Hong Kong either. Within eight months he'd become addicted to crystal meth and was working as a doorman in Wan Chai alongside triads.

'I was a buffer between the expatriates who went to this nightclub and the triads who ran it, that's all. I was never a triad or affiliated with the triads,' Thrall explained.

'If it was a Western-owned and -managed club in Wan Chai it was very different, but in those days a Chinese-owned club would have the involvement of the triads in one form or another.'

This was 1996 so there were plenty of British soldiers about. As a former serviceman himself, Thrall knew how to deal with them and other boisterous expatriates.

'Back then, what a Westerner could get away with in a British nightclub was not the case in a triad-run nightclub in Wan Chai,' he said.

'My job really was to act as a go-between. If the triads were to sort out some expatriate individual their way, it would undoubtedly bring unwanted attention from the police. Someone needed to be there that could keep the relationship between triads and expatriates on an even keel.'

Although he was not connected with the triads, the nature of his job meant that Thrall witnessed at first hand their shocking indifference to human life.

One evening at the Wan Chai nightclub - he prefers not to say which one - a Thai girl stood up at the bar and collapsed. Her face had turned blue and it was clear she'd suffered a drug overdose.

Thrall began giving her first aid. But when he looked up for help, expecting everyone to rush over to offer jackets to keep her warm, everyone was standing stock-still. Then the triad boss came over and said: 'Throw her in the alleyway.'

Thrall recalls: 'I told him she needed an ambulance or she'd die. Finally they listened to me.

'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 made my triad boss lose face.

'I think it was only because I was a Westerner and knew no better that I got away with it.'

Thrall is adamant that expatriates worked for the triads then and still do now. If the triads have a job that would be better suited to an expat, then they will get one to do it.

'If you are an expatriate down on your luck you'll do anything. So if they came to you and said, 'If you sell these drugs for us we will pay you a wage' - or, 'If you smuggle certain things to another country we will pay you for it' - people will do it,' he said.

His claims were backed up recently when police confirmed reports that triads were using illegal immigrants from South Asia and expatriate Westerners to sell drugs in Wan Chai and Central.

Thrall's other grim association with Hong Kong was living as a junkie hooked on crystal methamphetamine, or Ice.

He got introduced to it by a work colleague and smoked it for the first time one afternoon in his office. After that there was no turning back.

'I was the guy that would try anything and I'd have a great time, but I got addicted to it. It was the greatest high I'd ever had,' he said.

'I knew that day in the office that the first thing I was going to do after I finished work was to go to Chungking Mansions and get more.'

Initially there were no negative effects. Thrall would buy a tenth of a gram and smoke that in a night. He'd go to work the next day still a bit high, but able to do his job with the help of some cigarettes and coffee.

Gradually it crept up on him and he started taking the drug every day. Soon he fell out with his business partner, Vance Lee, and their company collapsed. After that he struggled to hold down a succession of jobs. Paranoia and delusions were soon part of his daily existence.

'Suddenly you don't need sleep or food for days. All you need is the drug and it all spiralled out of control. After I left here it took me a long time to straighten myself out,' he said.

After Thrall returned to Britain in July 1996 following 13 months in Hong Kong, he spent the next two as a drug addict, homeless and destitute in his hometown of Plymouth on the south coast of England.

Even now he fights back tears as he recalls how he watched the handover ceremony in 1997 on television in Plymouth rather than in person in Hong Kong.

'I really loved this place so much,' he said, after composing himself. 'But I couldn't be there to be part of this historic occasion. I was so ill I just had to go home. As you can see, it still hurts when I think about it.'

His turnaround came one day when he realised that he wanted to pay back all the people that had helped him out in the past despite his addiction.

He did this by getting clean and going to Africa as an aid volunteer for six months in post-war Mozambique in 1999, helping street children.

Going to Africa was part of the healing process for him - a way to give something back and show the same compassion that others had shown to him at his lowest ebb.

After backpacking around the globe, he completed a degree in youth and community work at the University College Plymouth St Mark and St John, and now works as a substance misuse specialist. 'That's my official title,' he says. 'I prefer to just call myself a drug worker.'

In 2007 he began writing a book about his Hong Kong experience, and earlier this year Eating Smoke was published. Thrall returned to the city to promote it last week and found the experience overwhelming, particularly as his initial business partner and friend, Lee, died recently.

They had lived together for seven months until Thrall's drug habit consumed him. 'We'd kept in contact sporadically after I left, and he wanted me to come back,' he said.

'I called two weeks ago to say I was coming, but was told he had passed away. I was so looking forward to meeting him again.'

It was an emotional moment when Lee's wife, Lim, walked into Thrall's book-signing at Bookazine in Central on Wednesday night.

'Both Vance and Lim are in the book. It's unbelievable to suddenly meet someone like Lim after being gone for 15 years,' he said.

'Coming back here has been very tough at times, but I'm one of the lucky ones. I've been fortunate to see a side of life that most won't get to see and to meet some beautiful people along the way.'