What it was like growing up with Michael Hutchence
When I knew Michael Hutchence only one of us had ever fronted a band and it wasn't him. My time as co-lead singer of The Sidetracks was a flash in the pan, admittedly, but I had one up on him. Now I'm not saying I'm the guy responsible for turning the future frontman of INXS on to pop music.
Let me just add, I'm not saying I wasn't either. The fact of the matter is I was the cool guy with the record player, the collection of Beatles records and the Jimi Hendrix poster on my bedroom wall. And Michael was the younger kid from across the road who may - or may not - have looked up to me as a rock god.
In the late '60s the Hutchence family lived directly opposite us in Kowloon Tong. They lived on Hong Kong side originally, decamping to Australia during the troubles in mid-1967 and coming back to settle in Kowloon Tong when things had died down.
Michael and his little brother Rhett, who was a bit of a tearaway, spent a lot of time at our place along with the other kids in the neighbourhood. The Hutchence boys went to Beacon Hill School at that stage and Michael eventually went on to KGV (King George V School), following in my footsteps. They had an older sister, Tina, who by then was back in Australia.
She was working as a buyer for the Sportsgirl boutique chain but rejoined the family in Hong Kong in late 1968. Tina lived briefly in Kowloon Tong but was nearly 21 by then and didn't hang out with us kids.
Our palace compound, as I like to refer to it, was Kowloon Tong's Fun Central and 7 Devon Rd was its own little world where play wars raged, music played and cricket matches were staged in the spacious front yard. My sister Jane's Russian friend, Margarita Ivanchenko, could often be found there. She lived down the street and her father was this huge Russian bear of a bloke called Nick. The girls used to don their white go-go boots and practise their dancing up and down the front pathway while we made fun of them. Pop music blared from my transistor, and Michael an d Rhett were there most afternoons. The girls were sweet on Michael, of course, something I don't think I realised at the time.
At one stage the Hutchence boys virtually lived at our place. I guess they liked us but there was another reason. My mother told me once that they had a very strict old cook-amah, Ah Chang, who wouldn't allow them in her kitchen after school. I had a conversation with Tina Hutchence about this recently and she said that everyone was afraid of Ah Chang.
Their mother, Patricia Hutchence - Pat to all of us - was often at work so they came over to our place seeking company and snacks, as well as to escape their glowering amah. Their father, Kell, worked for some sort of trading company that had an office in Kowloon and a factory in the New Territories. We didn't see much of him.
Pat was a lovely lady and quite glamorous in our eyes because she worked in the movie business. She was a make-up artist. Michael and Rhett raided her make-up kit and shared fake blood capsules with us, which we put to good use scaring the hell out of my mother.
Pat Hutchence did some work for the famous Shaw Brothers Studio, which had been founded in 1958 and produced romantic films, martial arts flicks and historical epics. One of my favourites - which I didn't see until many years later in Australia, by which time it was a cult classic - was One-Armed Swordsman, made in 1967. I went to see it in the Cinematheque at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane a couple of years ago and it still holds up.
Shaw Brothers under Sir Run Run Shaw, as he would later become - he was the youngest of the brothers behind the business and lived to the age of 106 - was pumping out movies on a production line by the mid-'60s and was largely responsible for turning Hong Kong into the Hollywood of the Chinese world.
The local industry had already given a young actor called Bruce Lee his start and he would go on to make a name for himself in America, eventually returning to Hong Kong and worldwide fame as the star of Enter the Dragon. By which time he would be dead. Lee actually lived in Kowloon Tong, moving there not long after we left. And they used to say he died there too, in 1973, although it has been revealed recently that he didn't die at home in Cumberland Rd as first reported, he died in his mistress's apartment at Beacon Hill just a stone's throw from Devon Rd. Knowing that I lived in the same suburb as Bruce Lee has always appealed to me.
The famous Hong Kong actor Nancy Kwan also lived in Kowloon Tong and my father knew her as a girl because my grandfather was friendly with her dad, Honkie Kwan, who was an architect. Nancy went to Maryknoll Convent, the same school my aunties attended before World War II. She came to prominence in the 1960 movie The World of Suzie Wong starring alongside William Holden. When my father knew her she was only a girl: by the time we returned to Hong Kong in the 60s she was a big name and maybe the first Chinese actor to crack Hollywood.
Kowloon Tong became so associated with glamour and celebrity that even the suburb itself became a star of the screen. With its quiet streets, laneways and impressive mansions, it was an ideal location. Occasionally we would come across film crews in the streets nearby. I was always struck by just how many people it took to do this because there would always be a crowd gathered, lots of people in sunglasses and others holding those big tin reflectors that glint in the sunlight. There was plenty of shouting in high-flown Cantonese until the filming started.
One day our amah went out to the front gate to let someone in and next thing we heard her scream "Aiyah!" We all came running outside to see what had happened. She had screamed as you would do if you opened your front gate and found a body lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the road outside your house.
A film crew had decided to set up shop right outside 7 Devon Rd and the storyline of this particular movie was some sort of dramatic murder scenario. We arrived breathless at the pavement to find Ah Lun talking to someone from the film crew who had obviously asked if we could all go back inside. Cheeky bugger. The least he could have done would be to offer us roles as extras. Anyway we shut the gate and let them get on with it. I climbed up into the tree that abutted our front wall and overhung the street, the ideal vantage point to watch the scene being shot. It seemed to take forever and when it was done they hosed away the blood and departed, leaving no sign they had ever been there.
The Hutchences' address was 5 Dorset Crescent - as I said, directly opposite us, at the point where Dorset Cres., which comes off Kowloon Tong's main artery of Waterloo Rd, meets Devon Rd. There was a bit of serendipity involved in this address because that house happened to be the Brown family residence in the post-war glory days. It was quite incredible to me that it had been my father's home and now we lived just across the road, but Dad wasn't particularly sentimental about it.
He only told us a couple of stories about his time living there and both involved road accidents. One recalled a night when he drove a car home from The Peninsula bouncing off the walls of the nullah (a huge stone-walled drain) that ran down the middle of Waterloo Rd. The other involved a motorbike he'd bought in his 20s. The first day he rode it he drove out his front gate at Dorset Cres., gunned the accelerator, roared across the road and smashed into the wall of 7 Devon Rd, where we lived all those years later. Thus ended the great motorbike experiment. Although the Hutchence boys spent a lot of time at our house, occasionally we did go over to theirs. On one visit it got a bit weird because their mum got out this ouija board for contacting the spirit world.
We tried to conjure up some entities and commune with the great beyond - to no avail, thank God. One day we were summoned to the Hutchences to meet a friend of Pat's from Australia, the actor Reg Gorman, whom everyone would eventually know as Jack Fletcher in The Sullivans. Pat had met him working for Crawford Productions back in Australia. We had no idea who he was, only that he'd been on television - and that was enough to impress us.
Our admiration turned into adulation as Reg did impressions to entertain us. His Daffy Duck was quite brilliant, I recall, and we all fell about laughing at him. Mostly the Hutchence boys were at our place. After raiding the kitchen we would all rampage around the grounds. The old Chinese lady who lived on one side would always shout out in Cantonese for us to shut up (we got the gist) but we ignored her. Sometimes we would just hang out on the front porch, a stone affair with steps that led down into the garden. Two throne-like peacock chairs sat either side of the French doors. Here I would play my transistor which blared out music by The Beatles, The Doors, Cream, the Stones and other stuff that was top of the pops. I wonder now: was Michael soaking up my music even then for later reference? Occasionally I would bring down records from my room and put them on Mum and Dad's Grundig radiogram.
I have a few photos of Michael from that time, one on a boat, which means he must have come with us to the beach one day. We used to go to a spot called Hebe Haven, also known as Pak Sha Wan, literally "White Sand Bay", which is on the south shore of Sai Kung Peninsula in the eastern part of the New Territories. Hebe is the Greek goddess of youth, daughter of Zeus and Hera.
To get to Hebe Haven we had to catch a sampan. There's a photo of Michael, me and my brother Steve perched at the prow of one of those rickety little vessels.
There are also a couple of photos of the Hutchence boys at my brother's birthday party, which was held in the front yard. His birthday is in February so it was cool and Michael Hutchence is standing there wearing a jumper and white turtleneck underneath. He's holding a bottle of Green Spot - a popular soft drink from those times, not the Irish whiskey, for which we were a bit young - and staring straight at the camera with a big grin on his face.
The camera loved him even then, and he loved it right back. But if you had stood us side-by-side in the late '60s and assessed either of us for future rock stardom I probably would have come out on top. I mean, I had already been in a band and I dressed the part with my suede shoes, Beatle boots, paisley shirts and slim-fit jeans with my hair brushed down Fab Four-style.
After we left Hong Kong in late 1969, the Hutchences stayed on for a couple more years. We lost touch with them as we did with most of the people we had known in Hong Kong. Even though I have no idea who moved into 7 Devon Rd after we left I'm guessing things there were never quite the same.
Just over a decade later Michael came on to my radar again, although I had heard of him in the meantime. Mainly because his family moved back to Sydney and lived at Belrose behind Sydney's northern beaches: my cousins lived in the same suburb and were enrolled, as he was, at nearby Davidson High School.
One day in 1981 my cousin Peter, Uncle Cyril's son, was visiting us on the Gold Coast and we all sat down for the ritual watching of Countdown when this band came on with a young foppish Mick Jagger type gyrating out front. He was like Jagger and Jim Morrison rolled into one. The song was The Loved One. The band was INXS.
"They're pretty cool," I said.
"You know who that is?" my cousin Peter asked.
"That's bloody Michael Hutchence."
I looked more closely and even went over to the TV to inspect him. And yes, I could see it was Michael. I was astounded yet, instead of being thrilled, my initial reaction was typically self-absorbed. I thought … Wait a minute, that should be me! Eventually his mum, Pat, came to live on the Gold Coast where she worked for the movie studios. She was still doing movie make-up. My mum caught up with her to talk about Hong Kong days. Dad had died and that made Hong Kong memories special, if at times painfully poignant. Some time later I went to have coffee with Pat and showed her my photo album that included those pictures of her boys at our place in Kowloon Tong. She was a lovely lady.
A few years after that I was in a cafe at the swanky Marina Mirage shopping mall on The Spit at Main Beach just north of Surfers Paradise when I spotted Pat and Michael Hutchence walking past. I rushed out to say hello. And Michael seemed genuinely blown away to see me.
He had a lifelong love of Hong Kong and returned there often. Like mine, his Hong Kong childhood was a sort of spiritual touchstone. We had that special bond because we'd been kids there together and had such happy memories of those days in the yard at Kowloon Tong.
Of course now he was a big star but he was no poseur. He was friendly and chatty and we gabbed on about Honkers. And as we stood there a small crowd began to form around the edge of our conversation.
He'd been spotted. I apologised for drawing attention to his presence but he was cool. He thought he'd been hiding behind his sunglasses but there was no mistaking Michael Hutchence. I shook hands, excused myself, and he and his mum walked off although he turned and blew a kiss to the little group that had gathered to worship him.
A couple of years later my brother caught up with him in Vancouver. Steve, who had been a cop back on the Gold Coast, works as a private investigator in the Canadian city where he still lives with his wife, Kelly. (They have two grown-up children, my niece and nephew Chelsea and Nicholas.) He presented himself backstage at the concert and Michael got the message that Stephen Brown from 7 Devon Rd, Kowloon Tong, was there and ushered him backstage to meet the band. Such were the perks of knowing Michael. He was a lovely kid. I mean I didn't have a crush on him even if all the girls in Kowloon Tong seemed to. Maybe some of the boys did too, though I couldn't say.
What happened to him is really beyond words to express. When he died so tragically in 1997 I was, like everyone else, devastated. He was so young and talented, and it was just so sad.
I'm looking at that picture of him in our Kowloon Tong garden even as I write. His little brother Rhett is busy looking at the birthday cake and my little brother Steve is busy blowing out the candles.
Michael is looking straight at the camera and beaming as if he's the birthday boy. It's a smile etched in my memory and preserved in my photo album like the fading evidence of some lost civilisation.
An edited extract from The Kowloon Kid: A Hong Kong Childhood by Phil Brown, Transit Lounge Publishing, $29.99, out now.