Updated: Sep 25, 2021
It took about two terms before I started to “hit my stride” at the secondary school that was KGV- King George the Fifth in Tin Kwong Road Kowloon.
Mentally, I was still the academically driven student from Quarry Bay primary school. But, at the same time, cosmopolitan KGV was, without knowing it, very much in sync with colonial Hong Kong emerging as an exciting international city and “the gateway to China”.
Our parents’ social status and how they thought about things happening around them affected us kids- especially a kid like myself who had no say about ending up in Hong Kong from the wide open spaces of Ceylon. It couldn’t have been easy for my parents to uproot and, at their age, start all over again. I didn’t understand nor appreciate it at the time, but my parents were happy with a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Their priority was thinking of ways of improving MY future- and how, if one day, they had the financial means to do so, give me everything they never had. It’s no doubt why when older, they were always interested in knowing whether I was a millionaire and why, especially my father, had the tendency to be too proud of me and whatever I might have accomplished. There was pressure in succeeding no matter how small and insignificant these successes might have been. Then again, this might also have been that weird Dutch Burgher characteristic to compete with other Burghers even if they were relatives. It’s no doubt why I don’t like those who flaunt their wealth and social status and believe that money- and having more money- is the cure-all for everything, especially in materialistic riddled, and status driven Hong Kong. I am proud to say that I have never owned a watch or car and couldn’t care less about how much money someone has and that nouveau riche love affair with designer anything. It’s why I fell in love and married the person I did- someone who was down to earth and real. The problem is that people change. Morphing into a higher social circle just to keep up with the rest of the private club often causes personality changes. This is when one decides to try to find who’s best for you and the walls come tumbling down.
I understood my parents far better when I became a husband and father. I sometimes wonder if my daughter from that marriage will ever realise what some of us not born with a silver spoon in our mouths went through just to fit in to Hong Kong as a colony and get to where we are. It wasn’t easy. But these are days of entitlement. Priorities are out of whack while gratitude and success are often taken for granted. At KGV, there were many kids who came from very well-to-do families with their fathers on those obscenely generous expat packages. This is not to say that they were living in happy family surroundings. The social whirl their parents were caught up in along with the trappings that went along with these often saw many lives unraveling. Like almost everyone else, these kids wanted a sense of belonging and were willing to pay for it. We all want that emotional security of belonging. It’s probably why some had the most expensive musical instruments, but no musical talent. Developing this talent came in handy. This wasn’t Quarry Bay Primary School anymore. It was about being streetwise though not realising its importance. These rich kids with apartments and houses in expensive addresses in Hong Kong and Kowloon like Repulse Bay, Deep Water Bay, Kadoorie Avenue etc were useful, especially when in a school band and needing somewhere to rehearse. We who didn’t have what they had knew that with their domestic helpers, there would always be a free lunch and some tea and sympathy when the band rehearsals took a break. What about their parents? Many were living secret lives and doing their best to keep marriages and their positions in society intact. The secrets were discovered only by inadvertently finding what was hidden under those superficial magic carpet rides. More people in Hong Kong than many think- adults, meaning parents- were experimenting with hallucinogenics. Some were doing so because of their unhappiness. Others were thinking this would help them better understand their kids who were buying cheap smack from familiar hangouts in Causeway Bay and Wanchai. They were getting strung out while many of their parents were on the dark side of the moon. Those like myself and coming from poor families, we wanted to somehow better our lives. But it wasn’t something we agonised over. We were realistic enough to know that our parents didn’t have the very high “membership fees” needed for them to buy a seat for us in these exclusive clubs. This meant us creating our own “designer brands” without even knowing it and giving others what they wanted, but couldn’t have. Money doesn’t buy everything. It’s what made being “popular” in school so important. It’s still a good product to own. There were many ways of being seen as “popular”. Often, it had to do with the company one kept and those certain extracurricular activities that opened new doors and opportunities. By now, apart from playing cricket and pretty good at it, I had a guitar and was taking guitar lessons on Saturday afternoons from the best guitarist in Hong Kong at the time- Tony Carpio.
Learning from Mr Carpio was not enjoyable. He was moody and became frustrated that I couldn’t stretch my fingers enough nor play barre chords.
Being a brilliant jazz guitarist and friends with my dad, Tony Carpio wanted me to learn how to play standards like “Autumn Leaves”.
I wanted to learn a few basic chords so I could join a school band or maybe try and write my own songs.
I was bought a Vox Teardrop 12-string guitar- I could never play it- because Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones played one.
To get this, I had promised my parents that I would take guitar lessons. Breaking the news to them that I was “going solo” wasn’t well accepted. But...
Tastes in popular music were also changing one’s personality. We were moving away from the sounds of the Ventures, the Shadows, the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons and clean cut pop idols.
We had no idea that around the corner were very different looking and sounding bands and something called Beatlemania.
Who knew where all this would lead?
There were also different sexual revolutions going on without any of it being overtly obvious- at that moment.
For myself, no longer attractive were bosomy teen dream actresses like Anita Ekberg and Jayne Mansfield and Playboy centrefolds.
There was suddenly a change in tastes and an attraction in actresses like Ann Margaret and Kim Novak who were very different bell, books and candles.
When the Beatles performed at the Princess Theatre in Hong Kong in 1964 with Jimmy Nicol deputising for Ringo who was recovering from having his tonsils taken out, this was the trigger for many changes to happen to some of us at KGV.
It’s hard to explain, and maybe there’s no explanation, but the arrival of the Beatles and their music opened doors to so much more- many other bands, yes, but also an explosion of creativity and a totally different lifestyle.
This set some of us on a very different course to what our folks had planned.
We didn’t know where things were heading, but we were excited to see where it all might lead, or at least give us the time to catch our breath and see where we had landed and take it from there.
For me and my best friend in and out of school- Steve, far right- an Eurasian kid who was born to be a musician, that restless spirit was taking over.
School and even being in school bands could wait or even disappear. Steve, very much the best drummer Hong Kong ever heard- and this includes the brilliant Donald Ashley- was moving more and more with a more mature tribe. Wherever he went, I did and without even seeking them out, sexual exploits happened. I have no idea how it happened. Steve came from a very tight family unit. His father and mother were great people who worked for China Light and Power. Secretary for Lord Kadoorie, Mrs Tebbutt was the nicest and most attractive lady I have known. His elder brother Tony was the popular school jock and dating the prettiest girl at KGV.
Still, here were Steve and I from very different backgrounds quietly enjoying being with mature Australian and Canadian showgirls who were great “teachers” in the game of life and even helping look after us financially. $20 pocket money a week didn’t get me very far. Meanwhile, my grades had gone right down. By now, we had moved into our own shoebox in the city- a one room apartment in another high rise with an area that served as the dining/living/kitchen area. It was hardly the Ritz Carlton. My falling grades worried my parents, especially my mother, but though I cared about her feelings, I didn’t care about school. Though spending money they really couldn’t afford to hire someone to help with my homework, I didn’t see the point in studying algebra and chemistry and geometry and spending hours at woodwork. Why? I wasn’t going to be a carpenter though Jesus might have been. I was embracing music. A couple of years later, I started to read about Arthurian days and nights and embrace the poetry of Milton and Tennyson and Bob Dylan.
It was no surprise that when I first dropped a tab of acid with Steve at the Scene discotheque in the basement of the Peninsula hotel, I floated past water lilies, moats opened and was a knight of the round table and enamoured with Guinevere.
We left the Scene when a Pop Art poster of Dick Tracy came alive and started shooting at me. Just before this, an army of ants were marching through my hamburger and fries. Steve was somewhere else and paranoia had taken over.
It was Freak Out time. Steve and I somehow managed to get into a cab and get back to his apartment.
With Sgt Pepper’s playing in the background, we went on the solo trips happening in our minds. We were together alone.
I had no idea where Steve’s trip took him, but the next day we never spoke about where we had been for almost fourteen hours and what we had seen.
We swore that we would never take acid again and flushed the tabs down the toilet. These tabs had been given to us on blotting paper by an older American kid holidaying in Hong Kong.
Of course, we went back for more a few weeks later before finally experiencing the worst trip ever that started in a room at the Mandarin hotel and where I doubt any of those involved in that journey has ever been the same.
It’s still a wonder that a couple of us- Steve had left Hong Kong and was performing in Hawaii- in a makeshift band called Pussyfoot performed at a concert at the Hong Kong Football Stadium on acid.
At least to some girls in the audience from Hong Kong International School, we were “a trip”.
They enjoyed the “performance art” of one of the guitarists not playing and just standing there. They didn’t know that after three days, he was still tripping and frozen with fear. He saw his guitar as a snake.
Today, he’s a full time conspiracy theorist and lives on planet YouTube searching for more misinformation. He’s become Nowhere Man.
Meanwhile, we had formed bands. It was difficult being in one with Steve because he left us all for dead. He could play any instrument he picked up. And very well. We just wanted to please him. Everyone who knew him looked up to Steve. We wanted to please him.
During the time Steve was not in Hong Kong much had changed in my life.
Though still living with my parents, we finally had a proper apartment though nothing flash. At long last I had my own little room.
Dad had left the Hong Kong Hilton and was with the Hyatt.
Apart from his fear of even the mention of a typhoon approaching Hong Kong, he was happy. He was always impeccably well dressed and enjoying all the glamour he was around.
He got a taste for this when with the Hong Kong Hilton and meeting Hollywood stars like William Holden, Steve McQueen, Cary Grant, Roger Moore, Eartha Kitt and Judy Garland.
At the Hyatt he saw the emergence of the new breed of Hong Kong entrepreneurs like Stanley Ho.
Mum was still working and looking after the household finances and dealing with the landlord. She had a razor sharp mind for numbers.
She also had quite a risqué sense of humour which one didn’t expect from her outwardly straight laced personality.
A kitten, only a few days old, decided to adopt me. Being the creative person I am, I named her Kitty. She was my best and most loyal friend for over twenty years.
I wasn’t short of having girls, mainly American, who, I guess, wanted first dibs on something different and spicy.
After those episodes, I started going out with an older Portuguese girl for a couple of years and whom I had first met at a party with Steve.
After a few years of playing in Japan and Hawaii with bands and marrying his girlfriend from Hong Kong, Steve returned to Hong Kong and accidentally checked out by choking on whatever it was he had taken.
It really wasn’t his time. It never is. Steve was set for real musical greatness.
I was with him the night he decided to make that fatal trip to Yuen Long to score whatever it was he needed to get in order to get over a broken love affair with an exquisitely beautiful Eurasian dancer-turned singer here named Irene Ryder. Almost every guy wanted Irene. Who could blame them?
I was never part of the heavy drug scene going on in Hong Kong and felt somewhat guilty that I couldn’t go with Steve and buy whatever it was he was buying. Plus, the girl I didn’t know I was going to marry was coming over to my place the next day. She was my priority.
I said a silent goodbye to Steve when they laid him down to rest. A bird flew across my face when he was being buried. It was a sign that he had crossed over. There have been many nights when he’s visited me.
I don’t believe any of us who were in that inner circle with Steve were not affected by him in life and in death.
Maybe he squandered career opportunities not to hurt his band mates. Or maybe he just wanted to write and play music and get married to the right woman and wasn’t interested in the fame game.
Getting back to the KGV years, they were good and even better if not taking them too seriously.
Going to school was kinda like somewhere to kill some time before getting on with real life.
Away from school, Steve and I were hanging out in clubs in Tsimshatsui and taking in bands playing in the clubs- bands like the Four Steps with a singer from Beijing. The singer was the future legend and openly gay Roman Tam.
It then time to be given a hundred bucks to have a happy ending by the future Canto Pop pioneer Sam Hui, who was playing in a band called The Bar Six at the Firecracker Bar in the Hyatt.
Steve and I walked around the red light districts like Temple Street with “big brothers” covered in tats taking us where no one else would have. These were ground floor apartments with red lights outside as a Welcome sign. It’s where young Chinese girls in red cheongsams worked hard with military like precision. It wasn’t that different to the fast food business. In, out, and next, please. One guesses that the Tat Brothers found the fact that we weren’t Chinese nor totally Caucasian, dressed differently and had long hair interesting. Knowing a smattering of Cantonese helped. Hanging out with these big brothers was good practice for the other life we were living... with our parents and going out with girls, but most of them being older and more experienced than us. Looking back, I guess we liked their independence and lifestyles. Plus there was always a “pride in ownership” of attaining the unattainable. There were some very pretty girls at KGV. But though very nice, they were ultimately not exciting enough.
Excitement is what we were looking for and was often found when least expecting it. Were we bad boys? Not to us. We were looking for something or someone that might not have been there.
For all that freewheeling lifestyle we were leading outwardly, we were internalising in different ways.