By Hans Ebert
“Aiiyah, I know Mr Hans. Not like before. Very much boring.” It was a longtime staffer at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Hong Kong agreeing with me when I told him I had to flee the hotel’s Champagne Bar after suffering from an acute attack of terminal boredom coupled with major depression to see what was such a popular meeting place with a loyal group of regulars become more like Le Rue Morgue and shunned with everyone looking for greener pastures. But these days, greener pastures almost everywhere in the world are more of a whiter shade of pale. And listening to all the reminiscing about the “good old days” is as maudlin as hearing Mary Hopkin sing how “Those Were The Days”. What the hell happened to Mary Hopkin, anyway? And the good old days? What happened to just about everything that made living easy and the cotton high?
Was it really that long ago that the Champagne Bar was the meeting place for Hong Kong’s movers and shakers with a few of the usual fakers? It was also an inviting neighbour to suite 1616 where, after my divorce from the only woman I will probably ever love after she couldn’t take the serial philandering that had become an addiction never addressed, I lived at the neighbouring service apartments called Convention Plaza. The comings and goings there would have made the Wolf Of Wall Street blush. Frankly, it was Five Hundred Shades Of Grey, and it all went into feeding an obsessive personality and an enormous ego. It was nothing to be proud about. But when everything seemed to come too easily, you ride that train even when you know it’s going off the rails and you with it.
For a kid whose family had to leave Ceylon when the island stopped being a British colony and became Sri Lanka, and was too embarrassed to tell friends in kindergarten that we were leaving for this funny place that rhymed with King Kong, and not Melbourne like most of the other burghers, a mix of Dutch, Portuguese and the local inhabitants, this was living a life in a city I never thought I’d be part of. In Ceylon, the only Chinese we saw rode bicycles selling noodles while kids would taunt them with, “Chin chin Chinaman, why don’t you go home”. And now I was being taken to their home, because most of my father’s family had already moved to Hong Kong.
Life in Ceylon had been a strange and surreal trip- everything from sneaking off in the middle of the night to watch the nearby circus where American faith healers cured people of their goiters- huge growths on their necks that belonged more to the human oddities in a David Lynch movie than on an island like Ceylon- making friends with jugglers and clowns and other freaks.
There was then the haunting memory of watching the kind old man who worked in the field in front of our house being gored to death one day by his pet bull- a bull I would pet and ride. These things live with you.
This was all happening while still very much a kid and not understanding family secrets about how my favourite aunt drank a bottle of arak- local brandy- placed her head on a nearby railway track and waited for the six o’clock train to take her out of the misery of living with an alcoholic husband- her first cousin- and looking after two deaf and dumb children. She never found Robert Johnson’s 99th song. She had better things to do: like leave her very sad world on that mystery train.
Arriving in Hong Kong after what seemed like years on a ship where most of the time was spent playing shuffleboard with friendly Italian priests while my parents suffered from seasickness and seldom left their cabins, it was tough being the first and only “darkie” in an English primary school and being called the n word every lunch break by the school bully. Having a female cousin in the same school who was white, but with neither family explaining to us that she was actually French and adopted, added to the confusion. But, when in our teens, and by then knowing the truth, whatever emotions were repressed spilled over one memorable night. It had to happen. It was written in the scars of family secrets.
This wasn’t the family Sister Sledge was singing about. This was a dysfunctional family that was never ever a real family. There were always warring factions, and it made me who I am today- for better or worse, and learn that often, Child Is Father To The Man even when it’s too late to change the hands of time.
Fast forward to growing up quickly in secondary school, embracing Rock music along with its lifestyle, forming a band, letting go of algebra and woodwork and all that other “stuff” we were made to learn, but taking in literature, art, English history and wayward girls on that crooked road where nothing was real and nothing to get hung up about, led to that door of discovery. Opening and entering it and trying to make sense of everything going on in Itchycoo Park was the tricky part.
Some friends dropped off along the way, and there were tears when they did, but one got on with life. There were flirtations with journalism before falling into advertising, then falling into music, and falling in love and thinking we’d live happily ever after. But someone changed the script somewhere along the way and one fell over the cliff and, like Alice going down the rabbit hole, ended up as The Mad Hatter in Suite 1616.
As for what happened in 1616, most of it stayed in 1616- a revolving door of Whoever and Whatever- and part of a Hong Kong where everyone inhaled everything going on around us and thought the longest cocktail party would never end. But like every cocktail party, there’s always a closing time and everything changes and disappears into the past- the Mambo Number 5 chorus line of gorgeous Eastern European models, and dancers who became live-in girlfriends with some passing the audition and lasting longer than others.
There were all those nights at the club called JJ’s, again at the Grand Hyatt, with the resident band CC Riders playing old school funk, and where the entertainment industry and the Chosen Few from the horse racing world- Brent Thomson, Tony and Pauline Cruz, Michael Kinane- became one. We were kings of the world and the manager always made sure we had the best table in the house and a bottle of Dom sitting there waiting to be popped. It couldn’t possibly get any better. But it did.
There were restaurants like Wyndham Street Thai, California, Va Bene and La Bodega- popular meeting places for long lunches that started at noon and, after many detours, ended in a blur somewhere else at 4am. And then it was back to the office at 10am before the party started up again at the next long lunch.
This was the Hong Kong that made many grow up fast and also spoiled us forever. We never thought the expense accounts would be closed. We were oblivious to the hangers-on, and how many who had nothing to give, but only the shamelessness to take, were there for Edgar Winter’s Free Ride.
Yes, there really was something called a free lunch. It’s how many with nothing to offer except limp handshakes survived. They’re still around. There were many free lunches, and dinners and unwanted house guests who outstayed their welcome, but were allowed to stay on and become human Sponge Bob sideshows. We were incredibly and stupidly generous. And then came the inevitable when “we” were caught in Juarez when there’s winter time, too. It was when gravity failed and negativity couldn’t pull you through. And it was when you were lost and lonely and down on Le Rue Morgue Avenue, where there were some hungry women who sure wanted to make a fool outta yoooouuuuu. Yes, some of us were Bob Dylan’s entire Highway 61 Revisited album that ended with Desolation Row. But when you go this far down the road, there’s no turning back even when seeing that oncoming train heading your way.
Yesterday is not today and today is not tomorrow, but that heady cocktail of those days and nights in Hong Kong have been replaced by polite niceties, and, especially, a nightlife that died around the same time 1616 closed its doors forever. New people were allowed into lives and that wolf prowling through expensive escort clubs like BBoss and China City was tamed, and watched “all those people on steeples and pretty people doing tricks for you”. We became Like A Rolling Stone on Positively Fourth Street. The one thing that came outta these changes was that we slowed down and became Punky’s Dilemma. But was this a good thing?
Along with this changing, arranging and conforming, Hong Kong lost its edge, lost its exclusivity, lost its soul, lost its way while many of us settled for uncomfortable togetherness with those who previously would never have made it past that invisible velvet rope. We allowed in those who tried to make you what you never could be, and wasted years trying to compromise while being way too easily led by gypsies. Some became partners out of sheer boredom before they were finally shown the door when it was realised that for them it all came down to how much you were prepared to pay for trophy girlfriends and bragging rights. There’s a name for women who paint you into that corner, and when the only way out is to step out of rules and regulations and find yourself again after years calming down a restless heart.
Apart from its preoccupation with owning more and more million dollar babies, and living a lie, and despite being comfortably numb, Hong Kong today is trying to shake off years of regrets. It’s a city living in the past and reminiscing and asking, What If? instead of What Now? Nothing lasts forever, not even inescapable true love and the Second Life of living in 1616. But, walking around with a dark cloud hanging above you and thinking there’s no way outta here, like the Joker said to the thief, only leaves you dancing alone with Mr Jitters.
Yes, yesterday has come and gone, and he and she and 1616 will never return. But this doesn’t mean closing the door on what lies ahead.
None of the above is exclusive to Hong Kong. It’s why where there once was Screaming Lord Sutch, there’s now Donald Trump. Who would have thought a television gimmick would get this far? It’s fucking stupid. But it’s happened. So have the Kardashians, so have all those desperate housewives, those WAGs, Bachelors and Bachelorettes along with Big Brother. Bring back Screaming Lord Sutch.
We have allowed ourselves to become part of a world that doesn’t exist and where many waste energy on people we will never meet and never want to meet and meaningless dangling conversations that lead nowhere. Like Jeff Beck once sang, You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby.
In around 1971, the late Harry Nilsson wrote a wonderful little story called “The Point” narrated by Dustin Hoffman and held together by songs only this tremendously underrated singer-songwriter could seemingly pluck out of thin air.
Let’s not forget that at one time, Nilsson was Paul McCartney’s favourite songwriter. “The Point” told the story of Oblio, the only round headed person in the Pointy Village, who, with his dog Arrow, was searching for, well, the point. With his round head, he was alone in his search.
It’s like many of us today. When you’ve led a full life, when you’ve had Norah Jones give you advice about being a better father over a bottle of red, and worked on projects with Bowie, Yoko and others, and when you’ve seen the dark side of the moon along while letting glimpses of the sunshine in, and been trapped with gypsies, tramps and thieves plus those very few who’ve been challenging and inspiring, it’s about finding that point- that point to keep going. And with no point, everything becomes useless- a boring exercise in futility, which is probably why so many have embraced social media. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? Probably Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat, online dating sites, and wherever else one can disappear to from the real world. But, what’s the point? Where’s this leading? And with who are you traveling? And for how long? You’re just another algorithm in the wall.
There’s also the habit- and in a small city like Hong Kong, it’s become an obsession- to talk incessantly about money, and making money, and needing money, and who’s making money, and money laundering, and to constantly run others down while looking back at what has been and what might have been, and drown one’s self in anger mixed with frustration and way too much jealousy. Jealousy must be earned, but petty jealousies should be exorcised. It’s bad for the soul just as it is to live the plastic fantastic. No one is fooled by bullshit. It shines through. No one works to break even. That’s just stupid maths, Einstein.
The past has come and gone and so has the lifestyle led at 1616. Do I wish those days were back? Only if knowing what I know now about many of the people who took shelter from the storm there and took advantage of a free ride. Where are they today? Working their next scam. Some people simply cannot change. They were born to run, because the hounds of hell are constantly nipping at their heels.
In today’s topsy turvy world, it’s all about change and being able to adapt to changes. Socially, politically, culturally and personally, we’ve changed and are continuing to change. Without change, you’re going nowhere except down the same old road singing the same old song. And unless it’s by the Four Tops, it’s tiresome to hear.
Are we in the midst of a cultural and creative evolution and revolution? Do we have a role to play? That’s up to the individual. And, hopefully, it’s taking everything you know in order to progress and not stagnate. It means cutting out the negative forces and false friendships that you now know will only drag you down. As Nilsson sang, “Everybody’s talking at me/I don’t hear a word they’re saying/Only the echoes of my mind”. Fred Neil wrote that song and it’s one well worth revisiting. There are some important life lessons in his words.
For me, it’s about working on anything and everything creative with those I want to work with and never having to settle for Okay is good enough. That’s when creative menopause has taken over. That’s when, like Lennon did, you retire to be a househusband and learn to bake bread before returning with a new take on life. Sadly, that life was cut short and it changed many of our lives forever.
Life is much too short for fussing and fighting, my friend, so travel the world with no iPhone and get away from everything and almost everyone who bores the shit out of you. For me, maybe worlds will collide and there will be that person again who will have me at Hello and who completes me. No, not Renee Zellweger nor Bridget Jones. The days of being star struck have come and gone.
Maybe one day soon, the time will be right to return to 1616- but with a completely different mindset. Most importantly, it will be after finally realising the difference between lust and love. Trying to turn both of those into one only helps create a self-destructive cocktail that will have you trying to make it up those 12 Steps again with the eighth and ninth steps always tripping you up.