Between the Lines: Hong Kong Develops a First World Coke Habit

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At a birthday party in Hong Kong recently, guests ordered 19 grams of cocaine, which was delivered to the venue by a man on a motorcycle. By international standards of debauchery this wasn’t excessive (doubtless there are dealers in Madrid or Monaco who won’t get out of bed for orders of less than 20 grams). But in Hong Kong, the sight of 19 bags of coke in one place bears very little precedent.
In 2000, the Hong Kong University Centre for Criminology found that the city’s demand for cocaine was “low” and “declining.” They couldn’t have got it more wrong. Six years later, Hong Kong authorities, in a joint operation with Shenzhen Customs and the US Drug Enforcement Administration, broke up a Colombian, Venezuelan and Chinese syndicate that had smuggled a record 142 kilograms of cocaine—$13 million dollars worth—into Hong Kong and Guangdong province.
A random hack through newspaper crime briefs will quite plainly show the growing involvement, during the intervening years, of South American smugglers. Coke busts were made practically every month during the first half of 2001, with the largest, at 12.5kg, found inside a container from Peru. Another came from Brazil. The biggest catch of 2004, at 10.3kg, was discovered on a man arriving from Lima. In December that year (and this is my favorite case) an unidentified South American in his 40s was arrested in possession of 400 liters of cocaine solution—while standing on a fishing raft. Tip of the iceberg stuff, presaging the changes that were to come. By 2005, the Hong Kong Police Review admitted to cocaine’s “increasing popularity,” the Government’s Annual Report spoke of “an upsurge of cases involving cocaine” and last year a confessional from a recovering user and former business high-flyer appeared in a local magazine, describing how he watched a friend OD in a central business district bar during a three-day binge.
For Hong Kong’s party set, these have been giddy times. Once a terribly rare treat, cocaine is now an ordinary weekend condiment, and many will organize their evenings around it. One young gallant told me of his desire to avoid the restroom throngs by buying a tour bus, blackening its windows and installing a sound system “so we can drive around town doing charlie and not get hassled” (not that a bus with blackened windows and booming bass would appear in any way suspicious, oh no your honor).
Traditionally, Hong Kong’s drugs have been heroin and opium. For decades, they were plentiful and cheap; during the late 1980s, you could buy heroin for less than $2 a fix. Hong Kong people—my opium-smoking grandfather, a smack-addict ex and a brace of junkie friends among them—have always preferred opiates, as you would imagine in a town founded on the trade. Dance culture—with its ecstasy and ketamine—arrived late, however. Hash only became plentiful in the last decade, because of the Bangladeshi and Nepalese touts on Nathan Road (they’re not merely selling cheap tailoring or counterfeit watches, you understand).
Cocaine’s arrival is tardy too, of course, but it is targeting Hong Kong with an aggression not found elsewhere in Asia. Earlier this month, the Bangkok Post ran a story on what the Thais call a “cocaine problem,” even though the amounts that have been seized—450g here, 1.9kg there—are sheepish by comparison. The Singaporeans got into a panic three years ago when a raid netted 60g—a couple of parties’ worth.
It seems that, with Western markets now saturated, South Americans are looking at promising new sources of moneyed clientele. Cocaine’s Hong Kong street price halved between 2005 and 2006—a sure sign of a massive increase in supply, or that a market was being assiduously cultivated. In fact, the day in 2006 that a gram of coke became cheaper than a gram of MDMA surely counts as one of the most historic in local annals. Hong Kong loves to promote its own affluence: if ever an indicator demonstrated our arrival as a world city, that was it.