Sunday 14 October 2018

Tai Tam

Crossing the Line - part 26

The house at Tai Tam was an old colonial relic.  It was built as a small family house for the manager of the reservoir system which dominates that area of Hong Kong Island – a series of dam walls, reservoirs and catchment channels which provided water for the island before the population explosion after the Second World War.  The house was beautifully situated by the sea with its own small shingle beach.  On the other sides it was surrounded by semi-jungle on steep banks which led up from the shoreline towards the main road to Stanley.

By the 1980s it was well past its former colonial glory and the Hong Kong Government offered it to Jackie on a peppercorn rent, as a First Stage House for heroin addicts.

Downstairs there was a lounge which acted as our meeting room, a dining room, small kitchen, and a tiny office.  Upstairs, all the internal doors had been removed along with some of the stud walls to cram in as many bunk beds as possible forming a dormitory.  It was here that all the men at Tai Tam slept, recent ex-addicts and helpers alike.  Each of us had a top or bottom bunk bed, a small cupboard for clothes, and fan to keep us cool at night.  There was no air-conditioning, except in the office downstairs (and that was rarely used) and we slept with the windows open every night – even in winter!

There were also some outbuildings, which provided a small dormitory for our female helpers, along with a shower & toilet block and our ‘new boy room’.   This was where new brothers spent their first 10 days with us, withdrawing from heroin, methadone, opium, and whatever else they were addicted to.

When I arrived from Walled City it was late in the evening and everyone was already asleep apart from the single figure on night duty, sat at the top of the stairs.  I was told to leave anything valuable in the office and shown to the first empty bed upstairs to get some sleep.  I remember lying there thinking that I was sleeping in a room with around 15 ex-triads who had probably committed more violent crimes that I could imagine, but I was so tired that I soon went to sleep anyway.

Next morning the daily routine at Tai Tam started early.  Wake up was at 6:45am each day and everyone gathered in the lounge by 7:30 for Quiet Time – an hour for individual prayer and Bible study.  The beginning of this Quiet Time was anything but quiet though, beginning with 10 minutes praying out loud in tongues – the prayer language which everyone there had received.  It was a strangely harmonious cacophony of sounds as we all prayed out loud at the same time, but not unpleasant.  In time I learnt to value this as a time when I abandoned all my own thoughts and agendas, learning to turn myself over to God’s agenda for the day.  For me it became a kind of corporate meditation which enabled me to attune myself to God for the day ahead.  I don’t think I was alone in that.  After about ten minutes, the audible gaggle of prayer would gradually fade out and there would be quiet as we read out Bibles, prayed for our families and each other, and listened for anything which God might want to say to each of us.

Then it was breakfast.  It would be fair to say that this never became my favourite meal of the day.  Overall, I loved the food there.  We lived as any Chinese family did.  Fresh food for the day was bought cheaply from the open market in Chai Wan early every morning and we ate rice three times a day.  Lunch and dinner were fine with freshly boiled rice and a variety of meat & vegetable dishes to tuck into.  But breakfast was usually congee which I never became accustomed to.  For those who don’t know, congee is yesterday’s left over rice left in a slow cooker overnight until it turns into a kind of glutinous white soup.  There would be a small amount of finely chopped meat (a little like spam) sprinkled onto it and a super-hot chilli sauce available for the brave to take the taste away, but I hated it!  Occasionally, if there wasn’t enough left over rice from the day before, we would get fried noodles instead and these were red letter days in my book to be enjoyed to the full!

After breakfast, there would be some free time to chat and ‘drink tea’ (yam-cha) before work at 9:30 which consisted of household chores, painting & decorating, general maintenance, and keeping the grounds around the house clean and tidy.  For many of our brothers, this was the first ‘work’ they had done in years and was not universally popular.  For most addicts in the Triads, work used to be dealing or transporting drugs, beating up your opposition, or standing guard at the entrance to some illicit premises.  Picking up a paint brush, a rake or a vacuum cleaner was a whole new experience.

Then there was lunch which I always enjoyed.  That is, I always enjoyed it once I knew how to recognise the dishes I liked and the dishes I didn’t.  There was always a whole fish or two which was good as long as you managed to avoid the honour of eating the eyes or the challenge of eating the head!  Things I was less keen on included deep fried chicken feet which were both cheap and plentiful; cow’s stomach which was so rubbery that it often had to be swallowed whole; and cubes of congealed blood, which (even though I love black pudding in England) never quite managed to win me over.  Alongside these delicacies however, there was always food I loved.  Prawns and spring onions, beef or pork in oyster sauce, pak choy and nuts were just a few.

I quickly learned the art of eating quickly with chopsticks.  While in polite company you leave your rice bowl on the table and delicately lift the chopsticks to your mouth, in a family setting you pick up your bowl and put it to your mouth to shovel in the rice at speed!  Essential knowledge if you didn’t want the food to disappear in front of you.

The afternoon would be spent getting lots of fresh air and exercise.  In the cooler months, that meant walking the trails around the reservoirs, up into the mountains.  In the summer, we would swim each day from our little beach or go kayaking in the inlet.

After our evening meal, we would meet for worship and ministry.  For an hour or so each evening, we would sing songs of worship, share something from the Bible, and pray & minister to each other with gentle words of prophecy, healing and care.  These were often wonderful times with songs being sung with heart and soul, God tangibly present and tears of joy from hardened men whose hearts were being melted by the love of God.

Then after some more free time for showers, yam-cha and relaxing, we would all gather for brief Night Prayers in the dormitory before lights out and sleep at 9:45pm.

All of this sounds idyllic, and many aspects of being at Tai Tam were, but that is only half the story. 

The other side of our day to day life was extremely challenging.  Anyone who has lived in close community with others will know just how challenging that can be.  Different people, with different norms, different priorities, different likes and dislikes, different cultures and assumptions can be a powder keg even among people who choose to live together in community.  At Tai Tam we were a community of very recent ex-heroin addicts, triad members, older brothers and western helpers.  In one sense, helping them physically withdraw from heroin was the easy part.  It was learning to live a new life together which was the real challenge.

Many had been on drugs since they were 10 or 11 years old.  They had never experienced adolescence.  Now, free from a drug induced haze for the first time, we would see and experience middle aged men going through the tantrums of adolescence for the first time, having to come to terms with raw emotions and how to live with them.

Almost all of our brothers had spent time in prison and many of them had bounced in and out of prison for years.  They were skilled in the tools of manipulation to get their way from those in authority.

When we were out walking, we had to be vigilant for what was being picked up from the pathways. In coming to a First Stage House, it wasn’t just heroin which our brothers were expected to give up.  It was everything addictive, including alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee.  This was going ‘cold turkey’ on a grand scale and while the physical withdrawal through prayer was often miraculous, old habits die hard. Scanning the public pathways for discarded half smoked cigarettes, or cans of beer with a little left in the bottom were common place for our eagle-eyed brothers.  If they found something, it wasn’t the quantity which was important, it was the temptation to stray from the new life they were trying to commit to, and temptation always starts small.  If we give into it, it then grows and grows until even the occasional shot of heroin would be ok, wouldn’t it?

Then there was trust.  Sleeping as we did, alongside the brothers required trust.  Almost all had a violent past and some would have killed for their Triad ‘di-loh’ (Big Brother).  If a confrontation had occurred during the day with a particular brother, we knew that we would be sleeping in the same room as them that night. There were a number of occasions when I faced aggression and threats during my time there after having to challenge a brother about his behaviour or attitude.  We all had to trust that this would not lead to revenge in the small hours of the night.  Ironically, living so closely together in community actually helped in this.  It begged the question among the brothers, why would the helpers make themselves so vulnerable?  The only answer was because we loved and cared for them with the love of God who was even willing to go to the cross for us all.  That love kept us safe, but it didn’t eliminate the stress in difficult times.

In the office we had a Garfield postcard pinned up on the noticeboard.  It read “One day I will look back on all this and laugh!” At times we all drew inspiration from that postcard.  Each helper got one day off (24 hours) each week with an overnight stay back at Hang Fook Camp if we wanted it. We also attended the weekly helpers meeting each Thursday morning and went to the Church service every other Sunday, but apart from that we were there at Tai Tam 24/7.  It was very demanding and led most helpers to conclude that a month in a first stage house is like a year anywhere else!

And all that fails to mention the other core business of a First Stage House – helping our new brothers withdraw from heroin in the first place.  Jackie Pullinger was famous all over the Christian world for praying addicts off heroin without the kind of withdrawal pains and sickness which normally accompany going ‘cold turkey’.  As her ministry grew, this part of the ministry became the role of the First Stage Houses.  We would get a new brother almost every week, and for 10 days someone would be with them, praying with them, 24 hours a day, in four hour shifts.  The ‘someone’ would be a Western or Chinese Helper, or one of the brothers who was ready to move on to Hang Fook Camp.

This was the part of being in a First Stage House which terrified me.  I had visions of starting my first 4 hour shift with our new brother happy and pain free, only to find that by half way through he was writhing around in agony!  After all, I had never done this before.  I didn’t know how.  Why would God answer my prayers?  I was no expert.

It was on my second day at Tai Tam that I had to face my fear.  I went to the new brother room to start my 4 hour shift.  The new brother I was going to spend the next four hours with was the same person we had brought back from Walled City when I arrived.  He spoke very little English and I spoke very little Cantonese.  I tried not to look too nervous. He was in good spirits, 48 hours into his withdrawal.  For the next 4 hours, I sat with him while he slept and prayed with him every 15 minutes when he was awake.  I walked with him around the house and garden when he was bored and he showed me how to make Chinese tea.  Despite all my misgivings, he didn’t deteriorate into a sweaty, clammy, gibbering wreck and I discovered something vitally important. 

It wasn’t all about me.

My fears were all about me.  I was frightened that my prayers wouldn’t be good enough; that my faith wasn’t strong enough; that I wasn’t up the task before me.  It was all me, me, me! 

What I had failed to realise was that it was not about me at all.  As I joined this rota of prayer, I became part of something much bigger than me.  I was being swept up into a ministry that had been blessed by God over many years, as was the new brother I was praying with.  As my 4 hours drew to a close, I remembered his words when we left Walled City about why this time would be different: “Before, no Jesus. This time, Jesus.”  Together we were both experiencing the love and grace of God at work – a grace which flows in spite of our own shortcomings because they are God’s riches poured out freely upon us and they are nothing we can earn or deserve.

It wasn’t about me – it was about him and God.

During my time at Tai Tam, I had to remind myself that we were witnessing a miracle almost every day in praying for addicts as they got clean.  Not everyone came off without symptoms of withdrawal.   Generally, most new brothers (around 8/10) did have a little discomfort coming off their drugs, but nothing like the aches, pangs and cravings which they had experienced before, when they had tried to do it on their own.  1 in 10 suffered nothing at all, bouncing with energy and eating normally, and 1 in 10 did go through the pangs of withdrawal.  I never came to any conclusions about why that was, although it did remind us of what we could expect to experience without the blessings of answered prayer!

After 7-10 days as a new brother, they were welcomed fully into the community at Tai Tam with a celebration.  They were now washed clean from the drugs which used to enslave their lives.  We would share celebration cake together and he would be given a bunk bed in the main house.  We would sing songs of praise and the real work begun - the learning of a new pattern of life which would not lead them back into slavery again.

Not everyone made it through and on to Hang Fook Camp, of course.  We had people who ran away as new brothers, or later on when we bumped into some area of their life which they were not willing to open to God.  But most made it through, and for those who didn’t, there was always another chance when they were ready to take it.

I had made it through my first few days at Tai Tam.  Apart from discovering what an egotist I can be, I had come through unscathed.  As I became accustomed to the routine and got to know our brothers and other helpers, Tai Tam became my home.  It would remain so throughout my time in Hong Kong. 

I settled into a top bunk at the far end of the dormitory in what was originally a dressing room.   It now slept ten of us.  From my bed at night, I could often see the mountains silhouetted against the sky by huge but silent thunderstorms in the far distance over China. When I got to bed each night, I was so ready for sleep that I would be well away within minutes.  I didn’t get everything right, and made lots of mistakes, but then getting everything right was not the be all and end all. 

God is bigger than that.

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