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Open Verdict: A Hong Kong Story by Ken Bridgewater

On 15 January 1980, a large posse of Hong Kong policemen broke into a flat in the Government quarters at Ho Man Tin and found the body of a twenty-nine year old Scottish Police Inspector, John MacLennan. He was lying in a locked, pitch-black bedroom with four bullet holes in his chest and one bullet hole in his abdomen. By his body was his service revolver, which appeared to have been the weapon used to kill him, and on his desk lay a suicide note written on the back of an envelope. The police assumed that he had killed himself. They did not bother to conduct a proper forensic investigation and the body was hastily cremated. They and the Government were taken aback when the inquest jury refused to accept that the death was suicide, and returned an open verdict.

Open Verdict: A Hong Kong Story by Ken Bridgewater
Open Verdict: A Hong Kong Story, Ken Bridgewater (Trafford Press, December 2013)

What followed was a public outcry led by the redoubtable Elsie Elliott (who, after her marriage, became the Elsie Tu most of us will recognize) and aided by the Commercial Radio chat show, Aileen Bridgewater. The Hong Kong Government was forced to yield to public pressure and, on 8 July 1980, appointed a Commission of Inquiry under Justice T. L. Yang, who delivered his report in 1981, giving his opinion that MacLennan had indeed committed suicide. Unfortunately, the evidence heard in the Inquiry and the extraordinary events surrounding it made it clear that the investigation had, at best, been mishandled and that MacLennan was, at the time of his death, the victim of an attempt to hound him out of the police force. This was being conducted by the Special Investigation Unit, the notorious SIU, which had ostensibly been set up to weed out homosexuals. It was also clear that the Government very much wanted the public to believe that the death was a suicide and that it, or some of its organs, or both, were prepared to go as far as discrediting or intimidating anyone who publicly questioned the verdict of suicide.

By its behaviour, the Government managed to taint the Inquiry report, and so the story of John MacLennan’s death was felt by many to have been left unresolved. One of these was Ken Bridgewater, husband of broadcaster Aileen, who had been involved in helping his wife collect information about the case from the start of her involvement. Aileen was one of those whom agents of the Government had tried to intimidate; she blew the threats back at them by reading them out on the radio. The Bridgewaters accommodated John Conway, the private investigator appointed by the MacLennan family to represent them at the Inquiry and so were party to many of his discoveries (unlike the Inquiry, which refused to hear them—the Government managed to discredit Conway and to bar his evidence). Ken Bridgewater’s access to detailed information was, therefore, unusually good.

Both Aileen and John Conway subsequently wrote of their views about the MacLennan case and about the pressure that was brought to bear upon them during it, Aileen in Chapter 23 of her 1983 memoirs Talk of Hong Kong, Conway in Chapter 2 of his 1994 book, Speak for the Dead. Now Ken Bridgewater has written a fictionalised account of the full story, “fictionalized”, though, only to a very minor degree, for most of the story in his novel Open Verdict is either fact or assumptions based on fact. He appears in it himself as Kevin, and employs a few other pseudonyms when he needs to. Otherwise, the riveting story he unfolds is much as it happened forty-four years ago.


That does not mean that this book fails to read like a novel, for it does. The pace is fast, the dialogue rings true and the result is an exciting page-turner. Mirroring Aileen’s radio exposures at the time of the case, the novel pulls no punches and will be an embarrassing read for some of the protagonists who are still alive, as many are. The Attorney General of the day, Mr. John Griffiths, Q.C., does not emerge well from the story, though it is likely that the embarrassment which he may feel was a result of the instructions of the Governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, under which he was forced to operate. The Governor’s presence and influence loomed behind the MacLennan affair, and his motivations and actions have never have been explained. He took whatever secrets he knew to the grave in 2000.

Why should this case fascinate so much even now? MacLennan seems to have been bisexual but whatever happened to him did so because the illegality of homosexuality at the time made any gay or bisexual policeman vulnerable to pressure. This made it absolutely clear that the law had to be changed, so the Yang Commission’s report led directly to the Law Reform Commission’s examination of the subject and their report of 1983. That, after a delay of eight years, led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Hong Kong in 1991. The case has a rightful place in Hong Kong history.

The MacLennan case also has much to say about the nature of colonial society in Hong Kong. Some tend nowadays to look back with nostalgia at the “golden age” that is supposed to have existed here before the handover to China in 1997. The MacLennan case makes it clear that such a concept of recent history is illusory. The Hong Kong it uncovers is shot through with the high level misuse of power, vice, triad infiltration, police incompetence and corruption, murder, extortion, blackmail, violence and intimidation. The underbelly of the colony was black and control of it was exercised ruthlessly.  The picture that emerges is disturbing, frightening even, given that many of those involved at the time, and who were not exposed then, must still be here.

Open Verdict concludes by asking the reader for his or her verdict on the case. Ken Bridgewater has his own ideas, and makes them clear, but he leaves enough space for doubt. It may never be known whether John MacLellan did kill himself or was murdered, but Ken Bridgewater’s new account of his death and its aftermath leaves no doubt that he has never received justice.   

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book, Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, is due out in February.