Updated: Jan 13
Spent something like two weeks on a Lloyd Trestino liner called Asia, below, with my parents and playing shuffleboard with a couple of Italian priests before arriving in this strangely named place called Hong Kong.
My parents told me we were leaving Ceylon for Melbourne. Our cats and dogs were given away. The Persian cat we had disappeared before this could happen. In the rush to get out of there, and at a time when us Burghers-a mix of the Dutch and Portuguese who settled in the island during the Spice Island Wars and intermarried with the local inhabitants- were being pelted by rotten eggs for some reason or another, they maybe got things mixed up.
I didn’t really care though sad to leave my Podi, the servant who had looked after me from my first day in this world. If anything, I was only embarrassed to tell my friends in kindergarten that I was going to live in some place called Hong Kong. Hong Kong sounded so, well, “Chinesey”.
After all, the only Chinese we ever saw in Colombo were noodle sellers on bicycles and who kids would taunt with “Chin Chin Chinaman, why don’t you go home? “. This, and how we were now going to live in their home though I wanted to think this was Melbourne. For me, it was one big adventure that would probably end soon.
I felt like Christian Bale’s character in “Empire Of The Sun”. Imagination is wonderful escapism. You can travel anywhere in your head. You can be whoever you want to be.
We were gypsies or hippies, definitely flat broke and forced to live with my Dad’s eldest sister and her family in a shoebox that included my blue eyed grandmother- Hilda Ebert- and a highly strung poodle.
Unlike the privileged upbringing of being a Burgher in Colombo, in Hong Kong I didn’t have any servants to do my bidding. No one was going to feed me. I had to learn to use crockery and table etiquette.
I went on the tram by myself to Quarry Bay primary school where I was called a “nigger” by an older kid for a couple of years. Playing the role of “Black Thundercloud” in the annual school play didn’t help though apparently superb in the role.
I was also a very good student and represented the school at inter school poetry reading competitions where I won every one I entered.
It was then off the KGV Secondary School where I was called a “wog” by some of my new friends. It was, I thought, a term of endearment and to do with being accepted into the schoolyard tribe.
Only recently did I remember my mother yelling out to my servant Podi to bring me back inside the bungalow where we stayed instead of playing cricket outside to save me from turning “black”.
Thinking back, I guess I was much darker then and in the middle of that Sri Lankan sun. Who was dark and who was fair were extremely important to my family- my parents and my aunts and uncles and Hilda, the family matriarch.
We originally stayed as one big Ebert commune on the 27th floor of a two bedroom high rise in the North Point area of “Melbourne”, Hong Kong.
It was a very different lifestyle for a kid who was used to “getting black” playing in a garden with a dog and cats, digging for and collecting earthworms, had never been in an elevator before, and, through my mum freaking out quietly thinking I didn’t notice, quickly understanding the meanings of acrophobia, claustrophobia and anxiety.
Think all this somehow didn’t affect me?
For fun, with my blonde cousin Suzanne- I know, I know- she was blonde- we would jump from one stairwell to the next. All 27 stairwells- and minus any injuries.
When alone, which was often as my parents worked, I would watch the traffic sitting next to the window and take down the numbers of cars or play cricket in front of a cupboard mirror using an imaginary bat. I scored the most runs, took the most wickets and made the most spectacular catches.
We were introduced to and survived typhoons, water rationing and riots which I thought were weirdly exciting though my father would break down and cry from fear when knowing one of these forces of nature were even heading our way and watching us tape the windows for protection against the strong windows. He was kinda like George Costanza without the Festivus.
One of the more weird things about these typhoons was if we ever did venture out being warned by your parents to watch out for falling air conditioners. Typhoon Wanda was the big one. The Big Kahuna of Typhoons.
I grew into my teen years, picked up a guitar, picked up different chicks and they picked me up and we smoked funny cigarettes together because it was that time of the season of the witch.
Then when the Beatles entered their trippy phase, Steve, my best friend in school, and I went on various magical mystery tours. I often visited Camelot and Doc Holiday. One pill makes you larger, another one makes you small...
Somewhere around this time, we lost my grandmother, my uncle was found to be doing the hanky panky with the part time Chinese amah, and my cousin Suzanne was finally told that she was adopted and that her real mother was French.
More traumatic for me was when I bent down to kiss my Uncle’s dog- another highly strung poodle-who snapped and bit me through my lip. She was in heat.
Feeling no pain, I kept talking until noticing blood on my shirt and that my Uncle’s wife was screaming in shock. I had some stitches put in to a lip and finally had a reason for growing a moustache.
A couple of years later, I lost my friend and band mate Steve who got lost in the armpit of it all, but found the wonderful American girl who became my wife.
With Trina being white, this was cause for much jambalaya moments amongst my family. Plus, she wasn’t Chinese which would have been another taboo.
We had a baby girl and survived against all the financial and cultural odds. We were living a Phil Collins hit record.
All was cool, we managed and life zig zagged and took us all over and up and down the place through very different career paths though still being in Hong Kong and, for me, whether in journalism, advertising or the music industry, always, always, always coming back to marketing and being an advertising Mad Man.
Most things in life worked out and other things didn’t, and, looking at things positively, these changes kept life from being boring. Except losing my pet cat and our dog Nipper, below. They were the glue that kept everything together.
Once, they were gone, pretty much everything fell apart including my marriage, which, thinking back, was on its last legs anyway. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Like taking different career paths, life changes were taking place.
We could have worked at saving our marriage, but where there’s a need to “work” on anything, this usually means that it’s already gone.
Like a U2 song, there were female mainstays in my life from the States, the UK, Denmark, Lithuania, Estonia, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong.
Some calmed me down, others turned things upside down and had me disappearing into various rabbit holes. This was where I met the Mad Hatter and dined with kings and queens, and sang how, darling, oh, darling, yours are the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen.
Love is a fleeting thing. Longtime relationships, at least for me, seldom go the distance. I think I know what I want, but don’t know what I don’t need. This is when one takes in the strays. And when you try and sample everything, something or someone will always snap, trip you up and which means being a prisoner in your own self-made fight club.
I’ve always looked at life that way. Not just both sides now, Joni. All sides.
Let me take you back where I came from...
When one door slams shut and things you enjoy are taken away from you, there are, at least for some, always other doors one can open, walk through and start to enjoy life again.
Been thinking a lot about this recently and how and why so many, especially in Hong Kong, live today in fear worrying about what’s next and which they have no power to control other than falling in line and being good little boys and girls and obedient order takers.
From where are the orders coming? Respect them? Respect yourself for being a spineless toadies? Why when there’s a beautiful island like Sri Lanka and where I was born?
Sri Lanka is not exactly perfect, and there are the usual doofuses playing the usual games of politics and greed-stupidly- but where today is Paradise?
At least, other than the beaches and tea plantations, what’s regarded as the eighth wonder of the world, natural beauty and so many areas to explore, there’s also honest to goodness traditional Sri Lankan cuisine- diverse, healthy, tasty and a journey of its own and well worth discovering.
Arrived in Hong Kong
when the barren rock
was still finding its feet
Now everything is falling apart
So pull yourself together
and grab the best seat in the house
Maybe we’ll find some answers
But it will mean
going back to the start
Plenty to see and plenty to learn
And how jealousy must be earned
Just don’t stand too close to the fire
There’s a snap, crackle
and pop happening
You just might get burnt.
So much has happened
between now and then
It’s tough to know where it starts
and how it all ends
There we were together
strangers in a strange land
Trying to figure out what was next
Living in a shoebox in the city
And sharing carpets for beds
We had this thing called television
Showed black and white moving pictures
There was Lin Dai and Peking opera
Sometimes silent movies that would flicker
There was the Ding Dong Song
And offbeat cha cha’s
The Metropole and Blue Heaven
And as the bands played on
Those sassy singers knew how to move
They went, “Kiss me, honey honey, kiss me!”
This was the early Sixties groove
Love Is Many Splendored Thing
And The World Of Suzy Wong
William Holden and Nancy Kwan
Met Steve McQueen and Judy Garland
before they were both suddenly gone
Hong Kong was making giant steps
She was becoming her own man
Entrepreneurs saw future money trees
As they looked up at those ceiling fans
The school girls at KGV
seemed so much prettier then
Sweet little things making The Scene
Some played it safe and some took risks
Unchained Melody and Puppy Love
Slow dancing and sealed with a kiss
PE always was an obstacle course
Just randomly throwing your
Running through hurdles protecting
There was no meaning to be found
The expat kids lived up on the hill
They were doing their best to belong
But some of us saw them as the enemy
We were from the poor side of The Kong
Maybe some things never change
It’s always been about us and them
It’s about wanting what you cannot have
And trying to get a ride on that Magic Bus
Be like water the Dragon said
And the game started to change
But The Dragon suddenly left with The Crow
Flew away with secrets we’ll never know
Noble House and crooked taipans
All those others living on sampans
Hong Kong’s always been a paradox
Oliver twisted and the
rich man’s Club BBoss
La Vida Loca and a five star life
Designer bags to play show and tell
But The Shadow knows
where the truth lies
And the difference between
heaven and hell
Don’t say too much but never forget
You know where the bodies lie
They can always change the
way they look
But they’ll never rewrite the history book
We got married for the right reasons
Or so they seemed at the time
We had Made In Hong Kong babies
Most turned out really fine
Box lunches and dim sum days
Jimmy’s Madras Chicken Curry
Is still here to stay
Remember you can’t delete the past
You might try but you will fail
Learned more from McDonald’s
than I did from any school
Learned to separate the wheat from the chaff
And recognise the clowns and the fools
Q talked about “Thriller”
and working with The Gloved One
Had a night out with two Gorillaz
Bowie popped in one night
And Bollywood remixes were done
Learned about the game of chance
When to hold and when to fold
Played some bad hands along the way
And didn’t see what was hot but also cold
Met the girl who helped me find myself
And not try to please everyone else
Reminded me of where I’ve been
And never accept anything less
She’s the girl who saw through it all
Knew how to call every bluff
Slapped some sense into me
Along with lessons in trust
Cheongsams and almond eyes
Never saw behind those neon lights
Red light districts and so much hiding
Workers to the left and poseurs to the right
Weekends in Macau
with part time winners
Playing the horses
with saints and sinners
Sometimes you won
But you knew you lost
To get in the game
There was always a cost
Entrepreneurs came to Hong Kong
Flim flam people ready to play
Celebrity chefs cooked up stings
When things went sour they called it a day
There was a Canton in Kowloon
Everything was beautifully chic to chic
Clubbing suddenly became the big thing
So did Miami Vice and Le Freak
Saw her slumped over the FCC bar
It wasn’t a very pretty sight
Words were slurred and eyes were blurred
There was no one there and the lights were out
Priorities have begun to change
New vows have been suddenly exchanged
Marriages are now put on hold
Spies are coming in from the cold
The night you blindfolded yourself
You spoiled me for everyone else
We had to be together and enjoy the ride
Had to take it further than anywhere less
We both knew things couldn’t last
We flew way too close to the sun
The fall would have been too hard to take
We both needed a safer home
Didn’t realise you felt that way too
Didn’t know you wanted it to last
Had someone else hiding in my mind
Though she was part of the past
You played the horses
And they all played you
Everyone in the game had
something to sell
Most of them out of view
Those ladies in racing wanting to be
who they could never be
Forever young and at every party
Sipping shallowness and high tea
You got out just in time
Finally saw through it all
Saw the quiet desperation falling apart
Heard the starter’s call
That’s when she first appeared
You saw she had a different point of view
She turned your head right around
Made you face the real you
Poseurs and Influencers
Trying everything to sell themselves
But audiences know how things end
Reruns always end the same
Squares are pegged and
lines are crossed
No one knows what’s
coming down the wire
Waves are crashing all around
and the tide can’t get much higher
That famous Can Do spirit
has got up and left
Everything’s been replaced by fear
There’s nothing to do but to forget
The music has been made to stop
There’s nothing much going around
Everything is on sale for free
but even this is way too much
Everything has moved backwards
Hey, people, what’s that sound?
It’s so easy to see through the fakery
And those who can and those who can’t
Those ruled by toxic jealousy
Losing the race that’s already been run
They’ve lost touch of everything
There’s nothing left to be won
Gone up those 39 Steps
And stumbled on the ninth
Finding that Higher Power
doesn’t come easy
He starts to play with your mind
Good things go into hiding
the more that you’re needy
Don’t preach with a forked tongue
The hypocrisy is creepy
Suddenly so-called friends are looking false
There’s a quiet desperation in the air
They know how to take but not how to give
With nothing here they’re running scared
What happened to all that matey talk
They’ve sunk without a trace
When the going gets tough
you see who’s weak
Let’s now all play Spot The Fake
Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
They’re extremely rich sons of a gun
They played it well cashed in their chips
It was about looking after number one
Petty people with jealous minds
Too many pretending to be your friend
They’ll knife you whenever they can
They don’t see how it all ends
Hallmark greeting card sentiments
From the nearest five and dime
So many tired doing nothing
And wondering why life isn’t fine
Forgot to remember about Mum and Dad
Thought they would live forever
Didn’t make time for the things that matter
Should have shared more love together
The pen is mightier than the sword
Words can rewrite history
Sentences can paint the future
The one that blind men can see
Writers have brought down Kingdoms
And exposed the Emperor’s new robes
Marched to the beat of their own drum
And felt the cloth of what’s been sold
People busy selling themselves
Always fine tuning their smiles
Designer brands can never hide
Lack of class and style