17 January 2015

Choosing to Use 企硬剔嘢


Among the constellation of urban vice in Hong Kong – prostitution, illegal gambling and organized crime – drug abuse is perhaps the most widespread and fastest growing. It is a guilty pleasure that transcends socioeconomic class and ethnic backgrounds, fuelled by the influx of cheap drugs from Mainland China and other emerging markets in Asia. And the upcoming murder trial of Rurik Jutting, a Cambridge-educated Hong Kong-based investment banker known for his “regular weekend drug binges”, is expected to thrust the well-known but little mentioned subject of illegal drug use, especially among high-rolling banking professionals, back into newspaper headlines and public discourse.

To take or not to take


The Jutting story has prompted me to send out a few text messages scouting for people in the know for a dose of inside scoop. It didn’t take me long to zero in on JD*, a self-proclaimed drug enthusiast who happens to be a derivatives trader for a bulge-bracket investment bank. The 26-year-old Chinese Canadian moved to Hong Kong from Toronto two years ago. He and his girlfriend Claire* share an apartment on Wanchai’s Star Street, one of the city’s upscale expat enclaves. The couple, together with their like-minded friends, use drugs recreationally and regularly.

Like other young bankers, JD is smart and assertive. And like other derivatives traders, he is accustomed to taking calculated risks for himself and his clients. JD applies his professional skills to his pharmacological pursuits, and manages his exposure by doing extensive research on the garden variety of drugs available in Hong Kong. Out of everything he and Claire have sampled over the years, MDMA and cocaine are their substances of choice. MDMA, which stands for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, is a psychoactive drug made from safrole oil. In tablet form, it is commonly known as ecstasy or its street name E. But JD is a purist and prefers to ingest MDMA in its crystalline form.

“MDMA is a great party drug because it enhances my perception of colors and sounds,” JD enthused. “It also makes me feel empathetic toward my friends. I take it twice a month when I go clubbing.”

MDMA in an ingestible crystalline form


“Coke does something entirely different,” he continued, “It gives you a confidence boost and a sense of accomplishment – the same feeling you get after closing a multimillion-dollar deal. Unlike MDMA, there is no hangover the following day. I can do a few lines on a Sunday night and go to work Monday morning.”

“How about heroin and methamphetamine?” I asked. “They’re very popular among Hong Kong Chinese.” Meth is also called “ice” in the local vernacular.

JD cringed when he heard those words. “We call heroin and ice ‘trashy drugs.’ They’re highly addictive and shooting up heroin leaves needle holes on your arms. Low-income folks take them because they are cheap. Bankers, especially the expats, don’t really touch that stuff.”

Trashy drug


“Do you smoke pot too?” I asked, conscious of the fact that marijuana has recently been legalized in four U.S. states.

“Pot is cool,” he beamed. “Claire prefers using a glass bong. We smoke in the living room while watching television. Marijuana contains less tar than tobacco and so the smell doesn’t stick to the furniture.”

“How about ketamine or LSD?” I pressed, determined to cover all the bases.

“Not as much. Ketamine is called K-jai here. It makes you hallucinate and gives you an out of body sensation. When you move your arms, for instance, it feels like you’re moving somebody else’s body part. Claire and I took some before we went hiking on Lantau Island yesterday. As for LSD, it’s very difficult to get it in Hong Kong, and so we don’t do much of it. No supply, no demand.”

Ketamine's out of body experience


Our conversation segued naturally into sources and pricing. My insider proceeded to walk me through where he gets his goods and how much he pays for them. 

“Say, if I want some coke – which comes in one-eighth ounce packages – I’ll phone up one of my guys who will either come to my apartment or meet me in his car or a taxi. He’ll take my cash, hand me the stuff and drop me off a block away.”

“Who exactly are these guys of yours?”

“There’re a few dozen dealers in the city. They’re local men in their 30s – decent guys who want to make a few bucks. It’s all business: efficient and uneventful.”

I asked JD whether these men were connected with the triads – the local mafia.

“I suppose someone somewhere up the food chain is. But the guys I deal with are low level distributors. There’re no dragon tattoos or missing fingers. They wear polo shirts and khakis just like you and me.”.

Drugs and money change hands anywhere in the city


“Alright, let's talk money. How much is a gram of coke these days?”  I probed.

“I pay about HK$800 (US$103) for a gram, which will last me and Claire all night. It’s cheaper than buying booze, and that’s partly why cocaine is popular.”

“And the others?”

“Marijuana comes in dried flower buds. A pack costs roughly HK$600 and is good for eight joints. E, on the other hand, is overpriced in Hong Kong. It costs HK$300 a pill, compared to less than HK$100 in the U.S. But prices for E have started to come down since the mainland Chinese started making synthetic safrole oil.”

Dried flower buds


Once money and drugs change hands, it is all good. JD and his friends consume what they buy at home to avoid having to carry it or pass it around in public – except for coke, which he usually has a second helping in the club’s bathroom. It is called a “key bump” because the small amount is snorted from a household key.

“Have drugs become a big part of your life?” I asked, out of genuine concern.

“Not as much as it sounds,” JD defended. “It’s a hobby, not a habit. I’m aware of the dangers, not only the legal risks but also the health effects. The main worry is that your body may build up a tolerance over time, and that you have to take more and more to get the same high. That’s why Claire and I space out our uses. Drugs are just like alcohol or fatty food, you have to know your limits.”

JD is not just an enthusiast; he is also an advocate. “Drugs have been demonized because people fear what they don’t understand,” he argued. “They can be a useful tool if we learn to use them responsibly. Psychedelic substances allow you to explore your deeper emotions and confront your demons, whatever they are. They’ve helped Claire and me work through our relationship problems.”

JD has a point. In the U.S., clinical trials are being conducted to use MDMA, ketamine and magic mushrooms to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One potential application of MDMA


In recent months, JD has been ordering drugs in larger quantities and selling some of them to his friends for a profit. To do that, he has not only moved up the local supply chain but also started importing from overseas. He even has test kits at home to verify the chemical contents of his purchases. For his own protection, he would not disclose how he manages to evade Hong Kong Customs when shipping banned substances into the city.

But the stakes can be high. The maximum penalty for drug trafficking in Hong Kong is HK$5,000,000 in fines and life imprisonment. A disgruntled customer or a careless friend is all it takes to get JD into serious trouble. For now, he is taking it all in stride. He insisted that he knew what he was doing.

“I import in very small quantities,” JD stressed. “It makes sense because if I’m buying for myself anyway, I may as well order a bit more for my close friends. By the way, text me if you want some for yourself. I sell better stuff than the junk on the street.

___________________
*Their real names have been concealed to protect their anonymity.


This article previously appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column The Urban Confessional.


As printed in MANIFESTO


11 January 2015

We Are Charlie 我們都是查理


2014 wasn’t a good year for journalists and political satirists. Two American reporters were among a handful of Western hostages beheaded by the militant group ISIS in August and September. After that came a series of cyber attacks on Sony Pictures for ridiculing North Korea’s paramount leader Kim Jong-un in the comedy The Interview. Here in Hong Kong, we learned in horror the brutal knife attack on Kevin Lau (劉進圖), former chief editor of  the Ming Pao Daily, outside his apartment building on that fateful February morning. It remains unclear whom Lau had ticked off for him to be stabbed six times in the back and legs.

"We are all Charlie"


Those who had hoped that 2015 would be a better year for free speech had their bubbles burst only days after they put down the champagne flutes and party hats. On 7 January, heavily-armed Islamic extremists stormed the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in central Paris and murdered the magazine’s lead cartoonists. Firsthand accounts of the midday massacre were chilling: masked gunmen threatened to shoot a staffer’s young daughter if she didn’t give them the building’s entry code, and once they were inside the newspaper office, called out their targets by name. The shooting left twelve people dead, all because a group of people who couldn’t take a joke were upset by some silly cartoons published years ago.

That one of the dozen victims was a Muslim police officer was remarkable on two levels. First, knowingly or not, the officer had died protecting the very people who had mocked his faith. Second, it highlights the hypocrisy of the attackers and their cause, as neither the Quran nor any Islamic teaching sanctions the use of non-defensive violence, much less against one of their own. It bolsters the argument that the terrorist act was no more than a mob hit by a few unhinged radicals, and that it has nothing whatsoever to do with either Islam or the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. Believing otherwise is as irrational as blaming all Christians for the sexual abuses by a handful of Catholic priests, or demanding an apology from Mainland Chinese tourists for the sale of gutter oil and tainted baby formula in China. We should be smart enough not to lump a few bad apples in with a basket of millions.

Who has mocked Islam? Cartoonists or terrorists?


The day after 7 January, now a dividing line in modern French history, I phoned up my friend Alexia, a Paris-based lawyer who used to work in Hong Kong. By the time we spoke, she had already attended a half dozen vigils near her office. She said she would light a white candle and place it on her window sill at home, as had many of her fellow Parisians to pay respect to those who had died doing what they did best. Clearly shaken, Alexia told me that Charlie Hebdo, together with Le Canard Enchaîné, were the two most critical voices in France’s printed media (“Think the Apple Daily*,” Alexia said). She also told me that the slain cartoonists, in particular Stéphane Charbonnier, Cabu and Tignous, were prominent provocateurs in France (“Think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert,” she said). Their deaths meant more than a tremendous loss of talent, she believed, but a declaration of war on the freedom of speech. And free speech is a right more cherished and jealously guarded in France than probably anywhere else in the world outside the United States.

On the subject of First Amendment rights, the Charlie Hebdo shooting has sparked heated debate on the Internet over the age old question of whether free speech should have limits. The answer is emphatically “yes,” and that’s why its against the law in most countries to falsely shout “Fire!” in a movie theater or joke about seeing a bomb when on board a passenger airplane. Many countries have also banned “fighting words” – hate speech that would cause immediate violence, such as uttering incendiary words to provoke an angry crowd. Other than those limited circumstances, it is very difficult to make a case to encroach on the right to express an opinion, however offensive it is to some. Racist or inflammatory speech may be in bad taste, and the proper response should be outrage, condemnation and boycott, all of which happened to Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, after he made an off-color remark about women. But to assassinate Mr. Wilson for upsetting the other gender? You would have to be deranged to sign on to that. Free speech aside, how about a right not to be murdered for speaking ones mind?

Charbonnier, a martyr for free speech


With the help of donations and a trust fund, Charlie Hebdo is expected to print five million copies of their first post-shooting issue next Wednesday, a significant increase over its standard 60,000-copy print run. In the days since 7 January, the offending caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad – the very cause of the terrorist attack – have gone viral on social media and are viewed and shared by more people than ever. In the meantime, publications around the world have put out new cartoons supporting the French magazine and mocking the terrorists. Far from having a chilling effect on political satirists, the Paris shooting seems to have inspired more artists and journalists to exercise their freedom of expression. It is precisely what has happened to the Hong Kong government after it tried to snuff out dissent by removing those giant yellow banners hung by activists demanding universal suffrage: yellow signs in every way, shape and form have cropped up all over the city. Attempts to suppress free speech almost always backfire.

Following the Paris attack, comedian and television host Jon Stewart lamented, “Very few people go into comedy as an act of courage… and it shouldn’t be that way.” His somber remark has made me think about my father, who was a newspaper cartoonist in Hong Kong before he retired in Canada. Even though his drawings tended to be social commentary rather than political satires, it is unfathomable to him that execution by firing squad is now an occupational hazard for people in his trade, or for anyone else who is in the business of using humor to make a point. Stewart is right: it shouldn’t be that way.


____________________
*Hours after this article was posted, in the early hours of 12 January, masked attackers threw firebombs at the home and offices of Next Media founder Jimmy Lai (黎智英). Next Media owns, among other things, the Apple Daily, one of the few remaining local newspapers that are critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government. Police investigations of the coordinated attacks are underway.

My cartoonist father

19 December 2014

15 Minutes with Mr. Lau 與劉師父的對話


I finished dinner in Causeway Bay and hailed a taxi outside th

e Excelsior Hotel. The driver was a middle-aged man with grizzled hair and a penchant for small talk. Small talk is not my thing, much less with a stranger at the end of a long day. As I was disentangling my earphones to signal my desire for a quiet ride, the driver said something that piqued my interest.

Conversation with Mr. Lau


“Look at this mess,” he complained, pointing at the snarled traffic on Gloucester Road. “We had 79 days of heaven and now we are back in hell.”

I wasn’t sure if I had heard him right. My impression was like everyone else’s – that taxi drivers were upset with the Umbrella Movement because main arteries like Harcourt Road and Nathan Road had been occupied. And for those who are in the business of moving people around, blocked streets mean bad business.

“How do you mean?” I probed, glancing at his ID on the dashboard. His name was Lau.



“I mean business was much better during the protests,” Mr. Lau declared.

“I was told your income fell by 15 to 30% because the streets were blocked.” I remembered reading those figures in the paper.

“That’s a load of crap,” he said. “For 79 days, I worked less and made more. Who doesn’t like that?”

Taxi drivers demanding Harcourt Road to be reopened


“You need to explain to me how that worked, because that’s not what we think happened.”

“It’s simple. Traffic was way better during the protests. There were no double-deckers taking up multiple lanes, and more people took taxis because buses and mini-buses were re-routed.”

“But wasn’t it a big hassle to have to go around the protest sites?”

“It was confusing the first couple of days but people quickly adapted. Say, if I were to go eastbound from Sai Ying Poon to Causeway Bay, I would take Lung Wo Road and bypass the protest zone in Admiralty.” He proceeded to give me a few more examples of how drivers would dodge the occupied areas by taking alternate routes, both on the Hong Kong side and in Kowloon.

“And there’s one more thing,” Mr. Lau continued to enlighten me. “With so much police presence everywhere, we had fewer idiots double-parking or unloading stuff where they weren’t supposed to. Drivers were on their best behavior and many people simply left their cars at home to avoid trouble.”

Taxi drivers parked on tram tracks to protest against protestors


“Exactly how much better was business?” I pressed, wanting details.

“On average, I made about $300 more every day.”

“What percentage is that compared to what you made before or after the protests?”

“Well, I pull in roughly $1,200 on a good day and $800 on a slow one. So my income went up by more than 30% during those 11 or so weeks.”

“You said you had worked less to make more. It doesn’t seem to add up.”

“Why not? With better traffic and a constant flow of customers, my meter jumped faster. I could finish my shift two to three hours early on most nights.”

“Was it just you or was it the case for everyone else?”

“We all drive on the same streets. Why would I be any different from the next cab driver?”

After 79 days, things are now back to "normal"

I shook my head in disbelief, shoving my still tangled earphones back into my bag. I recalled images of irate taxi drivers charging at student protestors and taking down their barricades, all because their livelihood had been ruined by traffic disruptions.

“If what you said is true, then who were those angry cab drivers filing for court injunctions and punching their fists in the air?”

“Even my wife cringed when she saw that on television. Those were hired guns, of course. The whole thing was staged. Those guys were paid $1,500 for a day’s work. I’m too old to do that sort of thing, and so I didn’t take the offer. If I were younger, perhaps I would have considered.”

“How did they ask you, by Whatsapp or SMS?”

“Heck, no! That would be too obvious. One of the large taxi companies made verbal offers to us.” He mentioned a company name I had not heard of. Taxi companies aren’t exactly household names.

“I had no idea. I thought it was just a conspiracy theory,” I confessed.

“That’s what the Communists do best. Lies and more lies.” Mr. Lau made his first political statement in our conversation. It would also be his last.

“I’m not a political person, you see. I just want to make money to pay off my mortgage and send my children overseas for a good education. I want them to be as far away from this rotten place as possible.”

Mr. Lau went on with his doomsday pessimism: “Hong Kong is a place to make money. Once you have made enough, you get out and never come back. That’s what all the politicians do as well. Look at C.Y. Leung – all his children are studying abroad.”

They've been framed

He was starting to veer off topic and I wanted to bring the conversation back to the Umbrella Movement. “If the protests were good for business,” I asked, “then does it mean you support the students?”

“I don’t support anybody. I’m just an ordinary person trying to make a honest living.” He heaved a sigh and continued, “I’m just telling you what I see. Traffic was great for 79 days and now things are back to normal,’ the normal traffic jams that had cost me over an hour tonight to go from Diamond Hill to Causeway Bay before I picked you up at the Excelsior.”

“Then, Mr. Lau, you must tell every passenger what you have just told me! You should phone in to a radio show or talk to a reporter.” I urged. “Everyone believed what they saw on the news and blamed the students for things they didn’t do. That’s not fair to them!”

“Look, I’m not an activist and I need to be careful whom I talk to. You look like a nice enough guy and so I assume you aren’t one of those Blue Ribbons. I don’t want any trouble...”

That’s when I saw my apartment building and interrupted Mr. Lau: “Wait, sorry, turn left at the traffic lights please.” I gave him a better-than-usual tip and thanked him for the conversation. He thanked me in return and waved goodbye before pulling off.

I went home and turned on my computer. I decided to do what Mr. Lau did not want to do – I would tell everyone what he had told me. It was the right thing to do.