By Hans Ebert
The Hong Kong Ding Dongs
There was a summer of change ahead. Kids who had left Hong Kong were back for a few months, there were newcomers to the city, Cat Street, the coffee shop at the Hong Kong Hilton, was the place to meet at night with afternoons usually spent hanging out at the restaurant at Dairy Farm. There was a great deal of hanging out…and just plain hanging in there.
My best friend Steve was dating a number of older girls who were mainly in local bands until settling for Irene Ryder, below, a stunning Eurasian Go Go dancer and later a popular singer before her life went through a number of bizarre twists and turns.
As for Steve, he was as always happy-go-lucky and playing professionally for the resident band at the Den of the Hong Kong Hilton, but there was friction within the band, and that restless spirit of Steve’s was at work. But with Irene, he seemed to have found someone special.
Steve playing professionally at 17 and being with Irene left me to widen my group of friends- more acquaintances, really. There was plenty of drugs- mainly grass and hash with some of us taking speedballs to make the nights last into days as there was one particular kid in our midst whose apartment became the meeting place for many memorable Day For Night parties. His mother was never around and everyone knew who his father really was- one of the most powerful and richest men in Hong Kong and Macau.
The kid had dropped out of school, he resembled a cute troll, sang and played harp badly in an amateur band, but had tremendous pulling power with especially young girls. He had that elfin Marc Bolan thing going for him. After one very long party at his place attended by around eighteen underage British girls from one particular school, he was arrested and jailed- in Macau- for sex with minors.
One of the girls- Glynis, his girlfriend- I had met casually once or twice. We met again at one of the regular tea dances. I offered her some sympathy about the arrest and deportation of her boyfriend, and by the end of the night, we were a couple.
Glynis was your typical English Rose- very pretty, very young- 15- and incredibly adventurous. We were even going to get married. The first song I ever wrote was about her- “April Lady”- which became the first number one hit for local singer Sam Hui who was to become the father of what I coined Canto Pop when writing for Billboard, the world’s leading music trade publication.
Before meeting Glynis, I had left my previous job with The Hong Kong Standard and was writing an entertainment column for The Star, a new tabloid newspaper started by a strangely secretive man my father knew reasonably well named Graham Jenkins. I was offered HK$300 more which meant that this was an offer I just couldn’t refuse. My father knew practically everyone who mattered. Mr Jenkins saw something in my writing to give me some huge career opportunities for which I will be ever thankful.
Graham Jenkins was also a homosexual, and with homosexuality being against the law at the time, he led an extremely private life. He also lived opposite to us down Hoi Ping Street in Causeway Bay. Though I could see young Chinese males entering and leaving his apartment on a regular basis, this lifestyle was still very foreign to us.
The young Chinese photographer assigned to me by Mr Jenkins- Simon- sashaying into the offices of The Star wearing hot pants, raised eyebrows and whoops amongst the senior expat reporters, but went over me like airplanes. Even when he asked to take some “art photographs” of me- and I obliged- I never thought anything of it. I was quite flattered when he described my lower appendage as being “beautiful”. Who knew? I agreed. It was a beautiful work of art.
Those days gave me access to interviewing visiting celebrities while also being in charge of picking The Star’s Page 3 girls. That opened up entire new horizons. Australian, British, French, American, Italian showgirls and models all wanted their photographs in the newspaper and having control over who appeared had its perks. But when Glynis entered my life, all that changed.
We were together as much as we could and despite her being grounded after being caught up in that party, she still managed to get out and would come over to see me everyday at 9am. By this time my parents had left for work. We’d stay in bed until leaving for a movie and dinner by 6pm before getting her home by her curfew at 10pm. There was an obscene haste to everything.
To fast forward everything, after spending some time in the UK where, when in London, I stayed with my aunt and uncle on my mother’s side. These were the two cousins who were advised when in Ceylon never to have any children as it was taboo for first cousins to marry. Though leaving to further my studies, the move to the UK was mainly to be able with Glynis.
This great love that was going to last forever never really happened. She lived in North Gillingham with her parents, and only being able to see each other on weekends and holidays was just too casual. Plus having my mother’s eldest sister Doreen staying with my aunt and uncle, who by then had been given the green light by doctors in the UK that it was fine for first cousins to have a child- a son Robert mentioned earlier, who became a top executive with Deutsche Bank before being transferred to Hong Kong where he lived the good life that came to a screeching halt. This was when he was arrested for manslaughter. His brand new Ferrari crashed into a wall killing a security guard in the process.
Staying with my aunt and uncle didn’t exactly give Glynis and myself any privacy. Auntie Doreen was very old fashioned and made it very clear that she didn’t approve of Glynis being dropped off by her parents to sleep with me. Having Robert constantly banging on the bedroom door to see what “games” Glynis and I were playing often broke the mood.
By the time Glynis entered university, things between us were shaky. Her parents thinking my aunt and uncle were “dark” and lived in a “small place” and her elder brother in London having friends who had eyes on Glynis didn’t augur well. Plus I was hurtling headfirst into a Swinging London lifestyle.
The only subjects I found interesting had my undivided attention- art, history and literature which eventually led to a course in journalism and then to more than a passing interest in psychology. I was probably trying to understand myself and the Burgher upbringing more than anything else while getting to the core of that first acid trip when passing through Camelot and the Wild West before travelling back into my mother’s womb.
Glynis ended up meeting someone new the day after she entered university and in order for Hans not to be an intellectual dullard, there were the trips into London and with my cousin Tony being a popular disc jockey with Capital Radio meeting those who introduced me to what was a Rock Star lifestyle. It was being able to watch the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, the Small Faces and singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens, James Taylor even though an American, Nick Drake and others while meeting rock royalty when many were still commoners.
By the time I returned to Hong Kong, it was like being a stranger in a strange land. Everything was unraveling. My father was having problems with his job, a kitten adopted me, Steve had left for Honolulu to play professionally with his band despite having offers to join two of the biggest bands in the US and I was pretty much trying to piece everything together. I was going with the flow hoping it would wash me ashore where I could find myself. I was around many, but also uncomfortable and unfulfilled with wherever I was.
I was writing songs by now as my attempts to be in bands never worked out. I was a very average musician who thought he sounded like Steve Marriott or every rock singer with a hoarse voice. A visit to the recording studio when in a group with Steve where he decided to play guitar called Sons Of Han- I stepped in when the original rhythm guitarist and vocalist had a hissy fit and left- to record a track to mime on television soon brought me face to face with the harsh reality that I really couldn’t sing.
Though sounding perfectly wonderful rehearsing in Steve’s room and screaming to be heard over LOUD, trashing guitars and even LOUDER DRUMS, the recording studio really separated the men from the boys. I was totally off key. Sons Of Han quickly went their separate ways.
Around this time, I had tired of working for newspapers and was doing nothing other than going to the UK to take up different courses and returning to Hong Kong looking more and more weird. I was like that song by the Kinks called “A Dedicated Follower Of Fashion.” My father, concerned that I had become a hippie, arranged for me to see his very good friend Brian Bryce, worldwide Chairman of the Hyatt Hotels and based in Hong Kong. Brian was a man of the world- smooth, a ladies man and someone I totally respected.
Telling Brian that I would like to join the hotel industry while wearing a green velveteen jacket, a paisley shirt, bell bottoms and those same snakeskin boots bought in LA with my hair way down my back didn’t really make me the perfect candidate for a job anywhere in a hotel. I looked like a young version of Tommy Chong- but more foppish.
Brian talked me out of career in the hospitality trade and made a phone call to Philip Tse, below, the head Tse Needham, the local ad agency that only had the Hyatt account.
Philip was a good guy who was a very smooth operator though he kept pronouncing hors d’ouvres as “whores douvrays”. He followed the “request” from Brian Bryce and hired me immediately. I was given the title of Chief English Copywriter. There was no other writer and I was the only foreigner in the fledgling agency. The problem was that I had no idea that writing ad copy and writing columns for newspapers were two very different things.
Through trial and error and much rejected copy, I started to understand that advertising copy meant that I could start sentences with And and But and So. And. Write. Like. This. And which I got pretty good at churning out. The small local ad agency somehow gained more clients including McDonald’s with me being promoted to Creative Director.
This gave me enough money- total salary HK$1,500- to move out of my parents’ apartment with Kitty, the cat who adopted me and went through thick and thin with me for almost twenty years, and share a place- rent HK$800- with a slightly older guy named Mike Souza. Mike, below, a disc jockey with Commercial Radio, man-about-town, man about the Hong Kong Hilton and a Walter Mitty type of character who was never quite what he seemed.
During a very short period when there was a local “Beat Boom” and nearly everyone made a record, Mike had recorded a cover of the great Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston”. He insisted that he had written the song and Webb had somehow nicked it. Of course, none of us believed him, though it made for a good story.
Though a Macanese, Mike desperately wanted to be seen as an American and had even developed a strange quasi American accent. And being into everything American, he knew most of the girls attending the American International School in Hong Kong.
By now and perhaps through Mike’s influence, most of the girls in my life were American and from the International School. I guess I was reasonably interesting and dated quite a few and cheated on all.
Despite Mike paying for half the apartment, he never stayed there. He lived with his mother. This meant opening my place up to any female who needed a place to crash. This created a revolving door of many living on the edge and me happy to share my bed with whoever would wander in at the middle of the night and needed some body next to them. It was fun, but it was meaningless.
Work was going well enough. My parents had decided to emigrate to Melbourne as my father’s job in the local hotel industry had been short circuited through politics as had the glittering career of Brian Bryce whereas like an U2 song, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.
I started hanging out with a Portuguese guy named Gerry who had miserable luck with girls. He kept getting dumped. Nothing has changed even today. At that time, we’d go out “grooving” for girls and must have looked like Cheech and Chong.
Gerry fancied himself as a guitarist and we formed a band for a one-off gig in front of 15,000 people at the Hong Kong Stadium. After rehearsing for two months and the gig three days away, Gerry decided to experiment with acid for the first time. This was at the posh Mandarin Hotel where Dawn, the girl I was going out with at the time, was staying.
She and her parents were leaving Hong Kong and going back to the States. As they had vacated their apartment, home until they left was the Mandarin. We invited another girl along who dropped a tab after lunch with Gerry and all was okay until he started screaming, “She’s a pig!” The other girl had undressed and was squirming in bed and Gerry, in his hallucinogenic state, saw her as a, well, pig.
After around six hours of tripping out, she started to come down, but Gerry became comatose. We somehow managed to get him past hotel security and into a car driven by a friend, but we were just not getting through to Gerry.
For some reason- probably in case I needed help- I brought Gerry to my parents apartment which was being closed down as a new life in Melbourne beckoned. Asked why he was looking so odd, I mentioned that a girl had rejected him and he was taking it badly. My parents bought that. After all, it was Gerry.
With him still imprisoned in wherever his mind was and me wondering whether I should get him to hospital and my parents now looking suspiciously at Gerry as he sat there looking ahead and saying nothing, it was showtime.
Hoping for a miracle, I managed to get Gerry to the venue and onto the stage. After all, he was one of our guitarists and lead singer. When I strapped the guitar around his neck, he looked at the fretboard and yelled out, “IT’S A SNAKE!”
The rest of the band looked at me. They had no idea what was going on. I signalled for them to start playing and I took up the lead vocals. Gerry just stood there- rigid- and staring into the crowd.
Who would have thought, but we received a tremendous ovation with many describing our set as “a seminal moment in Hong Kong performance art”.
The really good news, however, is that later that night, Gerry returned to reality. He could not recall where he had travelled. I’ve seen Gerry over the past few years and wonder if he ever really came back. I swore off drugs from that day on. Popping pills was okay.
With my parents having left Hong Kong and Gerry reading up on the occult and getting into wherever his ouija board took him, I moved away and hung out with a new group that at one time included Murray Head, below, the actor who played Judas in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
There was a lot of dope being smoked by those around which did nothing for me except feel paranoid. And there was every right to feel paranoid as it was discovered that there were police informants within our midst. I bailed. Bad vibes, man.
Thinking back, I can only guess that whatever insecurities I had inherited made me cheat on some extremely nice girls while all the time there being far more interest in girls- and even a few married women- who belonged to others. I enjoyed the challenge. After winning the challenge, boredom set in and I had to look for new conquests. I guess I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. Maybe.
It was through Mike that I first met Trina Dingler. I was awestruck. Here was this incredibly pretty girl who was equal parts Audrey Hepburn and a young Brooke Shields, below with Keith Reinhard, my mentor in advertising, during a McDonald’s shoot.
The youngest of three daughters of a Lutheran minister and his wife, Trina had spent most of her bread years in Taiwan. Her sisters were married and living in St Louis whereas she lived in Hong Kong with her parents and two younger brothers. Mike introduced me to Trina one evening when we ran into her and a girlfriend in front of the magazine stand by the Star Ferry on Kowloon side.
While Mike became even more “American” as he had been raving to me about this Trina person, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her- the very very pretty face, the lovely smile, the perfect teeth, the great legs, and the flat black missionary kid type shoes.
It was love at first sight though the feeling was hardly mutual. No, I wasn’t wearing my snakeskin boots with the three inch heels by then, but, as she has mentioned to me many, many times since, she thought I was a “weirdo”. And even though she was seeing someone I vaguely knew and found to be loud and brash and looked like a young Judd Hirsh, he was just a minor cog in the wheel and an easily removable obstacle.
Project Trina started when either I got her a modelling gig for some catalogue, or met her for the second time because of this job. She was hardly Twiggy, but she had extremely short hair. This was a slight problem when trying to get to know her even better by casting her in the first television commercial I ever created and which required the main girl in it to have long hair. This was nothing that a wig and very strong presentation skills to the client- Wrangler Jeans- couldn’t fix.
The concept wasn’t exactly a breakthrough: a teenage couple-the male role was given to my British friend Richard who was broke and strung out on smack- looking at each other- and their jeans- while lying in a hammock as a jingle I had written played in the background.
All I remember was that apart from being very pretty, Trina had a well-rounded ass. But this wasn’t just another conquest. This was total love. I felt awestruck around her. She apparently felt a little repulsed.
It didn’t help that her best friend Nancy found me to be a bit of a creep. Still, just more minor obstacles. I knew it was real love when I became so nervous during the film shoot that I suddenly suffered an attack of diarrhoea. But not wishing to use the toilet where we were filming in case she knew I actually went to the toilet, I had my stoner friend Richard drive me to his apartment up on the Peak so I could relieve myself.
I pursued Trina relentlessly, but she was always too busy to go out with me. That only resulted in me having “angry sex” with some girl she knew so she would find out, but none of that impressed her. She was doing some PR work for some fat, gay Filipino movie critic and was his cover when he had to attend press dinners etc as a straight man. He was a pretentious asshole.
Meanwhile, as Fleetwood Mac sang, women, they would come and they would go- actually left screaming mainly when my cat Kitty would jump on their laps and they would freak out and ask me to “get that thing off!”
No one called Kitty a “thing”. She was a very clever cat and was helping me to separate the wheat from the chaff. If a woman didn’t like my cat, they were kitty litter.
I kept running into Trina at various parties. She wasn’t going out with anyone and we made small talk. Her best friend Nancy was thawing towards me, but every time I plucked up the courage to call Trina and ask her out. The constant rejection was getting to me. I even requested Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” for her on a radio programme which was a very cutting put down song about the fall of a girl who thought she was too good for the guy in the song. This wasn’t Trina, but she did listen to the song which jolted her somewhat.
I called her one evening afterwards. When I got the brush off again, I erupted before hanging up. It was the first time I cried over a girl.
It was my birthday the next day and that added to the loneliness and futility of it all. I was washing the pots and pans that had piled up in the kitchen sink and talking to Kitty when the doorbell rang. Standing there was Trina with some pizza and a bottle of wine. Apparently, no one had ever told her off and hung up on her. There’s always a first time for everything.
While we chatted, she mentioned that being asthmatic, she was allergic to cats. This didn’t stop Kitty jumping on her lap. Trina was wheezing a bit, but she was petting Kitty. Kitty was purring. So was I. I was about to receive my first and best birthday present.
(To be continued…)
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