“A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal” by Nigel Collet

Nigel Collett Nigel Collett

For decades, the Hong Kong Police has been known as “Asia’s finest”. Before the handover, the Royal Hong Kong Police (RHKP) helped Hong Kong become one of the safest cities in the world. But it wasn’t always this way. Back in the mid-1970s, corruption had become so serious that after several failed attempts, Hong Kong finally found a way to clean up the police force with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The police force didn’t just suddenly change overnight, as Nigel Collett shows in his new history book, A Death in Hong Kong.

In his book, part of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Hong Kong Studies Series, Collett aims to uncover one of the most horrific RHKP cover ups that unfolded several years after the inception of the ICAC. Collett’s story is so riveting it reads like a thriller. Until now, it hasn’t been told in its entirety.

 

A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal, Nigel Collett (City University of Hong Kong Press, March 2018)
A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal, Nigel Collett (City University of Hong Kong Press, March 2018)

In the early 1970s, a young Scottish police officer named John MacLennan moved to Hong Kong to join the RHKP. After a few years, he was entrusted with working on a secret file the police kept on homosexuals in the Hong Kong government, including the RHKP. MacLennan was one of a few police officers to view the files, called the Black Book, and checked to see if his name was listed. It wasn’t. Outwardly homophobic and often brash when drunk, MacLennan boasted about all the women he’d picked up. Unbeknownst to most of his colleagues, he also dated men.

Collett explains the UK passed a law decriminalization homosexuality  in 1967 butHong Kong didn’t follow suit until 1991. Despite the difference in the laws and ironically, British culture was far less accommodating of homosexuality than was Hong Hong, whose residents—less bound by Christian mores, perhaps—didn’t care much about the private lives of its civil servants as long as they weren’t unruly. So gay British civil servants and police officers sought out Hong Kong, a place where they wouldn’t come under as much scrutiny as back home.

But in the late-1970s , a series of pedophilia scandals rocked the UK and for some reason became confounded with homosexuality. The Hong Kong government understood that many top ranking civil servants were gay, and also was aware that triads and some expats were supplying underage boys to civil servants of other ranks. To avert a scandal in Hong Kong, some high ranking expat police officers started going after both gay men and pedophiles, as if they were one in the same.

 

By the late 1970s, John MacLennan had begun to bring more men back to his police residence, yet still wasn’t open about his sexual orientation. The RHKP sent him to work up north in Yuen Long in Hong Kong’s New Territories, where he soon noticed that someone was leaving manila envelopes filled with payoff money for the police. MacLennan knew this was forbidden by the ICAC and turned in the envelopes to a police office in Kowloon. MacLennan’s colleagues and superiors in Yuen Long weren’t happy about his action. Even honest police, according to Collett, would have frowned on MacLennan taking this matter into his own hands.

The RHKP leadership panicked because MacLennan seemed to act on his own. Worse, he was privy to the secrets in the Black Book. What if MacLennan took that information to others? Some top level administrators—including the incoming police commissioner—were mentioned in this book and a scandal or two would erupt if this information were leaked. The police figured it would be best just to dismiss MacLennan. Activist Elsie Elliott (later Elsie Tu) took up MacLennan’s case, and went to the governor, Murray MacLehose. Sir Murray, known for his fairness, agreed to bring MacLennan back into the police force.

The RHKP was both furious with Elsie Elliott and nervous that MacLennan knew too much. By the end of 1979, the RHKP planned to oust MacLennan once and for all by setting him up to procure a minor.

 

Collett sets up the first half of the book brilliantly for what comes next. When MacLellan learned of the witch hunt against him, he felt trapped and powerless. To complicate matters, the new police commissioner, Roy Henry, was known to be gay and was aware of the issues with MacLennan but didn’t want to get involved less he draw attention to himself.

Under fishy circumstances, MacLennan died from five apparently self-inflicted bullets to the abdomen. When it comes to the details of MacLennan’s suicide and the ensuing investigation about why he would have committed suicide, Collett goes into great—and necessary—detail to explain the cover up by the RHKP. It’s in this part of the story that Collett reveals the heroes of this story after MacLennan dies: Elsie Elliott and radio talk show host Aileen Bridgewater. The two women pushed the government for answers to bring justice to a fallen officer. At a time when few were speaking up for gay rights, Elliott and Bridgewater stood firm.

The blow to the gay community in Hong Kong was just as palpable as the tragedy of MacLennan’s life: it went underground for years in fear of the Hong Kong government and police. If the RHKP could drive one of its own to suicide, what hope was there for gay men without police connections?

By the mid-1980s, the RHKP had drastically cleaned up its act, thanks to Roy Henry, the police commissioner in the Black Book and who stayed silent during the MacLennan set up. Henry went far in his police career in Hong Kong and retired with much fanfare. And some officials defending the police in the MacLennan inquiry also went on to campaign for decriminalization in the early 1990s. Looking back at the Collett’s narrative, I can’t help but wonder if MacLennan would still be alive if Hong Kong had decriminalized homosexuality at the same time the UK did in the 1960s.

 

Adapted from a review that originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. A Death in Hong Kong won the 2017 Hong Kong History Book Prize, administered by the Asian Review of Books. A extract appears here.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.