Today is Valentine’s Day. I thought I would tell you a love story spanning several countries. We will also take a huff of a bottle or two of perfume. Let’s meet Houv (pronounced Ho) Tang and see what he was doing in the mid 1970’s.
Take the Shackles Off My Feet So I Can Dance
Houv Tang was a war refugee from Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. His mother was Khmer and his father was Chinese, of the Teochew speaking clan. One day in Kampuchea / Cambodia, as he was searching for food in a starving land, and also for his missing father, he was captured by Pol Pot soldiers and imprisoned in a hot tin shed. Along with 30 other boys and men, his feet were shackled, to one long steel rod. One cup of rice boiled in water was the daily food allocated for all of the 30 prisoners; congee, but more water than rice. Houv was suspected of having an education. In fact, for the last three years, he had been planting and harvesting rice. In Cambodia life revolved around the annual rice harvest. However, Pol Pot ordered 3 rice harvests a year, and sold almost all the rice to China for guns, mines and gold while he shot his starving people if they ‘stole’ a handful to eat. But if you were young, strong and healthy they did not shoot you. They tied you to a tree for 3 days with no food and then it was back to the padi fields.
Back in the hot tin shed prison; every morning a name would be called and the prisoner unshackled, never to return, and the amount of rice in the cup would be decreased accordingly. 6 weeks of living on rice water means that your thighs become skinnier than your kneecaps and your bottom becomes skin and bone like coconut bark.
On an Escapade
Soldiers from Viet Nam, moved into the neighboring province and the Khmer Rouge prison guards fled. The prisoners were left shackled but one angel of a soldier slipped back and unlocked the bolt before he disappeared. Houv escaped into the jungle, alone, foraging for food and drinking mud water. Nobody wants to eat banana skins, fish bones or a cat. A teenage boy can learn to kill a pig if he is starving, although he may not have the strength, or a companion’s help, with which to do so. His goal was to walk across the Cardamon Mountains to Thailand; a journey 1000 or more kilometers long. Sleeping by day to avoid recapture, he followed the moon by night to a town near the Thai border. This took many nights. At the border there were masses of Khmer people. They were split into groups of 50 to flee to Thailand, in the hope of food and safety. One group left at 5am; within an hour explosions were heard. These were from the land mines that Pol Pot had scattered around all the border areas to stop his labourers from escaping. About half of the first group returned, some disfigured by missing limbs, and others too frightened to carry on. Houv’s group left at 7am. Their guide was from Laos. While the guide did not know where every land mine had been planted, he had memorized previous trails of blood, and so he knew a path which was less likely to have been mined. Underground traps, of the kind usually set for tigers, were also pepper-potted along the border to catch escaping humans. At the border the guide vanished. The group waded across the river border. On the other side the local people frisked them for valuables and directed them to a tent city which was the holding camp at Mairut for refugees prior to their transportation to one of the main refugee camps or as they were called in Thailand: Displaced Persons Camp.
One day a truck arrived and Houv was interviewed by the driver. Houv had a distant aunty of an aunty who lived in Bangkok; this information ensured him a ride in the truck. After 7 hours everyone in the truck was deposited, not at the refugee camp but at a rural farm. Houv had been sold as slave to a farmer and his distant aunty was extorted for money to ‘look after’ this young family member that she had never met. The Thai government became aware of the exploitation of refugees and send the army on regular inspections of all padi and vegetable farms. Houv, and his fellow slaves, of which there were about 20, were often told to hide when the patrols were sighted. After about 6 weeks it became too dangerous for the farmer to hide his slaves. The Thai government had passed a law with high penalties for anyone found exploiting refugees from their neighbour Cambodia. The farmer packed up his slaves and drove them through the night to a Buddhist temple. At the temple they were looked after by Thai monks who shared their own meager food with the newcomers. 10 days later a truck came and took them to the refugee processing camp. At this camp Houv found his Uncle, cousins and some of his sisters.
Several months passed before the diplomats arrived. Canada took 15 families, America 600. New Zealand sent their prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, to shake the hand of each of the people making up the 15 families that had been sponsored by various churches in New Zealand. Houv and his sisters made for a smaller family group than their original 14 siblings. They arrived in Hong Kong wearing pajamas to freezing temperatures. Their final destination was the Mangere Refugee Processing Centre in Auckland, New Zealand. It was now 12 November 1979. Here, they spent a month having injections, deworming liquids, and acclimatizing to the environment. Houv already spoke 5 languages; Khmer, Teochew, Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai and Vietnamese, but none of these was English, the language of this new country, a country he had never heard of, until recently. Next door to the sponsoring Baptist church in Henderson was a house where 9 people set up home. Their first job was picking strawberries. Each person was assigned a person from the church who helped them find more permanent jobs and who spoke English with them. Houv was placed at Cambridge Clothing Company as a steam presser. His hourly rate was $2.75, giving him a weekly post-tax income of $97 per week. His rent was $40 per week.
It was at this time that he found out about the extortion of the aunty in Bangkok who he had never met. She had been left baht-less to the tune of B500,000; around $NZ24,000 in those times. The extortion had continued even though Houv and other family members elsewhere were no longer being ‘looked after’ by the farmer. The aunty had continued to pay for the care of extended family because Houv had told the man how many siblings he had. In fact most of them were missing including his father, brothers and most of his sisters. His mother had passed away soon after Houv’s youngest brother was born. It took Houv and his family members in New Zealand 3 years to repay this ‘life’ money. It was during this time that he was offered a job at a nightclub called The Staircase. He was a Glassy; the person who picks up the glasses and empties the ash trays. He had found his way to The Staircase before that but had always had to leave before midnight to catch the last bus home to Henderson.
Starting at The Staircase on Fort Street, on Christmas Eve 1984, Houv was thrilled to earn $35 a night for working Friday and Saturday nights. On Saturday morning he would work at the clothing factory and catch up with his sleep on Sundays. Long weekends were eagerly anticipated, not as a holiday, but as an opportunity to earn another night’s wage. Houv worked at every location of The Staircase until the club closed its doors in 1996. In those later years he was earning $150 for two nights work. Every cent of this money went to paying the mortgage he now had after saving a home deposit from his day job. The positive music of The Staircase was one of the healing elements in Houv’s life. 2 or 3 times a night he would hear a song that made him want to dance. Down went the ice bucket, which he used for collecting cigarette butts, and onto the dancing floor he would step. His favourite song of that era is When will I see you again.
Maybe he was thinking of the people missing in his life, maybe he was just dancing. There was also a man he noticed on the dancing floor but he was too shy to speak to him as his English was as limited as his confidence. There came a night when this man was no longer dancing and Houv learnt that he had shifted to Sydney, Australia.
Discos, or nightclubs, were the one of the first places in the world where people of all colours and incomes really came together to socialize and dance. The music and the environment were the drawcards to be with people you would not necessarily come across in your daily life.
Houv did see his father again. The United Nations found his father in Vietnam in 1983. He was working as a carpenter for a compassionate family in a very small village called Muy Quy, in the Tháp Mười District of Đồng Tháp Province. His younger brother and sisters were also located and brought to NZ with his father. These siblings now only spoke Vietnamese. When his dad became elderly, Houv, like any good Chinese son would, looked after him day and night. He took two years off work to do this. Some family members are still missing and are now presumed dead. Houv lives in Massey close to 3 of his sisters. One of these sisters owns a roast shop in Grey Lynn, the other a fish and chip shop in Ranui. They run these with the husbands who they met in New Zealand. His oldest sister is retired after years of factory work.
I met Houv several years ago at Avondale Market, an early morning market specializing in fresh vegetables and fruit. He told me he remembered watching me on the dance floor of the 80’s. Many of my friends remember him but I, to my embarrassment, did not. I had spent 12 years in Sydney on other dancing floors and had recently returned to New Zealand. We went out for dinner, several dinners, and found our hearts to be warm and our minds to be compatible.
Around this time Chanel released Bleu de Chanel. Relying solely on the brand reputation, I thought this to be the perfect gift for a man for Valentines Day. A big flacon and the smaller travel sized flacon were purchased unsniffed and presented on the day.
Unfortunately Houv liked this very generic and very boring ‘fume and I have had to sniff my buyer’s remorse daily. Despite offering Houv many of the aromatic substances that make their way across the world to my door I have not been able to entice him to wear anything more interesting or even just pleasant.
Until, thankfully this year a ‘fume arrived called Oud Bleu from Fragrance du Bois. Houv is now rocking this daily. This release, which I will review in greater depth in due course, is everything one would have hoped Bleu de Chanel to be.
Oud Bleu is Oud in an ocean.
Houv, now 50-something, is living in his third home. He still works at Cambridge Clothing Company in the same position he has held for 33 years. Last week the nightclub had a reunion.
The main show was I Am What I Am combined with When Will I See You Again. As part of this 1 am show, previous staff members came out on stage.
And then we danced the night away.
I also have a message for you today, especially if you are not feeling that love is in the air.
……………..on the way.
Valentines Day Series
Part 1 – Chemist in the Bottle – Futuristic Lover – The Making of a Neo-Perfume
Part 2 – What Men Should Smell Like – The Story of the Noble Rose
Part 3 – The Fragrant Man – I Keep Breathing, I Keep Keep Breathing Love
For a more precise definition of Love here is R. Kelly.