The chances are that anyone reading this article in Hong Kong will know at least one alcoholic in the city. It’s also almost certain that this person won’t be sleeping rough, swigging from a can of Blue Girl beer during morning coffee break or slurring their words in conversation.

It’s more likely the alcoholic you know is your doctor, your child’s teacher, your lawyer, the taxi driver taking you to work, the university professor living upstairs or the pilot who’ll be flying you off on your next holiday. Or, of course, you.

“They’re drinking in the Hong Kong Club, at the FCC or you can see them from about 2pm in the bars of Lan Kwai Fong; they’re everywhere in the city,” says investment banker and long-term Alcoholics Anonymous Hong Kong member Phil G (everyone at AA is referred to by this naming convention), who was also an organiser of the most recent AA Hong Kong international convention, which took place in November.

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Department of Health figures show that more than 2,500 people are admitted to the city’s hospitals with alcohol-related conditions every year and 15.9 per cent of young men are binge drinkers. The government scrapped all duty on wine and beer in 2008 and there is still no legally enforced age limit for the purchase of alcohol from retailers.

AA has been supporting addicts in Hong Kong for more than 40 years and traditionally refuses interviews and shuns media intrusion. So an invitation to observe the convention and talk to attendees offered a rare insight into the organisation’s work.

THE FIRST HONG KONG AA meeting took place in September 1969, at the Mariners Club, in Tsim Sha Tsui, which was also the venue for November’s convention. The group now has more than 1,000 members and holds about 40 meetings a week, in four languages: English, Cantonese, Putonghua and Nepalese.

English-speaking members sometimes refer to their branch as the “Business Class AA”, due to the preponderance of bankers, lawyers, consultants, doctors and pilots, though Phil G is keen to emphasise that membership is open to anyone who wants to stop drinking.

“The popular stereotypes of drunks living under an over­pass and drinking sherry at 9am often don’t apply here,” he says, as some 400 delegates, some from out of town, make their way to Middle Road. As they file in to the Mariners Club, it’s impossible to distinguish them from passing professionals, tourists, shopworkers and everyone else going about their Friday-afternoon business.

Retired airline pilot Lyle P is present as a guest speaker. Sober for more than 26 years, like everyone else associated with AA he does not use his full name, even though, in his case, it has been widely reported.

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Lyle P was the first airline pilot in the United States to be jailed for being drunk at the controls of a plane. A decorated US Marine fighter pilot in Vietnam with a hitherto unblem­ished commercial flying record, he was arrested in March 1990, after a breathalyser test showed he was more than three times over the federal alcohol limit for operating an aircraft. He had just landed a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727, carrying 58 passengers from Fargo, North Dakota, at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport.

The flier was literally hung out to dry by the courts, the media and the airline industry.

“When something like this happens, the worst five minutes of your entire life get captured in a freeze frame,” Lyle P says philosophically, as he prepares his speech. “Nothing you might have done before or after counts for anything. I was portrayed as the biggest heap of s**t out there. That’s just human nature.”

Lyle P – who would probably be played by Tom Hanks in any Hollywood movie adaptation of his story – embraced the 12-step programme, which is the AA’s foundation for recovery, and began holding meetings in prison. The judge who condemned his actions at trial retained an interest in his case and the chief executive of Northwest Airlines asked to meet with Lyle P after his release, eventually reinstating him as an operational pilot. In a dramatic final twist, the trial judge campaigned for a full pardon, which was granted by then US president Bill Clinton in January 2001.

“I have lost 47 close friends to alcohol in the 26½ years I have been sober. That’s more friends than I lost in the Vietnam war,” says Lyle P, who is now committed full time to helping alcoholics maintain sobriety. He also advises the airline industry on policies designed to deal with alcohol abuse by aircrews.

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Among the bankers, lawyers, priests and journalists attending the Hong Kong convention are a number of fellow airline pilots confronting their addiction. One of them, Jonathan K, recalls, “When I arrived in Hong Kong, I found there were none of the restrictions around alcohol I was used to at home. There were just no rules. You could buy booze anywhere and in Lan Kwai Fong, Wan Chai and SoHo, you could stay out all night drinking every day of the week.” He admits he ignored warning signs of his alcohol addiction before he came to the city, having already racked up three offences for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI).

“I didn’t have a driving licence for a year but I could still fly cargo and passenger jets,” he says, explaining that only in the US is a pilot’s flying licence linked to his driving licence. In many territories, including Hong Kong, you can be convicted of DUI and fly a plane the next day.

After several blackouts following binge-drinking sessions, Jonathan K sought help.

Fortunately, his employer was one of the enlighten­ed air­lines that runs a so-called HIMS programme. HIMS is the meaningless pseudo-acronym of a rarely publicised scheme designed to support, monitor and rehabilitate pilots who suffer from substance abuse in an approach that incorporates the AA’s 12-step programme. The system includes rigorous pre- and post-flight alcohol tests and penalties for relapses.

Jonathan K believes the many airlines that don’t employ HIMS or a similar support programme (Qantas has Damp: the Drug and Alcohol Management Plan) risk driving aircrew with sub­stance-abuse issues underground, ultimately endangering the lives of passengers.

IT’S EASY TO UNDERSTAND why the Bill Ms and Mary Ds value secrecy. According to AA, anonymity is regarded as being among “the spiritual foundations of the organisation’s traditions”. But it also conveys the impression of a secret cult.

“We need to be very discreet. You are only one of about five people I have told in Hong Kong about my involvement in AA,” says Phil G, who estimates that lawyers and bankers are the best represented professions at the AA sessions he attends. “There is still a strong tradition of heavy drinking in banking,” he adds.

Newcomers can be crazy and confused and you have to listen to a lot of heartbreaking stuff but there is nothing more rewarding than seeing someone get better
Alcoholics Anonymous Hong Kong member Phil G

Long-standing member Russell C recalls how, at the age of 30, he arrived in Hong Kong from the US as a high flier at a global investment bank, and a recovering alcoholic, and was faced with an identity crisis. “I looked at all those successful bankers in the Captain’s Bar, at the Mandarin Hotel, while I was drinking a soda and it just made me feel like an outsider.

“I started dating a local girl and, when I told her why I didn’t drink, she urged me to relax, forget the past and just have a glass of wine. That night was the start of four years of big problems for me,” he says, remembering how he perfected the art of being a so-called “functioning alcoholic”.

Phil G explains that alcoholism is a disease that cannot be cured, and that a controlled return to social drinking is not possible: “Once a cucumber has turned into a pickle, you can’t turn it back into a cucumber.”

“I was the regional manager of one of the divisions of a major investment bank,” says Russell C. “I was making loads of money but it’s like pedalling uphill on a bike. If you stop pedalling, you start going backwards pretty quickly.”

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The banker says he was offered a rare 30-minute interview with the chairman of a major US insurance corporation, widely regarded as a Wall Street legend, who was visiting the city. It was scheduled for 8am and it was a big opportunity but, instead of preparing his pitch and getting an early night, Russell C went on an all-night drinking binge on Lockhart Road on his way home from the office.

“I was at the meeting for 8am alright, but in the same suit I had been wearing the night before. There was a nasty stain down my left trouser leg and my breath stank of beer,” he says.

His life began to unravel.

“Within a few years I had lost everything; my marriage [to another woman he had met in Hong Kong], my kids, my job and my status, and I ended up living in my brother’s basement, in San Francisco, trying to work out how to kill myself and still collect on the insurance money.”

That is the moment AA calls “rock bottom” and it prompted his first contact with the organisation. Russell C has been sober ever since, is back in banking, attends meetings every week and is a sponsor to members still grappling with the recovery programme.

Helping other alcoholics is a key part of staying sober, says Phil G, who is sponsor for six fellow AA members in Hong Kong, including a hedge fund manager and a professional photographer.

“Newcomers can be crazy and confused and you have to listen to a lot of heartbreaking stuff but there is nothing more rewarding than seeing someone get better,” he says.

Self-destruction is a common theme in alcoholism, as is denial and a sense of being unworthy. Often there is an underlying psychological or emotional root to alcoholism.

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Take, for example, Jake C, a high-ranking IT consultant working for a major technology company who has flown in from Beijing. He became fixated on and then addicted to a daily bottle of red wine to control panic attacks.

It’s Russell C who points out that only the first of the 12 steps to recovery makes specific reference to alcohol. Because, according to AA, sobriety is dependent on daily spiritual well-being. Five of the 11 other steps make direct reference to God, and this fuels the common misconception that AA is not only a cult but a religious one at that. It is a misunderstanding that can deter addicts.

“People think AA is a religious programme but it is not – it’s a spiritual programme. When I first heard about God and the fellowship and the literature, I was just not ready for that,” says Chloe T , a young fitness instructor who is expecting her first child in a few weeks’ time.

Thirty-five per cent of the Hong Kong fellowship are women and most of them are aged under 40. Chloe T explains that she was drinking heavily from the age of 12 – in parks and on the roofs of shopping malls – “smoking weed” by 13 and had a serious eating disorder fuelled by a crystal-meth habit by 14. When her teachers detected the drug taking, she managed to clean up with help from her family and the English Schools Foundation school she attended. It was only later, while studying at university in Britain, that she started drinking socially again, and that swiftly led to her rock bottom and the AA connection, which she maintained on returning to Hong Kong.

“I am agnostic, really – you don’t need anyone else’s definition of God, just a higher force than your own ego. We do refer to God but it is a god as you understand him, your own personal spiritual god,” she explains.

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Another female Chinese AA member at the convention admits that God was “hard to swallow” for her at first, too. Laura L was a journalist for a leading newspaper group in Beijing when her relationship with her American boyfriend ended and a friend told her she would meet lots of nice men in the capital’s Western-style bars and nightclubs. This erudite woman explains the painful loneliness of her alcohol­ism as she desperately sought attention while in a condition that she describes as “tipsy”; the magical state in which her self image and the successful image she projected seemed to merge.

“I never lost my job, I never crashed my car and never peed my pants,” she says, “but I loved the eye-opener in the morning. A Bloody Mary was my eye opener.

“I was a highly functioning alcoholic; journalists and pilots are high-pressure mental professions, that’s why there are so many at AA. Most alcoholics in Hong Kong [among the professional classes, at least] are functioning alcoholics or they couldn’t afford to be here in the first place,” she says.

THERE IS NO EASY DEFINITION of an alcoholic; there are many symptoms and not everyone reaches rock bottom before they seek out AA. Some find that only alcohol can make them feel self-confident and at ease; often they want “just one more” after a party or especially look forward to drinking occasions. Some get drunk when they hadn’t planned to and others try to exert control by changing their drink of choice, going “on the wagon” or making pledges.

“Denial is a big factor,” says Phil G. “Ninety-five per cent of alcoholics die without ever admitting they had a problem.”

According to AA, the only person who can diagnose alcoholism is the alcoholic themself.

Over the course of the 26 years he’s spent helping other alcoholics, Lyle P has seen more than most. His take is that one in 10 adults will suffer from alcoholism during their life­time: “For every 10 adults, seven will drink alcohol. Two are what we call social drinkers and five are abusers of alcohol,” he says. “One of those five abusers will become an alcoholic.”