Why you should care

Because sometimes being a stranger in a strange place works to your benefit. But mix in a chemist, drugs and gangsters, and it becomes a very different story.

I first came to Taiwan in ’84. I was in my early 20s, and I’d been living in Hong Kong, but I wasn’t too happy there, so I came to Taiwan, checked it out and liked it.

There was a lot of stuff happening then that wasn’t around in Hong Kong, mainly drugs. Back in Australia, before I left for Asia, I was a full-blown junkie by the time I hit university. Needles, sponges, spoons, water. Shooting up crank was my thing. The blue angel, we used to call it. My house in Melbourne was the place to party. Even Nick Cave used to come by when he was still in post-punk band Birthday Party; he used my rig and everything. It was either leave and quit the path I was on, or stay and wind up dead or in jail like most of my friends. Music saved me. I put down the needle, picked up the guitar and took off.

In 1984, I met up with an Aussie friend in Taipei. There were only six or seven of us Aussies on the whole island. I got wind through them that people were trafficking in weed from the Philippines and China and hashish from the Middle East.

The barista never said outright that Slim was a gangster, but he did let on that he was a mover and a dealer.

People were bringing it in through Kaohsiung, in the south, using Taiwan as a destination and a transit point. The stuff that didn’t stay in the country was on its way to Australia. It surprised me how readily available it was, probably more so then than now.

My Aussie mate had been in Taiwan for two years already. He was going out with a Taiwanese girl whose parents were from the mainland. Her dad was a general. From what she told me, most of the generals who came over to Taiwan with the Kuomintang after losing the Chinese Civil War were given $160,000 in gold bullion.

In ’86 I got into Shida University in Taipei. I started studying Chinese and hitting the bars, playing guitar in coffee shops on Ren’ai Road. You could play anything, just so long as you were willing to get up on stage and entertain.

I’d finish my set around 10:30 pm and then hang out. You’d smell a lot of weed and hash being toked up. And that was when I first saw Slim, in a Ren’ai Road coffee shop. We were introduced by the barista, who told me a little about Slim and to be careful around him.

“He’s just one of those people,” the barista said.

The barista never said outright that Slim was a gangster, but he did let on that he was a mover and a dealer. I later found out Slim was working for the Bamboo Union.

I liked Slim; I thought he was genuine. And he liked me too. Probably because when he saw me in the coffee shop I was playing to a crowd made up entirely of women. We went for a walk that night and he gave me a couple of joints. I didn’t think much of it at the time and said we should smoke them right there, but Slim said no, I should take them for myself.

It turned out that Slim was one of the major dealers in the clubs. I’d buy an ounce off him and sell it to the foreign teachers at the cram schools I was also working in, mostly as a cover, 10 grams here, 10 grams there. I only dealt with foreigners. Dealing with the locals seemed too risky.

For a while, I was picking up an ounce every week and a half, divvying it up into 5- or 10-gram deal bags. Then I met Henry, who had a Ph.D. in chemistry. Henry told me he was looking to move some product. I asked him what he wanted to move, and he said it was a class A, class B type drug.

It was amphetamine. He cooked it himself and he was moving a lot overseas, to the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia.

Heroin, horse, smack?

No, he said, it was amphetamine that he had cooked himself and he was moving a lot overseas, into the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia. He said it was called “ice,” and he’d learned how to make it from a Dutch guy — a cook on a merchant ship who’d washed up in Kaohsiung, hooked up with Henry and taught him how to cook.

By the time he approached me, Henry had been in the ice game for four or five years. Me, I’d never heard of it before. I mean, I’d had crank. I left Australia to get away from it. Then, lo and behold, it shows up here.

“Give me a little and I’ll see what I can do,” I told him.

A “little” for Henry was a 30-liter backpack, with something like 10 or 15 kilos of ice. He drove it up from Kaohsiung to Taipei himself on his motorcycle. I’d never seen anything like it. It was blue, like the stuff on Breaking Bad, only 30 years before Breaking Bad. What I was using before was already cut. This was pure.

I moved the stuff slowly, to foreigners, approaching them with caution. Anybody who bought off me, I’d tell them, “If anybody asks, say you got it off a Taiwanese guy.” Still, people started approaching me directly after a while, which I didn’t like.

If someone I didn’t know asked me for it, I’d say I didn’t deal with that shit. They’d say they heard I did. One day I asked a guy whom he’d heard that from. He told me, and I had to get rough with the guy who was shooting his mouth off. It had been seven or eight months, and I still had a lot of product left. I was getting scared, so I kept it in my room under lock and key in a cupboard and went traveling, heading overland from China, through Nepal, all the way to India.

When I came back a year later, a lot had changed.

I’d been freebasing every day myself for about six months, six or seven times a day.

I knew I had to either throw the rest of the stuff away, give it away or do a one-time deal. So I approached several foreigners who I knew were shifting product. I still didn’t trust any locals except Henry. But he’d disappeared.

Henry wasn’t in a gang, he was just a guy with a Ph.D. in chemistry. Maybe he was on the run in mainland China somewhere, although I suspect he got knocked off. Either way, I benefited since I had all this product I didn’t have to pay for or kick up to anyone in the Bamboo Union or any other syndicate. But that worried me too.

I finally got rid of the rest of the stuff, selling it off in big chunks and bags. Someone, though, had let it slip to Slim what I was doing, and he approached me.

“I heard you can get some ice,” he said.

“No, no, no, man, that’s over with. I don’t do that anymore.”

“But you know the people that do.”

“But I can’t find them!” He thought I was bullshitting him, so he started pressuring me. He’d call me at home once a day. Call the school I was working at. When I started a new job, Slim followed me.

He thought that because I knew the cook, I knew people related to the cook. Back when Henry and I were still in touch, I knew he had more: He showed me a photo one time of packs of ice stacked against a wall, from floor to ceiling. I was worried Slim knew about that too.

He casually stopped the game of pool he was playing, excused himself, walked over to another man and beat the guy half to death with his cue.

When I’d see him, after that first time he asked me to hook him up, he’d point to me and drag a finger across his throat. I knew he was serious. In ’92, I watched as he casually stopped the game of pool he was playing, excused himself, walked over to another man in the hall and beat the guy half to death with his cue. Then he went back to his game like nothing had happened.

It was a show of force, to me and to anyone else who was dealing with him. I was with an American woman then, who would later become my wife. Slim would make sure she wouldn’t see it when he threatened me, but I started to fear for her safety too. I’d heard Slim was moving firearms as well, mainly sidearms.

And finally: “I want you to get me some of that gear.”

Again I said I couldn’t do it; didn’t even know if the source was alive anymore. He said I’d better find out. Otherwise?

“Well,” he said, “things could happen.” I decided to stay away from him at all costs then.

Shortly after the pool cue incident, Slim got arrested for possession with intent to distribute. He was dealing out of two different pubs and a disco called Buffalo Town in the red-light district.

I’ve asked around about him, but I haven’t heard anything. People who used to know him, they don’t want to say. I suspect he’s probably in mainland China, hiding out. He wasn’t liked among the Taiwanese. He wasn’t like the other gangsters. No tattoos. He didn’t have the white flared pants or the white T-shirt with the pack of smokes rolled up under the sleeve like most of them. He was very clean.

So while it was just the one big deal I did, when I walked away from that, I saw the damage I’d done. To friends who’d gotten addicted to the shit I sold them. I’d given them large amounts to move, but they had to pay me upfront and they ended up using it themselves. Two of the guys, fellow teachers, are still in Taiwan, in Kaohsiung. They’re straight now, but when they were using, it got to the point where they had to leave in the middle of whatever class they were teaching to get their fix because they’d get the shakes.

Right before I went straight I had to decide whether I wanted to go all the way or stay a little bent. I’d been freebasing every day myself for about six months, six or seven times a day. I realized that was the reason I’d left Australia in the first place, but I was back into it and spiraling down. My girlfriend was straight, but she knew something was up. She didn’t know I was dealing or using, but I couldn’t hide it forever. She caught me one day in the living room, tinfoiling it, firing it up with my glass pipe.

That’s when I realized I had to stop. I went straight around March ’96, but every time I went to a bar or coffee shop I’d check to see who was inside before I entered.

Today, I’ve still got pot at home. I don’t use it every day. You know, when you get older, you see other users and it just breaks your heart. I’m clean. But sometimes I still have that urge. You get this tingling sensation in the back of your mouth. Your jaw starts clenching. I know exactly where that feeling’s coming from.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.