Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Planet Neptune, the Handover and Hong Kong's Summer of Love

My recent cover story for South China Morning Post's Postmagazine, where I was senior writer for several years what seems a lifetime ago. Pulling the story together, as well as a reunion party at Homebase in Hollywood Road, the last place I DJ'd regularly in Hong Kong (I had caught the fever largely because of Neptune, Hong Kong's rave parties and being bowled over by the music of the day) was a fun but somewhat draining experience. DJing on Pioneer CDJ decks after being a vinyl aficionado and not having played a set in a club for three years also frayed a few nerve endings, but it turned out alright on the night. The real DJs, Christian and David Lam, played some great music at the reunion gig and there was no shortage of blasts from the past. Lee Burridge, who has made serious global waves (and .wavs) in the world of electronic dance music chipped in with some priceless observations. The story seems to have struck a chord (if not a piano synth arpeggio) in certain Hong Kong circles. 

One morning in 1996 I stepped through a neon portal and down a stygian Wan Chai staircase and found myself on another planet. The inhabitants of this alien world floated about with benign smiles, dressed in luminous garments, and seemed to communicate without words. Great pulses of electronic sound swept around me, drawing me to what seemed like the command centre, where an unfeasibly pretty leader jabbed buttons and tweaked strange dials, bending his people into improbable shapes.
     I had been in this same physical space on previous occasions; a subterranean Lockhart Road lair where Filipino bands blared and booze-rouged expats put the moves on amahs. But on this particular morning, somewhere after 5am, fresh from visiting my first rave party at Jimmy’s Sports Bar in pursuit of a story for this magazine about how the drug ecstasy was changing the face of Hong Kong clubbing, it was as if time and space had shifted.
     I felt as if I had stumbled upon the secret dawning of the Age of Aquarius; harmony, brotherhood and understanding seemed to flow through the thudding beats and the flashing strobe. This was no longer some dingy basement clip joint, it was a seething, surging, hugging, grinning, gurning, roiling, raving mad tide of good vibes.
    Suddenly everthing became clear. This was the mothership. The HMS Britannia of some parallel universe, setting sail for the wilder shores of altered states with a truly loony crew as the event horizon of Hong Kong’s handover to China loomed into view. This was frantic fin de siecle fantasy, escapism and hedonism, utter nonsense that made perfect sense. It was the best of times and the worst of times, the alpha and omega, the ecstasy and the agony, the soaring high and the crashing comedown.
    For the ‘FILTH’, the chancers, the gifted gabbers, the wide boys and barrow boys, the restless souls who had fled comfortable middle class lives for a great adventure and a fatter pay packet, and even for a wide-eyed naïve Brisbane boy like me, this was our Woodstock, our punk rock, and we knew it.
   To the north was the Motherland, and we all knew winter was coming. But for a brief season, Hong Kong’s ‘summer of love’ reigned.
    We had found the glowing magma core of the barren rock.
    This was Planet Neptune.

It was dangerous ground; shifting sand. Earlier that evening, I had gone to Jimmy’s as an objective reporter intent on covering the story. At some point in the proceedings, I procured a pill for three hundred Hong Kong dollars, a plain little pink thing, and swallowed it – in one gulp crossing from observer to participant – ‘sorted and on one’, as Ravey Davey Gravy of Viz might have said.
    My journalism and raving careers might both have ended that night – a friend close to the Hong Kong Stadium’s management told me recently that it was the same night a big undercover police operation had been planned. The DJ was Graeme Park, avatar of Manchester’s Hacienda club, where almost a decade earlier another ‘summer of love’ had seen decorum and common sense subsumed by glow sticks, yellow smiley faces and synthesised beats and chemicals.Stadium staff tipped off the dealers and ravers, pooping the party for the police. My clumsy attempts to score went undetected. That first party passed in a gurning blur and a serotonin tsunami as Methylenedioxymethamphatamine and music rewired bits of my brain. I followed the swirling crowd down to Wan Chai and kept hearing the same murmured mantra: ‘Neptune’. Down the rabbit hole and into a black hole where time played tricks as Lamma ladies twirled glow-sticks in pockets of ultraviolet light
      Sparkling cascades of piano were washing over the crowd. ‘The time is right,’ a gospel vocal gloated, ‘for ecstasy all through the night’. It was around 5am, and the maids were all leaving to get ready for church. But this was church, and God was a DJ. Hands waved in the air. Something spiritual was happening, however fleeting or artificially induced.
      No one cared what you did for a living, or how much you earned, hot topics of conversation in most other Hong Kong nightspots. Neptune was egalitarian, an ego-free zone where the act of surrender was the great leveller. You would solemnly place the sacrament on your tongue, a cheeky half to keep the buzz alive, knowing that you would soon be dancing like a lunatic again.

  Later, I would get to know the congregation. Amongst these shirtless shapeshifters were stockbrokers and construction workers, investment bankers and sandwich sellers, blaggers on the make and airline pilots on acid,  English teachers and engineers, dreadlocked crusties, smiling triads, Hello Kitty cuties, mad-for-it baggies and buttoned-down preppies.
     I’d also meet the priests, for Neptune was a tale of two DJs, a parable of two talents on unexpected trajectories. Affable Englishman Lee Burridge, lanky and often grinning, and glistening Eurasian Christian Berentson, whose pretty boy looks, aloof rock star aura and distinctive mixes earmarked him as a superstar DJ in waiting. Fate had other ideas: Burridge parlayed his Neptunes cachet into global DJ fame; Christian stayed tethered to Hong Kong and his close-knit cadre of party animals and accolytes.
     Irvine Welsh was writing about riding ‘a rocket to Russia’, even as Danny Boyle’s film of his masterpiece, Trainspotting, was packing Hong Kong’s cinemas. I saw it three times in a week, enraptured by its rave scenes.
    Everybody in the room that night, and on the two hundred or so Saturday and Sunday mornings that marked Neptune’s doomed, dizzy orbit, was taking the ride at different speeds. For most, the highs were worth the lows. Eventually, economics and physics cut through the chemistry: the law of diminishing returns, and the hard-won knowledge that what goes up must come down. For some, dark places and demons lay in wait. A few would not get out alive.
      As the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover - June 30th, 2012 - draws near, almost four hundred people scattered around the globe have been reliving their membership of a club that has now passed into legend. Some of them were dancing in Neptune, much as Nero fiddled, as the Chinese troops marched over the border.
      Over 200 of them, myself included, joined a ‘secret’ Facebook group so the incriminating photos and stories could be posted and savoured, the casualties remembered and the bacchanal’s soundtrack – the tunes, man! - celebrated.
     What follows is the story, in their own words, of those who were there.


Lee Burridge, DJ: “I came in ‘91. We threw one of Hong Kong's first ‘raves’ at the beach hut in Lan Kwai Fong.

Christian Berentson, DJ: ‘’I began a residence at the Big Apple in Wan Chai in the middle of 1993, having flunked out of university in the UK. Lee Burridge was resident across the road at Joe Bananas and used to come down after work and spin. We ended up at Neptune because I was fired from the Big Apple - too many long jaunts with Lee to Thailand to play at the Full Moon Party.’’

William ‘Bill Dup’ Corbett, DJ: “The music was at its peak, there was still variety within the scene, Drum n Bass and Techno and Handbag House, stuff that wouldn’t have been played together in London.’’

Bob Trotter, ecstasy dealer: “Having arrived in 1990 straight from the UK warehouse party scene I found HK a bit slow at that time. But it seemed to accelerate massively. Pre-Handover Hong Kong became the new Utopia.’’

Lee Burridge: “The first month after we started, we were playing to a totally empty dance floor. People were used to shouting ‘Big Apple’ after the international dance music events. One night though it just suddenly changed and everyone moved over to Neptune.’’


Bob Trotter: “I avoided Neptune for at least six months, fearing it would be tacky. When i finally did go, I was shocked. Firstly, by how busy it was. Secondly, by how many people I knew there. And lastly, how utterly brilliant it was. Friendly, messy, banging, and oddly, very safe.’’

Jane Fitzgerald, music journalist: ‘I was a teenager when the summer of love was in the UK, and I do see a lot of parallels – it being a special time, people discovering new ways and possibilities to party together. If you were
into going out and partying late and getting wasted – then no matter who
you were, you eventually congregated at Neptunes. ‘’

Marco, European expatriate banker: “Neptune to me meant being truly part of the underground scene. The seedier the place at an ungodly hour, the trendier and more rewarding the whole experience would be. There was something of an iconoclastic ritual to it, which I cherished. It felt like being a member of a secret fraternity or a sect, where class, background and job position had no importance. I was fascinated that many like me could lead a double life: respectable lawyers, investment bankers or fund managers during the day, and drugged-up patrons of seedy establishments at dawn.’’

Anita Buenaflor, real estate agent: “I’ll never forget in my lifetime what happened, the most hard core party times with the best goose-bumps music, sometimes I get them even when I hear the tunes now. It was cool fashion, non-stop energy until Sunday afternoon. Sometimes on the dance floor it was as if we all just shared the one big heart.

Lee Burridge: “Young and old. People who worked late or just loved dance music, staying up late and getting wasted. Hookers, sweethearts, bar workers, triads and normals. It was home.’’

William Corbett: It was the wild east meets the wild west, a direct interface between cultures, you could smell the waft from the melting pot, feel the steam and, if you weren’t careful, get seriously burned by the high octane flames.’’

Kay, university student: “I was one of the ‘Fluoro Girls’ from Lamma, I called myself the ‘techno terrorist’. We’d get up at 5am, get dressed up in fluoro gear and get a sampan to Neptunes. It was seedy and kitsch, but Neptune was a community and it touched everyone.’’

Anderson, global fashion brand CEO: “I was amazed by the people you met there in global positions of loft. Without those years of Neptune, Christian, all the crazy mates, I wouldn’t be half the person I am today.

Cath Bennett, office worker: “I have been introduced to friends of friends who have lived in HK and once you know that they also went to Neptunes, you can skip through all of the small talk and know that you are going to be pals, that you don’t have to explain stuff. You don’t have to read the introductory chapters, you can get to the main story.’’


Christian: “It sounds bragadocious, but overseas DJs, having experienced Neptune, often begged to get a DJ slot there.’’

Kay: “Someone brought in Twister to Neptunes. Also the time Keith brought a clump of brocolli - by the end of the night everyone had brocolli attached to some body part.’’

Marco: “I went to the toilet, bare-chested and high as a kite, took an ecstasy-induced dump, wiped my ass, came out, went to the bar, only to be tapped on the shoulder by someone. The toilet paper had not detached from the roll but had kept unwinding, like in those adverts where the puppy dog grabs the roll and runs.’’

Cecilia, teacher: “I can’t now believe that people were paying £20 for pills and taking ten a night, back in 1997. Then the Ice Age arrived. Taking pills on a night out was easy, ice not so much. And so the 4am conferences in my friend’s office. We’d leave Neptunes, walk down the road, go into the office block, commando roll under the half open shutter, past the old Chinese porter, sign in to the building register, all of us wearing sequins and glitter. The tin foil, or light bulb, the drinking straws, specially adapted lighters and the ceremony would start.’’

William Corbett: “Everything you did during the whole week was just a precursor to Neptunes and then the comedown. It was like climbing to the Peak and down again.’’

Bob Trotter: “The early parties were booked and arranged around my deliveries of pills. It goes without saying that music was made to be appreciated in the state of mind that ecstasy put you in. Most people could handle the pills and hold down good jobs.’’

Robin Chappelle, digital marketing consultant: "The Neptunes era was a period I look back on fondly. For example it was then I realized my passion for dance. Like a sportsman getting into the zone, there were nights where I truly felt I became one with the music. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, but it was a celebration of life, ultimately.

Jane Fitzgerald: “Neptune is the standard against which i've measured every other after-party since and I can honestly say nothing has come close to the atmosphere or crazy scenes i saw down there.’’

Lee Burridge: “Drugs were a huge part of the dance music scene in Hong Kong (as they were across the globe). Here's the thing though. Lawyers and bankers were doing cocaine in the bars of Lan Kwai Fong. Maids were smoking ‘ice’ and kids were out dancing the night away on ecstasy. We have rules in our society and kids will always want to break them.’’


Expat British businessman: “I always had a phobia about my nostrils glowing white in Neptune.’’

Dino Smarts, party animal: “Don’t get on the horse if you can’t ride a horse and leave the needles on the records.’’

Chris Thrall, author of ‘Eating Smoke’: “I left the Royal Marines in the UK to run a business in Hong Kong. A year later I was homeless, in psychosis from crystal meth addiction and employed as a nightclub doorman by the 14K triads. But those mad parties … you wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.’’

John Parks, sound engineer: “I fell asleep once on a sofa. The bouncers objected to me sleeping and I objected to being moved. They ripped me loose and I couldn’t move my arms for a week.’’

Lee Burridge: “The lights coming on and Spencer (a regular) being blue (he lived). The drive to Christian’s house most nights to carry on. Leaving my records in the back of a taxi then finding them in a second hand shop a week later.’’

Bob Trotter: “Later on the pills seemed to get worse as the local Chinese triad element moved in with to make copies of pills with ketamine.’’

Marco: “Richard, a Frenchman, 28, was a mate who lived literally above Neptune. He did drugs, started going down heavy on smack and shabu in 1996. He had a crush on a triad girl. In February 1997, apparently alone, he climbed to the top floor of an adjacent building in Lockhart road and fell to his death.’’


Peter Upton, rave promoter: “There was talk of tanks rolling over the border. One Nation at Bar City, had over 2000 clubbers mash-up partying like the world might end, Canto-pop stars dancing with Hong Kong’s finest. People walked in under British Rule, and walked out wasted into China … then down to Neptunes.’’

Cath Bennett, office worker: “Personally, I spent the Handover spangled in a sampan heading for Unity.’’

Lee Burridge: “I always felt as Hong Kong had a sell by date that people partied more often. Their behavior was more hedonistic.’’

Christian: “The fact that Hong Kong was being handed over to the Chinese as well as the fact that we really didn’t know what to expect post 97 certainly added to the fervent nature of the average party goer.’’


William Corbett: “I left a year after the handover. By then, I only knew about five people. But over the years I have caught up with many of them in clubs, on dancefloors, all over the world.’’

Christian: “It still amazes me just hearing the word ‘Neptune’ mentioned with great gusto and respect from the thirtysomething business types who were just in their late teens to older international djs that still frequent our shores.’’

Anderson: “They were both the best years and potentially the most dangerous years of my life. Having come out relatively unscathed, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.’’

Kay: “In Hong Kong at that time there was so much opportunity - all my friends were journalists, architects with zero experience but enough balls to get out there and give it a go.’’

Jane Fitzgerald: “Acquaintances became friends down there, or friendships were cemented. I have friends all over the world and the one thing we have in common is stumbling out of Neptunes into the sunlight.’’

Lee Burridge: “I've personally never actually experienced any ‘lows’ and by being part of the ecstasy generation. My mind was forever opened to a different way of socially interacting and connecting with the feeling of music.’’

Cath Bennett: There was a feeling that we were all heading for a momentous time in history, even if we didn’t acknowledge it at the time.’’

Chris Thrall: When I wrote ‘Eating Smoke’ in 2010, I genuinely never expected to get back in touch with anyone from Hong. Now that Facebook has united us, many of those colourful characters that you could only meet in Hong Kong are back in my life.

Peter Upton: “We were all living to the backdrop of a soundtrack back then. For me it was a career too, and I believed it would take me on to success. It’s become a distant memory. ‘’

Marco: “The Hong Kong summer of love period is one big happy memory I will always treasure. I’ve never felt as cool, or as young since then.’’

Bob Trotter: “Now we are all a bit older some with families and parental responsibilities it would be selfish and dangerous to carry on to the degree we did then. ‘’


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