Page 1


Ask no Questions


had just finished a drawn-out, humid day of patrol work and form filling back in Wanchai’s old colonial police station. I’d unstuck the uniform and grabbed a shower. The Wanchai station’s colonial style was only facade deep. It was built in 1932 and took such a shelling from the Japanese in 1941 that a lot of it had to be rebuilt after the war. Still, it had a human comradely scale to it, back in the 1970s, and the culture was very much to adjourn to the officer’s mess for a drink after work and a fresh change of clothes. I ordered my first San Miguel – always out of brown bottles. For some reason the “old lags” in the officer’s mess had worked out that the sun’s rays could do less damage to beer inside brown, rather than green, bottles, so the mess sergeant had standing instructions to only order the squat brown ones. It was always refreshing and ice cold, so I doubt the colour made any difference. As I knocked back the first drink, a phone call came in from the Police Report room, below. I was the most junior officer in the Mess, so it fell to me to take the call and then go downstairs to find out what the problem was.

The station vice squad had done a “stop and search” on two opium addicts and found one to have six pellets of the dark brown drug, wrapped in newspaper and hidden in his pocket. Even as a fresh-faced youngster, three months out of officers’ training school, I could spot an opium addict anywhere. These two had the typically gaunt features and the hard callouses behind the left and right ears, earned from lying for hours on the raised little head rests that served as pillows, whilst they smoked the opium. I never quite understood why on earth they carried the drug when they knew that they were instant “stop and search” candidates for any Uniform Branch Patrol Officer. The vice squad sergeant took me aside and said that he had brokered a deal with the addicts. He was asking my permission to carry through with the plan. This man had 20 years’ experience and I had three months’, so I just nodded my head sagely and tried not to look out of my depth, though who I was kidding, I don’t know.

The deal was simple. The six pellets of opium would be forgotten about, in exchange for the address of a “three piper” opium divan. Now, a “one piper” was very much the norm, but a “three piper” was pretty much unheard of. Opium divans were continually on the move because the drug required 4

In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun

several risky hours of peace and quiet for the addicts’ full enjoyment. If the divan operators did that for too long in one place, they were sitting targets for the Police to raid. A “three piper”, accommodating up to 20 clients at a time, would be very large and need some hiding, so this was like finding the Holy Grail of dens and I wondered how the operators could disguise it.

The deal was agreed and the sergeant asked me to come along. The vice squad, though they were a section within the uniform branch, always operated in plain clothes and so, not bothering to change, I agreed to join the raid.

The location we had been given by the addicts was for a wooden hut in the middle of a squatter village, high on a hillside near Rennies Mill, in Junk Bay. Rennie’s Mill was named after a Canadian called Herbert Miller who set up a flour mill business and drowned himself when it failed in 1908. As he plunged into the waters of the Lyemun Gap that day, he had no idea what political associations his name would take on. The site became the Hong Kong centre and redoubt for the nationalist refugees who escaped the communists in mainland China in 1949. These people were proud, resentful and riddled with triads. Police were very reluctant to enter their strongholds. It was a great spot for a “3 piper” opium divan. Its location was its disguise. We had an accompanying sketch which helped a bit, and unusually, permission to enter another Police District, but these squatter villages were a nightmare of twisting paths and alleys. The plan was for half a dozen vice squad policemen to surround the wooden hut with twenty uniform police from the local division, in support. To send uniforms in, up front, would trigger alarms right through the squatter village. We parked our vehicles well away from the target and kitted ourselves out with a couple of crowbars and an axe. The six vice officers then climbed the hill, two of them ranging far ahead in order to approach from above, while the rest covered the side and bottom approach. The uniforms stayed with the vehicles and so did I.

I doubt if an expatriate had ever visited this squatter village. The sight of me alone, no matter how I was dressed, was going to set nerves jangling all the way up the hill. It was late summer and there was at least another hour of light. We waited at the bottom for the radio message from above. Finally the call came. The vice squad boys had not been spotted. They identified the low black wooden hut that was around 2,000 square feet in size. They confirmed that this was definitely the target.


Ask no Questions

The rest of us openly moved up the hill. We had to climb in single file most of the time because the footpath was so narrow. Dogs, trained to hostility, barked from everywhere as we hurried on up. We were certainly attracting a lot of attention and it wasn’t the sort celebrities are used to. Children and adults formed resentful groups. Red warning flags were raised on poles, scattered all over the hill. We were palpably invading foreign territory. As I stomped up through the unpleasant reception, I felt grateful that at least this was still late summer. We were still some way off ‘the Double Tenth’ celebration which came up on the 10th October and celebrated both the 1911 Wuhan uprising against the Ching dynasty and Taiwan’s National Day. Then these hillside shanties, full of fervently nationalist Koumintang supporters who welcomed no strangers, would be tactically out of bounds. Indeed, the Police Force went on “Force Standby” with all leave cancelled, on the Double Tenth as a legacy of the October 10th riots of 1956, when Koumintang mobs attacked Communist-run facilities, mostly on the other side of the colony in Tsuen Wan. It was brutal stuff. Fifty-nine people were killed; 44 by the military, who were called in to supress the business, and a further four who were found guilty of murder and executed. So, this hillside climb was no cake-walk. As we progressed, “tai sui’s” (look-outs) above us began shouting warnings towards the large brown wooden house with a corrugated iron roof that was our target.

Suddenly the house burst apart. People rushed out through two doors and several windows, but by this time we pretty much had them surrounded. We gathered up and arrested close to thirty men. Some were young, in their twenties, all were opium addicts and none looked younger than forty. The ravages of opium addiction were not kind, leaving drawn etched faces and the inevitable scars behind the ears. As I entered the divan, it looked enormous. Half a dozen bamboo beds lay out in a row. Each bed had the hard wooden pillow at the top and on three of the beds lay bodies, so comatose from their inhalation of opium, that they had not even bothered to move. There was a small cashiers’ desk close to the entrance, with money scattered all over the floor, chairs were upturned and blinds had been ripped from windows, as the desperate addicts had tried to jump out in every direction. There was an overwhelming aroma of sweet pungent opium. 6

In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun

Looking around, we found two pint jars full of the treacly, black substance. There was no doubt what it was and on the bamboo table someone had left a tray of half inch, moulded, opium pellets, ready for smoking.

Two pipes lay on the floor; both were made from a dark stained bamboo with orange streaks around the mouth opening. On top of each pipe were fitted small clay pots which really looked more like door knobs. On top of these, the opium pellets would be melted.

Our prisoners were rounded up, handcuffed and herded into a corner, where they all squatted peacefully disconnected, as we continued the search. Hearing a commotion near the entrance, I looked up as two officers pulled another pipe wrapped in Hessian sacking, out of an ornate green painted Chinese cupboard.

Unwrapped, the loose folds of hessian revealed an ancient ivory pipe of striking beauty, above and beyond the other two, in quality and design. The pipe was around eighteen inches long and of solid white ivory. The whole length of the stem was stained a bright yellow from years of smoking. The mouth was stained an even darker orange-yellow colour. In the centre of the stem was the smoking hole and over it was ‘the saddle’, into which the bowl was slotted. This was a wonderfully worked silver holder, in the form of a bracelet, clasped round the stem and inlaid with a dragon motif. The bowl itself was a beautiful glazed, tiny clay pot that had minute and delicate peach blossoms carved around its surface. I held the pipe in my hand, thinking that I had never seen such an ancient, beautiful object. It was an incredible piece of work that must have been made by a Chinese artisan a century or more before. It was in such contrast to the dismal surroundings and skeletal addicts squatting on the floor. Its beauty was a cruel irony, when you considered the destruction it wrought.

All three pipes were placed in evidence bags, and having finished our search we headed back to the police vehicles at the bottom of the hill.

It was pitch dark by the time we got back to the Police station. We parked the vehicles in the central courtyard of the building and then moved the prisoners indoors for processing, criminal record checks, charging and then release on police bail for the bulk of the divan’s clientele. The two operators were charged with more serious offences and 7



In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun

Top: A substantial Police seizure of opium and heroin, including heroin manufacturing paraphernalia and a large supply of opium pipes.


Right: Police arrests after a raid in mid-1974 in Kowloon. C.I.D. officers escorting suspects back to Police Station.

Right: A hillside squatter village typical of hundreds of refugee enclaves that existed prior to the Hong Kong Government’s re-housing policies of the late 70’s and 80’s., circa 1975

Left: Detectives examining traditional opium pipes, lamps and opium. The small pots of opium can be seen in a transparent box in the centre of the photo. These small pots would be heated on top of a kerosene or alcohol lamp and melted. Once the opium became sticky it would be rolled on a spike and placed on top of the pipe and smoked. 9

Ask no Questions

were held in the cells. They would be sent in front of the Magistrate in the morning. It had been a great result and I managed to re-join my colleagues in the Mess for a night cap before heading home.

The following morning, I was back at the station and in uniform, clearing up a lot of the paperwork generated by the previous evening’s events. By lunchtime, I got to thinking about that ivory and silver opium pipe. It was a great shame that it could not be preserved for posterity and really ought to have ended up in a museum, I thought. Sadly its fate, along with the other two pipes would be the Government incinerator at Kennedy Town. That was where “evidence”, drugs and drug paraphilia, were destroyed, under supervision, once Court cases were completed. Meanwhile the pipe would be under lock and key in the evidence room. This was my last chance to have a look at it, I nipped downstairs to the evidence room.

The room had steel -gated doors and windows and was manned by one of the old-time sergeants. I got talking with him about the raid on the divan the previous evening and told him about the stunning ivory pipe I had handled. I asked him if he could bring out the evidence packages from the raid so that I could have one last look at it. His answer was a mixture of caution and incredulity. “Are you sure you really want to look at it, Sir?”

Not thinking his remark through, I said straightaway: “Yes, of course”. It was why I had come. He gave me a nod and a look that suggested that I was almost, if not entirely, witless and went to the back of the room to collect the packages. He brought the three pipes, in their sealed plastic bags, and placed them on the counter for me to view. I looked at one after another and was puzzled. They were all exactly the same; a dark coloured bamboo with yellowish -orange stains from the years of inhalation. The ivory pipe was clearly not there.

I looked up at the sergeant and asked why it was not there. His voice dropped an octave, suitable for dealing with a very foolish boy, “Are you sure you want to know, Sir?” Now, I was on a mission and determined to find out. I pressed him and so, a story tumbled out from the sergeant. 10

In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun

The pipe I had seen the previous day was the most valuable opium pipe in the whole Colony. It was over 100 years old, its value, whilst high as an ornamental piece, was many, many times higher, as the perfect smoking pipe. Apparently 100 years of being smoked, six to eight times a day, had created a residue and staining that gave a fantastically smooth smoke for the addict, and refined opium smokers would travel a great distance and pay a considerable premium to smoke this pipe. The pipe was so well known that it was nick-named “Lung To Chue” meaning ‘eat the dragon” or, for a more literal breakdown, ‘lung’ meaning dragon, ‘to’ meaning to blow or to swallow and ‘chue’ meaning treasure, as in a round pearl. All opium smokers knew it well, by reputation.

I’d asked to see the pipe, I’d asked why it wasn’t there, and now I pushed on to my third foolish question: “Where is it?” The sergeant dispensed with the interrogative warning signals. “Sir”, he said, perfunctorily, as though stating the obvious to this adolescent who should now be on his way, “The pipe is always ransomed back to the divan owner. This is the third time I have seen it here”. These were matters as far beyond me as the early days of that pipe. I thought I had better go back to my paperwork, wishing that I had never asked.


“Great holiday reading – the perfect gift for anyone interested in taking a peek behind the scenes of Hong Kong’s unique character and society.” In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun takes the reader on an entertaining and revealing journey through the Hong Kong of the 1970s to the recent present. This collection of short stories looks at life, high society, crime and the back rooms of big business during Hong Kong’s final days as a British colony on the doorstep of Communist China and through the transition of its return to the Motherland.

ISBN 978-988-16942-1-8

In the Shadow of the Noonday Gun by Mike Smith  

An insider's look at life, crime and the backrooms of big business in colonial Hong Kong's final decades

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you