Former Marine Police commander turned bestselling memoirist Les Bird reflects on Hong Kong’s unique history from a unique perspective. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
At one time in his youth, in the hirsute 1970s, Les Bird sported a truly righteous moustache that later earned him the nickname Magnum, after actor Tom Selleck and his legendary whiskers. “I’ve tried to destroy all evidence of that,” Les chuckles, something he does often, over coffee in ifc.
It’s the week after Hong Kong’s local elections, and there’s a bit of a spring in everyone’s step, yet another shift in the city DBer Les has called home for over 40 years, half that time in the currently contentious police department. Now he’s reinventing himself as the Bookazine bestselling author of a memoir, A Small Band of Men: An Englishman’s Adventures in Hong Kong’s Marine Police, about his stint in the force from 1976 to 1997.
The book may not be the ‘gungho guns and action’ thriller people expect, but it is a vivid snapshot of a specific time and place, and an often funny recollection of a niche workplace. It also sounds like a great Netflix mini-series, as long as you cast the right Les. “The young me? Well he’s got to be tall and good-looking,” he says with a guffaw. “But really I only know old actors.”
Portrait of an era
The Staffordshire, England native began his circuitous journey to Hong Kong after secondary school. The scion of a Royal Navy family, the military was an option until he realised the chances of actually getting on a boat were slim. It was the 1970s in the UK, and as Les succinctly puts it, Britain was in a terrible state.
“For young people there was no foothold. There was a miners’ strike, it was a three-day workweek, nothing was working, the IRA had just started its bombing campaign. It was really depressing, so I took off for Australia,” he says.
That led him to a tour of Africa before returning to England, to his father’s bafflement. Needing a vocation, Les responded to a newspaper ad for a civil service job in the Far East. It would put him near the water and in the sun, both pluses, and in a matter of week she was in Hong Kong. It was 1976.
Things were pretty unruly at the time: Peter Godber had just gone to prison, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was trying to justify its creation, and the force badly needed new blood. Not everyone got through training but those who did got to choose their department. Les went straight to the Marine Police, where Search and Rescue was a big part of the job. The end of the war in Vietnam brought refugees to Hong Kong, a port of first asylum. Tired of the expense and the ‘bad’ optics, many Southeast Asian countries were turning away sinking refugee boats. (How little things have changed.)
“In some ways it was social work. It was looking after people. It was never a chore. It was the right thing to do, and to be part of that was a very proud moment,” explains Les of the unit’s day-to-day tasks. The humanitarian aspect is easy to forget, especially at a time when policing everywhere is coming under fire. “My guys, the constables who worked for me, never hesitated to just give up whatever they had to help – and these were guys living in pokey apartments on very small salaries,” he says. Was there ever a time when he didn’t want to do the job? No. “Because if I don’t, who’s going to?”
Wild Times in Tai O
Admittedly the gig had plenty of upsides. Early on, Les was put in charge of western Lantau, stationed at Tai O and living in what’s now the Tai O Heritage Hotel. Les’ quarters, the entire top floor of the police station, could only be dreamed of by others in the force: three bedrooms, a dining room and Officers’ Mess. His fabulous view was across the Pearl River Estuary to the South China Sea beyond. And he was paid to live there.
“We really were out in the sticks. There was a dirt track to Mui Wo and an overgrown footpath to Tung Chung, which back then was a small fishing village,” Les recalls. And being so remote, there were some pretty crazy miscommunications with headquarters in Central. “It was all a bit Blackadder in the trenches in World War 1.”
Rifling through indelible memories of his time as Tai O’s Marine Police inspector, Les picks out the phone that didn’t work when it rained, being stranded (with his dog) on the rope ferry and having to be rescued by local fishermen, and good old-fashioned debates in the Officers’ Mess, where after a pint or two low-ranking officers would let fly with criticisms of their superiors.
Destined for Netflix?
It was reflecting on and sharing some of these stories as chair of the Rhinos Rugby Football Club that finally led Les to A Small Band of Men. “I’d been writing for the club newsletter for a long, long time, and some of the stuff was getting out of hand – longer and longer,” he explains. “People were commenting that I was able to really capture moments, and that it was funny, then I started exchanging old marine stories.”
The idea for a book blossomed when Les and his wife, a vice president with Adidas Asia-Pacific, moved to Discovery Bay four years ago. The move was his wife’s idea. “She likes the lifestyle; the commute to Central is easy,” Les says. “I like the open air and our flat overlooks the ocean. Coming from the most landlocked part of England made me appreciate the sea, which I didn’t see until I was six or seven years old.”
Creating the book entailed three years of research, travelling to meet old friends and colleagues, editing down 120,000 words, and having 21 submissions to publishers met with mostly silence. “One of the goals of writing was to see if I could write a decent book, but there was no way I was going to self-publish,” Les says. Two publishers finally bit, an impressive feat for a first-timer.“Two! I got two!” Les chuckles. He went with Earnshaw Books, who published A Small Band of Men in November, 2019.
After the final edit, A Small Band of Men emerged as a portrait of an era, specifically the last two decades of British colonial rule and the changing dynamic within Hong Kong and its people. What Les experienced was a free-for-all defined by trepidation, as smugglers were plying the waters to China in greater numbers.
“Put it all together and it’s an interesting tale,” Les says. “Running through all of it was a thread about the relationship between the locals and expats I lived and worked with, knowing that 1997 was coming.”
The book is populated with colourful characters – only Les is identified by name – and he’s not ruling out another one. Les’ adventures could easily lend themselves to fiction, perhaps pivoting on early break-out character Don Bishop, as “thick as he is wide, and wide as he is tall,” who all but screams Tom Hardy.
For the immediate future, Les is basking in his success, and getting ready to welcome both grown-up daughters back from London for Christmas. Maybe they can help with ideas for that Netflix series. The Full Monty’s Tom Wilkinson could bookend the story as the older Les, and for the young version, my money’s on Nocturnal Animals’ Aaron Taylor-Johnson. After all, he too has been known to sport a righteous ’stache.
You can meet the author at a book signing at Bookazine in DB Plaza on January 11, from 5pm to 6pm. Les will be laying on some wine at the event. A Small Band of Men: An Englishman’s Adventures in Hong Kong’s Marine Police is available at all branches of Bookazine, Kelly & Walsh and Swindon.