It Was Four Years Ago Today: Welcome to my Blackout on Bowie’s Birthday

It’s David Bowie’s birthday today, and his people have finally announced they’re releasing some unreleased compositions for the very first time since EMI outbid all other labels for the Dame’s catalogue way back in 1997. The upcoming Parlophone release of Spying Through A Keyhole (Demos and Unreleased Songs) is cleverly timed to extend the copyright of Bowie’s 1969 recordings under EU law by 20 years – the European Union protects recordings for 70 years only if they are formally released.

Rewinding to four years ago, 8 January 2015, and Bowie’s penultimate b-day on Planet Earth was certainly a memorable day for me, though for completely different reasons than many of you. That was the day I was hospitalised in Hong Kong. 

Welcome to my blackout.

Hong Kong is the Chinese autonomous region where Bowie claimed he last saw John Lennon on a holiday with Iggy Pop in 1977, just before he, Brian Eno and Tony Visconti commenced work on the second of the ‘Berlin’ trilogy, Heroes. This was my second visit to the city. My first trip five years ago was the penultimate Asian stop-over on my long journey to emigrate from the UK to Australia in early 2014.

It’s a vibrant and bustling city state with a lot going for it, particularly tax-free shopping As it is, you’d need a team of sniffer dogs to try and find a tax in Hong Kong. But on that first visit I remember being jolly cross at how the locals thought nothing of walking into you in the admittedly steep and narrow streets. I’m generalising, and outrageously so, but the people were so gauche, so awkward, they barely even seemed to be human. I lost count of the times my photographed feet got trodden on, or felt someone collide into me and then not only do they not apologise but they don’t even seem to know you’re there at all. No spatial awareness, no eye contact and most certainly no manners.

Not taking the rough with the smooth too well, in retaliation I posted on Facebook that “Occasionally I can sort of understand why Morrissey called the Chinese a subspecies.” Ooops now.

By the last quarter of 2014 I was living with someone who had a house on the Gold Coast of Queensland. His nationality? Well, guess. I know, the irony.

I enjoyed ‘Goldie’ as the natives like to call it. You know the Aussies will abbreviate anything and everything if they can. And if they can’t they will find a way. 

Being a summer baby and Cancerian who’s happiest by water, the beach bum vibe of the area suited me down to the hole in the ground. Every day’s a holiday on Goldie. We lived in a gated community complex on the Isle of Capri, not far from the famous Surfer’s Paradise. Private gym, pool, sauna, the whole shebang.

The house was a little more than what the Brits would call a two up, two down, but you get the idea. Separate bathrooms, separate lives, not in each others pockets or anything else for that matter. Or so I thought. 

When I told Bryan, my hairdresser pal, who or rather what I was co-habiting with he, apropos of nothing, told me, “Be careful. I find a lot of Chinese seem to lack a basic humanity, especially the mainlanders.”

Guess what? He was spot on. It took next to no time before I realised that not only did my the chubby little loser of a housemate have a thing for me (it helped massively that I was a trophy white and, er, well the opposite of what most Asian men are known for in the downstairs department) but this was a delusional dumpling so calculating that he’d got it into his fat head that we were actually an item, and one day announced straight to my face: “I don’t want a flatmate, I want an open relationship. My mother wants to see me married by 35 so if you don’t want this you can leave.”

I left.

At that point I hadn’t really put down any roots in Sydney, was still in transient traveller mode, crashing with friends and such like. And not having been in the de facto Aussie capital for a good half-year I wasn’t sure if I wanted to land with all my wordily possessions on someone’s doorstep at Christmas. Is there any room at the inn? Nah, come back in the new year, queer.

I felt like I wanted to get out of Australia for a bit anyhow, so when I had a couple of short-term offers from overseas I jumped at the chance and put my stuff in storage. One offer in Thailand fell through but my fellow journalist pal, fellow Steve and fellow Aussiephile Stephen Doyle offered me his place in Hong Kong, which I’d stayed at the year before. Packing furiously, I slightly groaned inwardly when the words Hong Kong sunk in but I just wanted to get out of Aus and fast. Ironically, he was heading to Sydney for the hols so we may well have passed each other at 35,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean.

And so I saw the new year in all alone in flatsit land, from up on the 28th floor of an Arbuthnot Road apartment building, at Mid Level of the so-called vertical city. I had a bird’s eye view of the fireworks shooting up from the harbour too.

Stephen was due back around January 7th-ish, so when he did a no-show I decided to do something very, very foolish. I’d been eyeing up a tub of oysters in his fridge all week, and when it became clear he wasn’t going to be back until after the use by date I gleefully downed them with some leftover champagne.

The oysters were going out of date at midnight but rather than turn into pumpkins I figured everything will be alright tonight. They were from the local branch of Marks and Spencer after all. Can’t beat M&S quality, right?

The rest of the evening was uneventful. Until I woke up in the middle of the night in agony and made a dash for the loo. 

Hong Kong pooey: bodily fluids not pictured

Other than sitting there feeling a bit dizzy for an undefined period I have no other memory of what happened.

I woke up about three to four hours later in a huge pool of blood in the hallway outside the bathroom. Disoriented and extremely dehydrated I managed to pull myself up while swimming and slipping in blood. It was everywhere.

The food poisoning caused me to black out from extreme dehydration and I fell on the hard stone floor and cut my head open. Twice. I know this from the location of the injuries. The first time must have been in the bathroom and the second in the hallway.

The back of my head was killing me. It felt like I’d been coshed. I felt the back of it and it was bloody, so I phoned down to an acquaintance I knew from my previous stay, Rick Baxevanakis, who lived on a lower floor. It was the middle of the night but I had no choice. I was weak and it felt like I was losing blood from somewhere.

Rick called for a cab and arranged to meet me in the foyer of the building in ten minutes. Just enough time to put on some clothes and get in the elevator.

When I walked towards Rick he seemed slightly bemused. “It doesn’t look that bad.” I turned round so he could see the back of my head.

“Oh, shit.”

Yes, literally. And with that he kindly escorted me to the nearest A&E department.

“Do you want the public hospital or the private one?” asked the taxi driver.

“Whichever is closer,” came my groggy reply.

In no time we arrived at Canossa Hospital, a general hospital founded by the Catholic Mission of St. Magdalene of Canossa.

The Accident & Emergency department had the patience of, well, a saint. I was shaking so violently from the food poisoning that the X-rays were a bit of a disaster.

The consultant told me the head injury at the back was “pretty deep.” He wasn’t kidding. Rick watched as they hacked away at my hair to find a puzzling Z shaped laceration and a smaller one on my forehead. They had to sedate me in order to sew me up with 23 stitches: six in the front, 17 in the rear,

I then spent the next four days in a hospital ward, fretting.

Before the accident I’d only just finished reading a book about the early days of The Beatles, which alleged that Stuart Sutcliffe’s death by brain haemorrhage was brought on by a blow to the head administered by none other than his friend John Lennon. Eeek.

On the first day, I started to feel reasonably OK that I reached for my iPhone and had a look around. I took a photo of my feet in the bed and decided to upload it to Facebook. Realising it was Bowie’s birthday and feeling suitably sorry for myself, I wasn’t in the mood to say much but signed off on the post with a suitably cryptic “I’ve really hurt my head.” Pilfered from a line in the Dame’s Jazzin’ For Blue Jean short film from 1984.

Once I got over the shock I couldn’t help but chuckle at how people who knew me tried to make light of it: “So is it Z for Zorba the Greek or Ziggy Stardust?”

“It’s the mark of Zorro!” came another.

Someone else pointed out it was kinda like the Aladdin Sane flash in reverse.

One of the less creative comments came from a new friend I’d hug out with in Australia and New Zealand the year before. 

“Are you doing little social experiments or is it just a tactic to get more attention…”

By this point I was feeling sick again. Not from the oysters but from the realisation that in my haste during the rush to pack up my stuff in Gold Coast, I’d let the country and forgot to arrange travel insurance.

I was mortified. 

I was laying in a private hospital in Asia without any kind of cover. Oh, how I wished I could have been in Europe or Oceania right now. I would have been covered automatically. Not Asia. No, not Asia. Perhaps I’m going to wake up in a minute and discover it’s all been a terrible dream.

No, it’s not a dream. I’m stuck with it.

The medical bill was going to be over £2500.

Fuck.

“Well”, somebody said to me, “think how much more it would have been its this had happened in America.”

Yeah, cheers, thanks a lot.

Feeling pig sick, I responded to the online jibe from this so-called friend. This is someone I’ve climbed active volcanos with on North Island. I expected better and gave worse.

“Valentin, fuck off.”

Within an hour, the over-engineered, over-bearing and overly censorious Facebookistan had put me on the Facebook naughty step, banned from posting for a set amount of days or weeks.

I texted Valentin and while seeing confirmation that landing in FB jail was somehow connected to him I gave him a few details of why I was in hospital.

“Nobody tells me to fuck off in public.”

Wow, just wow.

Needless to say, this person is now an ex-friend. 

I was discharged after the fourth day, by which time Stephen had returned to the apartment. On the spur of the moment he’d decided to make an impromptu trip to visit his mum in Philadelphia.

He said his cleaner walked in and was so shocked by what she saw that it looked like a murder scene and she wondered if she should call the police.

There’s not been a murder.

I explained the whole story to my almost-namesake.

“The oysters? You didn’t eat those?”

Well yeah, seeing as you weren’t back. The former chef in me hates wasting food. They were within the use-by date. Just.”

“They were fine when I made an oyster chowder at Christmas.”

Then the pennies dropped. All two hundred and fifty thousand of them.

I gasped. How could I have not noticed the tub had been opened? Was it possible to give myself even more of a kicking?

“Well, that was an expensive tub of oysters for you, then.”

I smiled, wanly.

Was this karma for the subspecies comment or was someone sticking pins in an effigy of me in Queensland? 

I started on the road to recovery, with the aid of some magical healing from a local chap called Edward Lau. Though it was worrying as by the third day of being out I started to develop chronic vertigo. And being near the top of a tall tower in the middle of Hong Kong probably wasn’t the best place to deal with that.

The worst were the other scary secondary issues: the delayed concussion and after-shocks had me wondering if I’d ever walk unaided ever again. As well as a fractured clavicle, I’d given my head and neck such a jolt that I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other without feeling like I was about to topple over.

Even when sitting or laying down it felt like an extreme version of seasickness, that I was about to go ‘overboard’ even from the safety of a bed on terra firms. It was utterly bizarre, and went on in varying degrees for several months.

There were after-effects that lasted several months, and I really wondered if I’d ever walk properly again, as the jolt put my balance and neck out out pretty heavily for what seemed like an eternity. Even now there are some occasions when a stutter I never had before just pops up out of the blue, usually if I’m a little anxious about something.

The other worst thing of all? Finding myself banned from uploads for a whole month because a person I regarded as a friend decided to report me to Facebook, the new Nazis of the digital world, for telling him Fuck off as he accused me of attention seeking (who, moi?) when all I would have was a little sympathy and kind words. Such is life.

The dizzy spells were a constant but eventually they subsided. Only at the end of February, some 50 days after the event, was I finally given the ok to get back to the gym, by which time I’d been given the all clear to fly back to Australia. I spent the majority of that time in Melbourne, which is another story for another time. 2015 was a pretty challenging year for many people I know. But before that year was out I moved to Sydney – the city I dreamt of living in for so many years.

By the way, this wasn’t the last time I experienced some horror in Hong Kong. One day in December 2017 was so traumatic that I still haven’t felt able to write it up yet, over a year later. But I will. (Just for) one day. 

Karma, man.

Steve Pafford

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