John Richard Duffy, whom his friends knew as “Richard” or just “Duffy”, was a successful thirty-three-year-old solicitor and businessman who in 1978 had been working in Hong Kong for eleven years. He was a man who elicited both hatred and affection, and has been described as “a Robin Hood character”. He was openly bisexual, with, if anything, a preference for youths, a man who took innumerable sexual partners and who was contemptuous of the legal restrictions placed upon homosexuals in Hong Kong. In this, and some alleged in perhaps other areas also, he sailed very close to the line, but he did so with much warmth of character and a visible twinkle in his eye. He was, therefore, a popular man to many, although not in the police force, at whom he cocked a continual snook. He had friends across all segments of Hong Kong society, and didn’t mind whether he mixed with taipans, barristers, high officials, or the poverty stricken, as long as he found them amusing.

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 January 1980 a young police officer named John MacLennan committed suicide in his Ho Man Tin flat. His death came mere hours before he was to be arrested for committing homosexual acts still, at that point, illegal in Hong Kong. But this was more than the desperate act of a young man, ashamed and afraid; both his death and the subsequent investigation were a smokescreen for a scandal that went to the heart of the establishment.

Americans have been present in the Pacific since the dawn of the Republic. At the time of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, the country consisted of just 13 states huddled along the Atlantic seaboard, but in the geography of sail navigation Boston and New York were just as close to China as were London, Liverpool, and other European ports. More importantly, the United States was by far the largest whaling country in the world, and with the Atlantic increasingly “fished” out, the whales were in the Pacific. The “Canton trade” with China and the whaling grounds of the northern Pacific made the nascent United States the second most important trading country in Asia (after England).