Thursday, 24 May 2012

E is for Entranced

This is my original South China Morning Post magazine piece from 1996 on Hong Kong's exploding rave culture and what police were touting as an 'ecstasy epidemic'. I was standing on the outside looking in when I wrote it. I've resisted the temptation to edit some of my youthful exuberance or correct a few inaccuracies (Graeme Park playing Trance? I think not. 110 beats per minute? Puh-lease.) If memory serves (and it frequently doesn't) I had actually dropped my first E a week or so before I wrote the story (by myself, for some inexplicable reason in Joe Bananas, which was never one of my haunts pre- or post-rave scene). I liked it. I just wasn't brave enough to make such an admission in the story. Neptunes, the much-loved, short-lived centre of Hong Kong's 'Summer of Love', such as it was, makes a fleeting appearance. Next week, I will travel back to Hong Kong to look at this moment in time through the prism of the 15th Anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, and a resurgence of interest in Neptunes via a Facebook group (and 'secret' group) that exploded in recent months. Love or hate Facebook, it reconnects people, and it has been entertaining and quite moving seeing the people who were there get back in touch and begin sharing the tunes, stories and memories of a very heady time. I'll update this with the magazine cover and some images when I dig them out of a box. 

Ah am f***in' well fed up because there's nothing happening and ah've probably done a paracetamol but, f*** it, you need to have positive vibes and wee Amber, she's rubbing away at the back ay ma neck and saying it'll happen when this operatic slab of synth seems to be 3-D and ah realise that I'm coming up in a big way as that invisible hand grabs a hud ay me and sticks me onto the roof because the music is in me around me and everywhere, it's just leaking from my body, this is the game this is the game

and ah look around and we're all going phoah and our eyes are just big black pools of love and energy and my guts are doing a big turn as the quease zooms through my body and we're up to the floor one by one and ah think I'm going tae need tae shit but ah hold on and it passes and I'm riding this rocket to Russia . . .

Thus enthuses Irvine Welsh, the high priest of heroin chic, who has recently turned his attention to the drug du jour in his imaginatively-titled tome, Ecstasy. It is probably as good an attempt as any to document the weird, seductive fusion of music and emotion and chemicals embraced by millions of people every weekend.

Perhaps each of the recent decades has had one drug above all others which has coursed through the nebulous veins of the zeitgeist, in which the hopes and fears and foibles of a new generation are reified. In the 1950s, it was the dope-shrouded dharma bums of the Beat Generation; in the 1960s, trippy hippies were taking electric kool-aid acid tests; the needlepoint netherworld of heroin clouded the 1970s; and in the 1980s, greed-charged yuppies did their best to hollow out their septums, tethered to the twin comets of the stock market and cocaine. As for the 1990s, a brief false dawn heralded a time of jaded, grungey slackers who had tried everything and aspired to nothing. As the decade wears on, however, the so-called Gen-Xers seem to have been well and truly subsumed by a rave new world.

Amid an avalanche of conspiracy theories, tabloid beat-ups and ugly ignorance, the symbiotic circus of house music and ecstasy is slowly but inexorably penetrating the mainstream of youth culture. Far from being an evanescent late-eighties experiment, the dance-drug scene continues to gather steam as the end of the millennium looms.

The literary world is also just waking up to the ecstasy experience. In Welsh's wake comes a host of E-xploitation books, including AD Atkins' Sorted and On One and Julian Madigan's The Agony of Ecstasy, which seek to explain the highs and lows of pharmaceutical life at the business end of the 20th Century. Rave culture has even percolated into the lair of the lad - the latest character introduced to readers of Viz magazine is Ravey Davey Gravy, who is prone to break into dance steps at the merest hint of a thudding, repetitive noise (in one adventure, he mistakes a jackhammer for a "jungle and ragga trip") and is given to orotund pronouncements such as: "I like larging it to techno and house!"

While debate rumbles on about the risks and effects of the drug and government departments stumble around in a haze of denial, buck-passing and apathy, the Hong Kong judiciary, at least, has made up its mind where it stands on ecstasy.

Magistrate Henry Brazier jailed finance brokers Sean Dullage, 27, and Dominic Way, 28, for 16 and 15 months respectively for selling one tablet of the drug at a rave at Jimmy's Sports Bar in December, shocking even police who made the bust with the severity of the sentence. The pair had been approached by an undercover officer asking where he could get some "stuff". Way's girlfriend had not shown up, so he offered the officer her tablet for $300 - towards the greedier end of street value.

In the High Court last week, Mr Justice Arthur Leong cut their sentences by four months, before launching into a tirade against the perils of ecstasy, branding it a killer and a threat to Hong Kong youth. He decided Brazier had erred in that the basic starting point for an ecstasy trafficking sentence should be 18 months, not two years. This, according to Way's lawyer, Alexander King, puts ecstasy a bit lower than heroin, for which trafficking sentences begin at two years, but above opium. "This ruling
means one tablet can get you 18 months inside. You don't even have to sell it - even passing one on is considered trafficking," says King.

Take a random sample at any Saturday night dance party in London or Sydney or Hong Kong and you will find stockbrokers and doctors and construction site labourers united by their blissed-out grins and saucer eyes, chests thudding to the commanding rhythms of methylene-dioxy-methylamphetamine (MDMA) and 110 synthesised beats per minute. In fact, take a recent Saturday night at Jimmy's Sports Bar at the Hong Kong Stadium, where DJs Graeme Park and Tom Wainwright from The Hacienda - something of a Manchester institution - have arrived to dispense their diet of Trance, Handbag and Happy House ...

It is ten minutes to midnight and the bouncer's booming voice slices the steamy summer night. "There's going to be cops on the floor tonight. They've said if more than two people are busted, they'll close it down." He is built like a masonry outhouse, has a bristling goatee and mohawk and looks meaner than a chapter of Hell's Angels. He draws a stertorous breath and continues ominously: "So if you've got anything to take, take it NOW!" The small queue of early arrivals giggles nervously. Bottles of Evian
and Volvic are uncapped and hands slide surreptitiously up to mouths. Surprisingly, those keenest to get an early start are not red-faced, bristle-headed expats but young clusters of Chinese slathered in chic and slinky designer clubbing gear, with the odd daub of Fetish Fashion.

Inside, more bulging neanderthals turf out the last of the football crowd, as local DJ Joel Lai conjures some preliminary thumps and squeaks and growls from the fearsome array of technology spread out before him. In the toilets, a raw-boned youth chuckles resignedly to his mate that it won't be long till he's forking out $300 for a dog-worming tablet. At 12.10 precisely, Lai stops tinkering and gets down to business. The beat kicks in - and will not cease until well after 6 am. With an evil whisper, smoke
machines shroud the floor in fog and the lights transform the place into a swirling neon maelstrom.

By 12.25, the first Es appear to have made their way from the stomach wall to the brain. The bar is lit up by a sudden recrudescence of inane grins and a couple of blokes make the first tentative forays onto the dance floor. As I'm standing there, trying hard to look the part in the latest Nike trainers, jeans and gently psychedelic t-shirt, I overhear a young Australian accent whingeing to his mate: "I can't believe it. I necked it an hour ago and I still can't feel a bloody thing. Bastard must have sold me a f***ing aspirin or something." I stifle a giggle at how life is mirroring Welsh's art. But he moves off, lost in the rapidly swelling crowd, and I never do find out whether that invisible hand ever grabbed a hud of him and put him on a bowel-churning rocket to Russia.

It's now 1.30, and the place is heaving. From the flashing teeth and random hugs, it does not seem unreasonable to assume 70 to 80 per cent of the crowd are sorted and on one. Nearby, three long-legged beauties have suddenly become one amorphous, amorous tangle of limbs. The floor seems to be bouncing up and down in unison, peopled by everything from gaggles of topless Chinese boys with torsos by Michelangelo to one chronic case of Saturday Night Fever, complete with acres of lapels, a gold medallion and what appears to be a thatch of snap-on chest hair. Drugs are changing hands in shadowy handshakes, but the promised police presence seems decidedly low-key; the threatened busts have thus far not materialised.

Jack is the committed raver's worst nightmare. Until a recent transfer, he was a senior officer in the police Narcotics Branch and the agent who had the dubious honour of arresting Dullage and Way. "We had one agent who had been undercover in that whole scene for six months or so, who was familiar with the rave scene in the UK, got to know who was involved here. But we didn't want to blow his cover, so myself and other officers would attend these events and the agent would point out potential dealers.

That way, he wouldn't have to appear in court if anyone was arrested," says Jack. "When Dullage and Way were asking us what they were likely to be facing, we told them most probably it would be a suspended sentence. We had no idea they would get such a harsh sentence."

He is unexpectedly candid about the difficulties of policing the ecstasy trade. "We definitely do not have a handle on how it's coming in, whether it's just a lot of individuals bringing in small amounts or a big, organised syndicate.

"One recent development seems to be that the Chinese heroin traffickers are now showing some interest in ecstasy. It's quite profitable: they can buy it in Europe for $50 a tablet and sell it here for $300. So especially with a growing number of locals now getting into the scene, they are looking to cash in."

He says the easiest way to get the drug into Hong Kong is literally by E-mail. "Sending tablets through in the post or by a courier service is pretty safe - the chances of it being seized are small." Most ecstasy sold in Hong Kong is manufactured in Europe - usually Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

If Way and Dullage are one type of ecstasy casualty, another is Jane O'Riordan, who was found dead last year, with ecstasy in her bloodstream, in the bed of her friend, RTHK radio presenter Harvey Crump. Her name is often trotted out as Hong Kong's answer to Leah Betts, the ecstasy victim who became a household name in Britain after the "Sorted" campaign, featuring a stark mugshot and the rubric "just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts". Indie band Chumbawumba countered with their own campaign, pasting up parodies of the poster proclaiming: "Distorted. Statistically, you're just as likely to die from swallowing a bayleaf than from taking an ecstasy tablet."

The dangers of MDMA can be enhanced by the various nasties it is cut with, including LSD, dog-worming tablets, decongestants and horse tranquiliser. It was first synthesised in 1912 by a German pharmaceutical company for use as a diet pill. It resurfaced in the US during the 1970s, and was used by psychotherapists as an anti-depressant until its growing popularity as a recreational drug saw the Food and Drug Administration ban it. It induces feelings of affection and closeness, even among strangers, by making the brain pump out neuro-transmitters known as serotonin and dopamine, which stimulate happy and loving feelings and suppress pain.

One government agency which appears to be expert at the suppression of painful realities is the office of the Commissioner for Narcotics. In reply to a request for information on ecstasy use and its effects came a one-page hand-written fax proclaiming the enlightened news that the reported individuals abusing MDMA in 1994 and 1995 numbered a big fat zero. It's obviously some time since the Commissioner and his cronies popped down to Jimmy's of a Saturday night.

The lack of apparent official concern may partly be due to the fact that ecstasy use is part of a youth culture based predominantly on interior feelings and self-absorption, whose adherents get together once or twice a week to get happy and hug each other a lot. It hardly seems a jagged threat to the very fabric of society, in the way the angry posturing of punk might once have appeared ("E? I'm on ego," a renascent Johnny Rotten sneered recently). Its substitution of sensuality for sexuality must also prove an attractive option for those who have grown up in the shadow of AIDS - many users say they are perfectly happy to end their night in love with the world, but alone in their beds; a kind of instant safe sex pill.

There seems little relationship between dosage and fatalities. People have died after taking one tablet (the ecstasy-related death toll in the UK is now nudging 70), while in one case, someone who took 42 tablets over 24 hours got away with a fast pulse, high blood pressure and a nasty hangover. The level of MDMA in his blood was 70 times higher than in people who have died from the drug. One theory on ecstasy deaths is that a small percentage of the population may be deficient in the enzyme that breaks
it down.

Some people die from overheating, as the surge in serotonin raises body temperature, which can be exacerbated by long and frantic bouts of dancing. This can be avoided by listening to your body and drinking plenty - but not an excessive amount - of water. In rare cases, including that of Leah Betts, death was due to water intoxication. Under the influence of the drug, some people drink so much water that the brain can swell up and be crushed by the skull. Recent research on squirrel monkeys suggests use of the drug can cause long-term brain damage. Nerve cells damaged by the spurts of serotonin tended to grow back abnormally, effectively re-wiring the brain.

Peter, 22, an advertising copywriter, and Donald, 25, a musician, are two friends who are immersed in the club scene and intent on rewiring their brains. Peter reels off the "brands" of E currently on the market in Hong Kong, selling from anywhere between $200 and $300 a tablet. "At the moment you can get Barney Rubbles, Thunderbolts, Swans, Apple Macs, Hammer and Sickles, and Snowballs," he says. They are so-called because of the designs imprinted on the tablets. The effects of different types may vary, depending on how they have been cut, but generally pills of the same batch will produce fairly consistent effects.

Peter: The pushers always, always keep pills aside for the big club nights, which kind of reflects the whole idea of the ecstasy culture, to have a focus. They want you to have a good time on the night. In England, the people involved with the clubs are often also involved in the selling of E. And here, there are, like, affiliations, definitely.

Donald: Obviously, there's an element of being wary of strangers when you're trying to score at a club, particularly when you know there are going to be undercover cops. Most of the cops are pretty f***ing obvious. You can just tell, they don't speak the same language, they're not clued in.

Peter: Ask the DJ! (laughs) Usually you are there with a bunch of your friends and someone always knows someone who knows a dealer. That's one of the best things, it's this grass roots kind of thing, you are all there taking care of each other. If you're on a pill and everyone else isn't, you're not going to have a good time. The best nights without a doubt are when everyone is flying high, not just you and your friends, but everyone in the room. You're smiling at people you don't know, it's a really
transcendent experience.

Donald: I must say, the last couple I've done didn't do that much. I wouldn't say it was disappointing, but I haven't felt it as strongly as I've done in the past. I think it's a combination of a build-up of tolerance and the novelty factor goes.

Peter: What surprises me, though, is when you talk to [rave] organisers and they spout this anti-drugs attitude. It's just complete hypocrisy and contradiction. I mean, the music is designed for people on E. Even the way it's played, there's breaks, and there's like bursts of euphoria, and the best DJs are the ones who understand a crowd that's on E and they give you spaces and journeys - I mean, that's what they call it, a journey.

Donald: The worry, though, is you just don't know exactly what you are doing to your brain. People say that in Britain, it's the perfect drug for the masses from a politician's point of view - it's relatively affordable, you accept everything, you are amiable. You start to wonder if it's more radical not to take drugs. After a while you start to think, does it actually take something out, do you have a store of happiness in your body and can you exhaust that? We've had weeks where we went mad on the weekend, and until Wednesday, you're just depressed and really moody and you think, right, I've got to chill out now and not do it for a while. Then the weekend rolls around, and you're back on it. When it gets to that point, that's when you have to tell yourself, well, I'm just being young and stupid.

It's 3 am now and Jimmy's is full of people just being, well, young and stupid. The sweat is flowing as freely as the $30 bottles of Evian, coursing down gyrating flesh in varying states of undress. It is hard to say whether it is hotter inside or out, and little eddies of bodies buffet each other in the quest to find out. I am drenched in sweat and have finally surrendered to the relentless, hypnotic beat. The DJ is dropping rapid-fire depth charges which shudder through my gut and my hips begin to sway of their own accord. Some punters are already on the way down and lie sprawled around the fringes of the venue. But the floor remains packed, partly due to a constant stream of new arrivals and partly due to chemical replenishment. Danny, a mid-20ish Chinese lad, is feeling rather more relaxed now, having dispensed of the dozen or so pills he risked bringing in to sell on discreetly to friends for $300 a pop. With a wad of cash bulging in his wallet, he glances round then necks the last one himself.

Another two hours and the sun's first rays are struggling through the smog outside. Judging by some of the weird contortions taking place on the dance floor, the squirrel monkey theory doesn't seem too far off beam. There is some serious synchronised hugging happening, spreading out through the crowd like Mexican waves. By 5.30, a mantra strikes up, gathering volume: "See you at Neptune?".

Local DJ Lee Burridge has already fled Jimmy's for the subterranean Wan Chai haunt half-an-hour earlier, where the last of the pot-bellied, greying gweilos and amorous amahs have made way for the hard-core ravers. Burridge will continue to spin his steel wheels until the sun is nudging the yardarm. I arrive shortly after six, and the place is already filling up. Unlike many in the rave "industry", who publicly espouse "Just Say No" platitudes knowing full well a goodly slab of the punters are eccied to
the eyeballs, Burridge is refreshingly sanguine. "There's no two ways about it, E goes hand-in-hand with the dance scene. I'm playing in clubs most nights, and you see a lot of people who arrive in town, cane it for three months, then have to get off it for a while, before their wallets or bodies give out."

By 8 am, it's all starting to seem horribly surreal. One body - that attached to my drum-and-bass-befuddled brain - is definitely about to give out. Some are still bopping vigorously on the dance floor, looking as fresh as when they arrived at Jimmy's eight hours earlier; some line the walls, looking like extras from Night of the Living Dead. And some are just wandering the streets, as that hollow feeling grows and grows, afraid they can never go home because they seem to have left an important part of
their brain in a club in Wan Chai.


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