Just as many of us picked up guitars and decided to form bands with some being more successful than others in different areas of music, so it was with advertising. Some of us simply fell into it.
Did we have a Masters in Marketing or Communications? No, but we had a passion for words, and an interest and, perhaps even a talent for selling what couldn’t be sold, or told something couldn’t be sold. Remember Dylan writing about, “Advertising, they do con/ into thinking you’re the one/winning prizes that can never be won”?
We weren’t “Mad Men”, not really, but there was a little of Don Draper in some of us. Some of us were simply very good jugglers of the truth.
These were the fledgling days of Hong Kong’s advertising industry with a number of us starting new careers. Some flirted with it and quickly bailed to join a bank or hotel or the safety net of the government while those who stayed waiting for “something better to come along” have their own stories and memories about the characters, the politics, the good, the bad, the weird, the whacked out, and, of course, the work.
Whatever human weaknesses there might have been in these Hong Kong-based Mad Men, there was an incredible pride of ownership in the work produced. It was pride mixed with generous out-of-proportioned dollops of egos and petty jealousies that would even spill over to industry parties where knives were pulled by competing Mad Men, and a few, who got in the way, being visited at their respective agencies by “hired help”. Though one industry, there was still an invisible division within the ranks- old schoolers versus younger upstarts, “gweilos” versus locals, locals versus “gweis”, and others watching from the sidelines, waiting for the time to make their moves- and which they did when the battle cry of “localisation” happened and the focus became the Mainland China market. But before 1997 and The Handover, that- the China market- seemed 2000 light years from home. Or gnome.
“Back in the day”, the best ideas for television commercials came from Thailand and Japan- simple, effective concepts- Singapore produced consistently good print work, but Hong Kong really was the hub of activity in the region- and this had to do with the characters, the places, and the lifestyles led.
It might have been style over substance- and many in advertising at that time fashioned images for themselves- but it worked for those times. This is not to say that there was little good creative work. There was some very good work, especially when it came to heavily art-directed television productions for fashion products like Puma and Lane Crawford and, later, those epic productions for Marlboro with some brave print work being approved by equally brave clients.
What really made the Hong Kong ad scene- and, in turn, the city’s night life- buzz and whirl and tick and tock were true originals- characters like Singaporean film editor Tony Morias aka “The Black Rat”, below, who started PPS- The Post Production Shop- and, later, when his former loyal troops staged a coup d’état, opened up Videopost.
Tony gave the best parties in Hong Kong, was way too generous and trusting, and took in too many strays. It was his Achilles heel. But when things were going well and thought the ride would last forever with no regrets, every visit to Videopost was a party even when there was work to be done.
Videopost was a micro Peyton Place in Wanchai- a meeting place with an open bar for those in the midst of doomed marriages mixed with plenty of smoke and booze and a conga line of odds and sods made up of advertising Mad Men, jockeys, bookies, charlatans and hangers-on with dreams and schemes, and many ready to take a walk on the wild side with Tony Morias being the Ringmaster to this circus. And the coloured girls went, Doop de doop de doop…
These were very strange Doors days where many associated with the then recently-opened Macau racing scene, and with it, some very dodgy characters knowing a golden goose when they saw one- namely, Tony who, overnight, became a rabid and easily excitable and gullible punter and horse owner- mixed with advertising executives, fast cars- actually Tony’s obsession with Ferraris- faster women, single, married, divorced, in-between, of all nationalities, and characters like the still-mysterious and kinda creepy Michael Johnson, below, who had discovered the errant NASA wok in the sky that became STARTV.
All the “pan handling” that went on with so many fleecing the satellite station’s coffers while playing a game of The Emperor’s New Robes with Little Richard Li, a false wunderkind, made the greed of Gordon Gekko look like chump change.
Those early days comprising so many fakirs coming outta the woodwork smelling so many opportunities to make so much by doing so little, and when STARTV included MTV Asia, which, in turn, became its very own “profit centre” for pilfering, excessive spending, and extremely dubious hires, should be a movie. A disaster movie of Titanic proportions and a sequel to The Ship Of Fools.
As for the advertising world, which co-existed with the STAR-struck MTV world as it was meant to bring in millions in work to everyone- many were promised they were all going to be music videos directors- it moved along at a frenetic pace with very long lunches at Wyndham Street Thai, Fernando’s, La Bodega, Cafe D’Amigo, Casa Mexicana, Landau’s and, to a chosen few, secret afternoon visits to Club Volvo, the “biggest hostess club in the world” with its own golden Rolls Royce to get people from one area to the next. These “short-time” visits always turned out to be a long day’s journey to the dark side of the moon. It’s where those generous entertainment allowances came in handy. And yet, despite all this waywardness, some great work was produced, deadlines were made and International awards won.
None of this could have happened if not for the cast of characters, everyone from those who first set up production houses, the most significant being the legendary Charles Wang, who, through his Salon Films, helped so many by opening the doors to new careers- cameramen, editors, directors-in-the making, models, voice-over talent etc. This list even included the world’s worst actor -and “The Muscles from Brussels” that was Jean Claude Van Damme.
If not for Charles Wang and Salon Films, there would never have been Adpower, Nancy Kwan Productions, directors Poh Chee-Leong and Robin Marriott, photographer Dinshaw Balsara, Bob Freeman, below, the Beatles official photographer who, somehow, ended up making commercials in Hong Kong during a lean streak, John Chu and Centro, Robert Chua Productions and Academy One run by Charles Wolnizer, who, for some reason, would always be rubbing his hands in glee. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t.
It was from A1 as Academy One came to be known that the Walter Mitty-type commercials director Stasch Radwanski emerged.
Stasch desperately wanted to make “real movies” and would regale us with stories of how to “really live” and watch “the underbelly of life” go by- usually in seedy bars with a bottle of scotch- and how he was approached by “Steven”- Steven Spielberg to us mere mortals- to direct an episode of the one-time television series called “Amazing Stories” after the famous Hollywood director had watched his showreel of commercials. Huh?
It was all bollocks, but Stasch was such a loveable rogue that no one wanted to prick his balloon and let out all the hot air. It all added to an industry that actually was glamorous and hip and ultra-cool at a time when the music and entertainment industries were only starting to understand the thin line between hip and unhip.
What a cast of players there were in this movie that was real life: Clarke Mallery, Mike Fromowitz, “Mad” Mark Amdur, Canton disco, Andrew Bull, Morton Wilson, the always-angry Noel Quinlan, Hot Gossip, Jane Pritchard, Louis Ng, Larry Chiu, the supercilious Geoff Brown and his suits with their Krystle Carrington shoulder pads, Aaron Lau, Yvonne Ho, Eddie Booth, Paul Ellithorpe, Ross Blake, Jim Nicholson, the late Stoney Mudd, those “dirty rotten scoundrels”, John Doig and Ross Sutherland, the brilliant Daniel Ng, Romy Diaz, copywriter Chris “Do I have a deal for you?” Dharmakirti, below, Leoni Ki etc etc.
It was one weird melting pot of different nationalities, personalities, thinking, processing this thinking, looking ahead, searching internally that, unknown at that time, what contributed much to what Hong Kong was and became the building blocks to much of what exists today.
By the late Nineties, the Longest Cocktail Party was quickly winding down.
The Front Page had closed and the music had stopped for “Crazy” Lawrence and Chris Vadham.
That “old gang of mine” was disbanding and unravelling fast as reality bites were waking us up from The Big Sleep and how we couldn’t continue to party like it was 1999.
The ad world had changed forever. Flim flam men had talked themselves into positions of power, who, in turn, hired their own flim flam men often known as FILTHs- Failed In London, Try Hongkong- even though many came from Oz, Canada, South Africa, whereas greasy little locals reinvented themselves so that they suddenly had “work experience in Chicago/NY/Philly”, gelled their hair, wore braces, took up playing tennis with clients, and played both sides of the fence. It was too inscrutable to stomach.
These little men eventually started to run international ad agencies and start up their own agencies as the Long March into China continued and where advertising still remains stunted.
In Hong Kong, the Peter Principle had set in, and second and third rate creative talent were promoted to roles they couldn’t manage nor deserve.
Mediocrity had set in as, like every other industry, the “China market” beckoned with Fool’s Gold, the quality of the work produced appealed to the lowest common denominator, and most of the advertising from Hong Kong became discardable.
Gone forever were all those characters needed to give advertising a heartbeat and soul and provide an industry with a personality that isn’t as wooden as Thunderbirds Are Go.
Some of us from those days veered off script and never lived happily ever after. Others moved on to other areas of the creative industry.
Stasch Radwanski is making movies and documentaries. Tony Morias is somewhere in Thailand probably reading this on some beach and screaming, “Call the police!”
Chris Kyme, below, keeps the ad flag flying, and be sure to read his book on advertising titled “Made In Hong Kong.”
For some of us, having crammed so much living into a fast and furious decade or so, it was time to slow down, take stock, grow up, learn from those life lessons, and take everything advertising and the experiences we learnt along the way to new careers and let the journey continue.
Mad Men don’t just fade away. They become sane though the insanity of it all keeps them going to wherever that next chapter leads.
Chairman and CEO
We-Enhance Inc and Fast Track Global Ltd