Spies like us
Serialised by Macca on ABCRadio. Two young Aussies chase their dreams in Hong Kong, Macau and Red China. Who’s that in the red cheongsam and is she one of us? Spies without sunglasses, Spies like us!
First published: 1995
It’s the Swinging Sixties and James Bond has burst onto the scene. My mate Kenny Fletcher and I are both 23, living at home with our parents, and neither of us has a girlfriend. But Fletch has an idea: “Hong Kong is full of girlfriends! Let’s go to the Orient!” So we go. We live it up in all the Hong Kong nightclubs, and befriend the famous Sydney reporter Steve Dunleavy, who is a reporter by day and a bouncer by night. Robert Culp and Bill Cosby arrive to make the TV series I Spy. We discover that Hong Kong is not only full of girlfriends in cheongsams, but also spies who are hanging around watching “Red China” right next door. China in 1965 is a forbidden and forbidding place where they invented not only gunpowder but also political correctness. Fletch is heading off to play tennis at the French Open in Paris, so we decide to rendezvous there. Fletch travels via Egypt and Manila, but I want to go via China and Russia. Australia doesn’t recognize China; we’ve got no consulate, so there’s no way an Aussie can get in to the country. But I do, and then of course get into big trouble, the sort of trouble which only a magician could help me get out of.
I have written Spies Like Us from the point of view of a 23-year-old in 1965.
This memoir was serialized around Australia on ABC Radio on Australia All Over. To go with the reading (by Shakespearean actor Peter Curtin) Ian “Macca” McNamara wrote a song that rings true like a 007 theme.
I never realised how famous Fletch was until I got up one morning and read in the South China Morning Post that the Americans were in Hong Kong to make a TV series about us. It was to be filmed in full colour and called I Spy.
The Post said the TV series would be the big show of 1965. It was about an international tennis champion who goes to live in Hong Kong, and brings his best mate along with him. Well, Fletch was the only international tennis star who had ever shifted to Hong Kong to make it his world touring base. Plus he had brought his best mate with him. Naturally, the American producers changed Fletch’s nationality and made him into an American tennis player, to suit their audience. Handsome Hollywood actor Robert Culp—who did not look unlike Fletch—was chosen to play the part. They couldn’t call the tennis player “Kenny Fletcher”, so they called him “Kelly Robinson”: with exactly the same number of letters in each name. Kelly’s sidekick and buddy in the series was “Scottie”, whereas Fletch always called me “Hughie”.
According to the article, Scottie was to be played by an unknown American comedian who had never acted before in his life, a bloke called Bill Cosby. In the series, the producers said, Scottie would travel overseas to live with his tennis champion mate in Hong Kong: just like us. Then the pair would tour the world together, as we planned to do. And, just like me, Scottie didn’t play tennis at all, and wasn’t the star of the duo. While his famous tennis buddy was out wooing the girls in the stands, Scottie generally stayed in his room and, like me, read poetry. I wondered how they knew so much about us.
The paper said the two I Spy jetsetters would spend very little time on the tennis court. Which was pretty spot-on too. But still, it showed just what a popular sport tennis was in America these days: even though we had all the champions.
“Most of the time Kelly and Scottie chase beautiful girls; drink in nightclubs; gamble at exotic casinos; dress in dinner suits for millionaires’ parties; and catch aeroplanes, ferries and rickshaws,” the story said.
They would get into scrapes in bars, and mix with tough international blokes: who I imagined would be just like Steve Dunleavy, or John Ball, or even our tall, handsome, debonair Pakistani mate, Farid Khan, who was not only an Olympic hockey player and Colony squash champion but also boss of more than 150 Pakistani watchmen.
The only extra dimension added by the TV show was that, unlike us, they were both spies. I knew for sure that Kelly, I mean Kenny, wasn’t a spy. But that was showbusiness.
After all, such a series would have to compete with James Bond films for popularity, and our lives did get a bit dreary every now and then. But Fletch had always said a champion tennis player was a great cover for a spy. “Tennis is played in every country in the world, so you can go anywhere you like without arousing suspicion. Plus you always get to meet all the right people,” he said, long before the Yanks even thought of I Spy.
Kenny had played tennis behind the Iron Curtain in Moscow, had met the Shah of Persia, had had dinner at 10 Downing Street with the British Prime Minister, and had even shaken hands with royalty in England: all because he had played in several Wimbledon finals on television. He had even played tennis in Saigon in the midst of the Vietnam War. Just about the only place he hadn’t been invited was Red China. But they never put on tournaments.
The Post said Culp and Cosby were arriving in the Colony in a couple of weeks to film outdoor scenes on Hong Kong’s famous harbour and up on Victoria Peak. It was thrilling to think Ken’s move to Hong Kong had excited interest in faraway Hollywood: even if no one at home in Australia gave a damn. Fletch didn’t seem to mind that the American producers hadn’t bothered to tell him about the show.
When I picked him up at the airport on his return from his triumph in the Philippines and told him that he was about to become an international TV star, Fletch said: “Anyway, I’m the original. At least that bloke Culp has a good-looking dial. They’ll have to get a stand-in to play the tennis scenes for him but.”
“The only difference is, Fletch,” I said, “the producers have turned us both into a couple of spies.”
“You mean, Hughie,” said Ken, “the only difference is that they’ve made you black.”
Ken was right. It turned out that Bill Cosby was black. I was very pleased to hear that he was the comedian of the duo.
Everyone in Hong Kong was talking about I Spy because the only other Western TV series ever set in the Colony was Hong Kong, made five years before in 1960. Coincidentally, Australia had a starring role in that series too because the main actor, Rod Taylor, was an Australian: but he was made into a Yank as well. Instead of being about tennis and spies, Hong Kong was about dope-peddlers and smugglers, and every scene took place behind a beaded curtain. Which showed just how wrong Hollywood could be, because there were no beaded curtains in Hong Kong. Rod Taylor played an American newspaper correspondent who hung out in a place a bit like the Firecracker Bar—Tully’s Bar—and helped the British fight crime in the Orient. Everyone in Australia liked the theme song, Honourable Hong Kong Rock, which mixed Chinese gongs and electric guitars, conducted by Lionel Newman. The Lunn family, except Fred, used to watch it every week because Rod Taylor drove around in the same type of sports car that I owned, a Sunbeam Alpine. Fletch, of course, knew Rod Taylor, and had once gone out on the town with him in the south of France. Tennis players often mixed with film stars for some reason.
An even more important event had happened in the week Ken was away: a rumour had gone around that Hong Kong’s banks were all going to go bust. Chinese had formed mile-long queues outside banks throughout the Colony to try to get their money out. Of course, pretty soon the banks ran out of cash and shut their doors. People wept in the streets despite assurances from the British Governor that their money was safe. At one stage the bigger banks tried to restore confidence by taking bars of gold out of their vaults and putting them on display on the front counter, but nothing could convince the Chinese that the rumours were wrong and that the banks had enough money to pay everybody back. The fact that some banks printed their own Hong Kong dollar notes added to the confusion.
A top British financial expert had been hurriedly flown out from the Bank of England to try to stem the run: and it turned out that he was one of Arch’s best mates. So he had dinner at our flat on arrival. And was Ah Ping glad to meet this balding, middle-aged banker that night. She had disappeared for the previous two days, queuing with everyone else to try to get her money out. Then when her bank closed its doors, poor Ah Ping came home in tears.
“Ah Ping lose money Dragon Master. Ah Ping lose life money. Life money gone Master.”
Suddenly she looked old and grey and broken. It was hard to imagine that she could go downhill so quickly. Arch and I knew nothing about the situation, but we tried unsuccessfully to comfort Ah Ping, assuring her that everything would work out alright.
But Ah Ping was convinced it was the end of the world as she knew it: “No more money. All gone,” she said, crying her eyes out into a tea towel.
Then Arch told Ah Ping how he had this mate, a banker, who had arrived to fix everything up. Ah Ping put on a feast for that banker the like of which had never been seen before.
For once she acted the servant and waited on him hand and foot, forgetting about her two Masters. He was presented with shark’s fin soup, steamed fried rice in lotus leaf, rice dumpling filled with duck and wrapped in bamboo leaves, steamed spare ribs with red pepper sauce, and, her speciality, curried king prawns. All were served on the Communist Chinese store blue plates I bought, which had bits of rice embedded inside the china.
“Bank Master dai yut. Big Bank Master save Ah Ping money,” she said, as she served the banker lashings of food.
Bemused by all the attention from this small old Chinese lady wearing her hair in a grey bun—and not knowing that we had promised he would rescue her from an old age of poverty—he kept remarking on what wonderful lives we lived in the Colonies. I felt particularly sorry for Ah Ping because Fred was always quoting his old man, Grandpa Hugh Lunn, as saying: “Age and want are an ill-matched pair.”
Over the Daan tarts with coconut pudding, Arch’s British mate—they were in the same hockey club in London—said the only way out of the run on the banks was for the Hong Kong tellers to stand at their counters and pay every last customer in the Colony back their money. To the last Hong Kong cent. Ah Ping nodded enthusiastic agreement, and I noted that after a while the banker began addressing her rather than us: “They must keep paying until there isn’t one person left on a queue. Once that is done, the population will regain confidence and they will all queue up again to put their money back,” he said. This would require astronomical amounts of cash, and there were not enough Hong Kong dollars in print.
“Pay money back. Cash,” said Ah Ping. “Bank Master brave Master, good Master.”
“Yes, you can’t pay people back with the assets that make a bank rich,” he said, as Ah Ping took a seat on the fourth chair. “Gold bars, promissory notes, lease agreements, buildings, bills of exchange, business stock, mortgages, share certificates, houses: none of these are of any use in this situation. It has to be cash. So, today, I have ordered seven Boeing 707 loads of British bank bills flown out from London. It’s almost all British five-pound notes. It’s the only way to end the crisis.”
The first of the seven plane loads of money was at that moment winging its way over India: and we were the only people in Hong Kong to know. Ah Ping waved her arms up and down like a bird as she flew back down the hall for the tea.
“It’s a knockout.” Piers Akerman, Daily Telegraph
“It’s a winner.” Mary Rose Liverani, Weekend Australian
“It’s a ripper.” Ian ‘Macca’ McNamara, Australia All Over, ABC Radio