By Hans Ebert
My family arrived in Hong Kong in 1958 after over two weeks by ship where my father spent most of the time in our cabin with seasickness while I played shuffleboard with my mother and a group of Italian priests. It wasn’t exactly The Love Boat.
What was awaiting us in Hong Kong? Nothing. With only very little life savings, there was no option but to live with my father’s eldest sister Primrose, her Portuguese husband Gustavo, my grandmother and family matriarch Hilda and cousin Suzanne in a tiny apartment. It was hardly The Brady Bunch and nothing like the wide open spaces of Ceylon, but beggars can never be choosers.
For me, it really didn’t matter. I spent most of the time either watching black and white Chinese movies on television, or pretending I was Batman and jumping down the steps of the apartment’s stairwell. With us being on the 27th floor, it was quite a long and strenuous game to play. And bloody dangerous. Gotham City could be a scary place, Robin.
Suzanne was a few months younger than I was and we never wondered why she was white and blonde and I was certainly neither. I was busy trying to master using a knife and fork and learning to eat by myself instead of being fed by a servant. My parents were busy looking for work. My father finally found a job with the newly opened Hong Kong Hotel which became Hong Kong Hilton, the first international hotel in the city, whereas my mother became secretary to the head of one of the biggest chartered accountants firms in Hong Kong. We were also financially able to move away from running with the rest of the family tribe and moved to a tiny one bedroom apartment. Me being unable to sleep unless playing with my mother’s hair is probably one reason why I am an only child. It must have been hard for my father.
Then there was taking the tram to school- Quarry Bay junior school- where I was the only “darkie”. Having a blonde cousin attending the same school added to the weirdness of it all. Being chased around the playground every lunch break by an older German kid named Dirk and called the N word wasn’t exactly fun, but it made me determined to be a good pupil. I was.
I was very good in all subjects, won awards at the annual inter school poetry reading competitions, was good at cricket and was extremely proud when being chosen to play one of the leading roles in a school play- that of the evil Black Thundercloud. Not even Dirk taunting me that the reason I got the role was because I was “black” could dampen my enthusiasm. As for my performance, apparently I stole the show.
Meanwhile, I continued being an A grade student and spent most of my time alone until meeting a Portuguese kid about my age who would come over to stare into the Playboy magazines I had bought from the money made selling my father’s collection of classic 78rpm record collection. Including records by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller and so much more, this collection would be worth millions today. But how was I to know? I wanted to get into the Playboy Mansion and hang with Hef and his Bunnies.
At school, I became best friends with an Eurasian kid named Timothy Hall. Tim had his own personal demons to exorcise. Later in life he was to be a finalist for the Booker Prize for “Sweet Sour”, a book of fiction, but based on his life growing up an Eurasian in colonial Hong Kong.
By then, he had taken up his Chinese surname: Mo. When after class 6, most of us entered secondary school, mainly KGV in Kowloon, Tim left for the UK. For me, it was starting all over again with a few friends from junior school, but getting to know many new faces from other schools who were joining KGV- a very international group of kids from very different socio economic backgrounds.
My cousin Suzanne had entered an all girls secondary school to avoid more questions being asked about why two cousins could look so different. It didn’t take long to find a sense of belonging at KGV. There were the “cool kids” and the not-so-cool kids, and one was judged by the company you kept. There was a pecking order. I made friends with some of the older kids in school who were either already in bands or very much into music- and rebellious albeit in a conservative way.
Having an elder cousin- Tony Myatt- who was a popular radio disc jockey helped me to move with the Cool crowd. His elder brother Carl being one of the best cricketers in Hong Kong and the Editor of the Sunday Morning Post, didn’t hurt when becoming captain of the school Second Eleven cricket team. I was networking without knowing it.
I was also given a guitar- a second hand Les Paul and sent to take guitar lessons from Tony Carpio, the best guitarist in Hong Kong. It didn’t work out. He wanted to teach me how to play “jazz chords” and I wanted to learn basic guitar chords.
Around this time, my grades started to fall. It became more and more clear that I wanted to embrace the arts. After watching the Beatles at the Princess Theatre with Jimmy Nicol deputing for Ringo who had just had his tonsils removed, I wanted to be Beatle Hans.
I was completely uninterested in dissecting frogs and rabbits and wasting my time on algebra, geometry and woodwork. The tutors brought in by my parents to help me understand algebra etc didn’t work out. All I wanted to do was learn a few chords and be in a band.
Not even the riots of 1966 which started because of a hunger strike by one man protesting a rise in the Star Ferry fares which became an excuse for “communists” and others to battle the Royal Hong Kong Police who were accused of being corrupt. All hell broke loose, over fifty people died, stones and bottles were being hurled all over the place, but that didn’t stop me attending the various music talent shows taking place.
Back at school, I wanted to more than embrace the arts. I dearly wanted to embrace some of the stunning girls who were at KGV and also coming of age. Puberty had taken over.
Together with an Eurasian kid around a year younger named Steve Tebbutt, below, far right with his first band The Rebel Sect, someone who became my best friend when we were around 15, we experimented with the dark side of life.
Steve, whose elder brother Tony was the school jock with great hair and Joanne, the prettiest girl in school as his girlfriend, lived on Kowloon side with parents with movie star looks- Mrs Tebbutt was stunning- who gave him the freedom he needed. He could come and go as he pleased and wear what he wanted whereas my mother, especially, would worry when my hair was getting too long and would have heart palpitations if I returned home after a night out on a weekend later than 10.30pm. All this meant staying over at Steve’s whenever possible. There was much we did together, but the first acid trip took us one step beyond. It definitely cemented our friendship as it was our little secret.
That first trip was a twelve hour journey into the unknown. An older American kid passing through Hong Kong had brought in around two hundred LSD hits on blotting paper. We were in the loo at the first disco in Hong Kong- The Scene in the basement of the Peninsula hotel, tore off a tab for each and let it melt under our tongues. After twenty minutes, nothing was happening. Then, suddenly, all hell broke loose.
The Dick Tracy poster facing me came alive and the cartoon character was shooting in my direction while there was an army of worms marching inside the burger I was eating. Steve and I, both hit with heavy anxiety attacks, got the hell outta there and somehow made it to his parents’ apartment.
We listened to some Simon and Garfunkel tracks while staring into the pages of a Penthouse magazine and the Playmates. Them coming alive, calmed us down. After that, it was another trip with me travelling to Camelot and being one of the Knights of the Round Table and falling in love with Guinevere before ending up playing poker in the Wild West and being shot in my back and then regressing into my mother’s womb while “She’s Leaving Home” played in the background and foreground and all around.
Gawd knows where Steve’s travels took him, but being shot in my back has made it impossible to sit down anywhere without my back to the wall. We flushed the remaining tabs of acid down the toilet and promised ourselves that we would never travel down that road again. But we did with me always in Camelot with Guinevere no doubt because of what I was reading at that time- Morte D’Arthur- and my fascination still with those Arthurian days and nights. It’s probably why “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin with its imagery of Mordred, the evil one, and Camelot remains one of my favourite Rock songs. A few years later I was to have a deep discussion about Camelot with Robert Plant when Led Zeppelin passed through Hong Kong. Well, as deep as anything was during those stoned soul picnic days. There’s another story there.
Steve meanwhile took up the drums, became a brilliant young drummer and eventually decided to opt out of school to become a professional musician though very much under age. While at school, however, we both hung out with some odds and sods from KGV and other secondary schools plus somehow making friends with individuals who we later found out were members of one of the local triad societies. For some reason, they liked us and took us around the mean streets of Kowloon with its pimps, brothels and gambling dens. We visited them all. We must have been around 14-15 at the time.
We looked up to some of the older kids in school for a while, mainly those who could look after themselves in a fight. Fights were almost an everyday occurrence and always for the most asinine reasons. Bored with all that we knew they couldn’t keep up with wherever we were going.
Apart from ogling at the older girls going to play hockey in their tight shorts, school became secondary to music. It beat the hell out of hanging out with some of the strange kids in my form like the one who wanted us to watch him eat his own snot. Some of the teachers were equally weird. There was the one teacher who wore the loosest shorts and always chose to sit in front of the girls and let it all hang out. He never wore underpants so imagine the free show he provided. Those poor girls. Scarred for life.
For me, the end was near when a teacher threw a blackboard duster my way to get me to concentrate- and me throwing it right back at him and asking him to step outside. I ended up in the principal’s office to be caned. After six whacks I turned around and asked if he got off on that. Not a smart thing to do, but I just wanted a change and a way out of school.
It was all about music and everything that surrounded music at the time with girls coming and going and some having a bigger impact on Steve and myself than others- the ones who went the distance including older and experienced Australian showgirls who provided, at least myself, shelter from the storm when it was too late to go home to nervous parents and who showed me a completely different world. Never rush it. The move you make is on your shoulder. That kinda thing.
We were turning on and tuning out and growing up well before our time along with Hong Kong that was going through its own version of puberty. The city was also trying to clean up its act. This happened in 1974 with the formation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and which had a very strong link with one of the students at KGV- Ian Godber, son of senior police superintendent Peter Godber, below, and rhythm guitarist for a school band named The Impalas, who became a friend.
Having breakfast with Ian and Mr Godber, who was being investigated for bribery following his sudden resignation from the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, and Ian’s mother having quietly left Hong Kong, it is now almost amusing to think why this highly decorated policeman was reading the newspapers that day and looking tense.
Using his police passport, Peter Godber sidestepped immigration and fled Hong Kong a few days later with Ian in tow. He was finally arrested some months later in the UK and extradited to Hong Kong for corruption and jailed for 4 years. Word is that the Godber’s settled in Spain helped by the HK$4m in bribes that Peter Godber had managed to keep hidden for a rainy day.
(to be continued)
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