Abridged extract from “A Death in Hong Kong” by Nigel Collett

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)

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.

Duffy was a man of some means, who had a yacht on which he could entertain and a villa on the beach on Castle Peak Road, a few miles west of Tsuen Wan, where his guests drank, swam, and waterskied. From 1968, he ran a wig factory named Gilda Fashions in Tsuen Wan and there employed some 3,000 Chinese employees, many of them young men who formed a pool from which he often found sexual partners. His friends soon became aware that he had a source of youths and he was not at all averse to helping them out by supplying them. “Everybody,” he said, “wanted in on my supply of male partners. I used to get indirect approaches from procurers, and subsequently certain Europeans in the Colony.” He didn’t charge for the boys he supplied, but was not at all bothered about their age. He was known by those on the game in Hong Kong to seek boys who were under fourteen years old to supply to expatriates. When interviewed by the police about this, he threatened to publish his diary revealing his high-priced clients, so the police backed off.

Duffy’s factory closed in 1972, but he kept up his contacts, and found other sources of boys willing to sell their bodies for sex, for instance pupils from the King George V School. Many people did not have much money in the Hong Kong of the ’70s, and selling one’s body seemed an easy way to make it.

A chance meeting with Elsie Elliott [a campaigner] led to his offering her help with some of the cases that she took up against the police. This was Duffy’s “Robin Hood” side. He defended for free boys who had been picked up by the police in parks, in bars, and on the streets and accused of triad membership. There was a quota system in operation in the force and junior officers needed to fill their allocated totals each month. The easiest method was to arrest those who could not defend themselves, then coerce confessions out of them in the police station. Duffy successfully fought three such charges, pointing out to the magistrate on one occasion that the statement used in the case was word-for-word identical with that used in a case he had defended at another time. This did not, of course, endear him to the police, who believed, wrongly it seems, that Duffy only took the cases to have sex with his clients. He rubbed salt in the wounds he caused by writing letters of complaint to the police and the Legal Department about the conduct of the arresting officers, crown counsel, and magistrates, including criticism of the officer commanding CID Kwai Chung, Inspector Poon.

Living in his glass house, it was foolish to throw stones in this fashion, but some of Duffy’s friends were very highly placed indeed. Guests on his yacht included the chief justice, Sir Geoffrey Briggs, and the head of one of Hong Kong’s most prominent hongs. One of the photographs taken on Duffy’s yacht (one that the police did not locate) had Briggs and this other eminent person standing either side of two boy pipers whom Duffy had “rented” out for the weekend from the Cape Collinson Correctional Institute (a prison for fourteen- to seventeen-year olds). One of them, the photograph did not make quite clear which, had a hand up one of the boys’ kilts. The emergence of such a photograph of the chief justice would have caused a shock but would not have been a surprise to many. He was notoriously effeminate; after he retired, reporter Duncan Campbell referred to him in the New Statesman as “the effeminate judge who left Hong Kong”. He was nicknamed “Brenda” by his gay friends. Many lawyers had no doubts that he was gay, although it was not widely known that he was interested in teenagers. Duffy thus had powerful contacts. He felt he was protected, which to a degree he was, and in the old, pre-ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption] days, he would have remained so.

Duffy’s habit of supplying boys and young men to his friends made him enemies in the triad-linked and police-protected criminal procurement organizations operating in Hong Kong. What they did for profit and to gain a hold over their clients, Duffy did for free. They wanted him out of the way. He was also at risk from those he had offended. Chief Inspector Mick Quinn made it clear how notorious Duffy had made himself across the police force: “Quite a number of persons in the Force were very interested in Duffy not just because of his arrest on homosexuality. It was suspected he had been on the periphery of other offences […] Every unit in the Force had some time had to dabble with Duffy.”

This inevitably brought him to the attention of the ICAC who wanted him to testify against corrupt police officers, but Duffy would not cooperate.

It fell to the New Territories police to take him on, as Duffy lived and operated in, and drew his young men from, Kwai Chung and Tsuen Wan, where New Territories police headquarters was situated. The district commander New Territories, Mike Illingworth, was an old Hong Kong hand, having joined the Hong Kong Police in 1947. He had been left in the New Territories to finish his service and was regarded by his officers as rather old-style and paternalist, but one thing he really disliked, and became very moral in his condemnation of, was the exploitation of young boys. Duffy enraged him.

So Illingworth and his senior staff officer criminal investigations, Chief Superintendent Li Kwan-ha, launched an investigation led by Superintendent Brooks of the New Territories CID. Duffy’s high-priced friends made this risky, however, so Brooks waited to pounce until the summer holidays when the chief justice was on leave. On 14 August 1978, Duffy was arrested. The police raided his yacht and houses and interrogated his staff, later claiming to have found photographs of young boys having sex and being abused. Some boys known by the police to be associated with Duffy were taken in for questioning, and Duffy later said that he had admitted the charges thrown at him as he knew the boys in the case were being beaten up. On 23 August 1978, he was committed for trial at Tsuen Wan District Court charged with buggery with three boys aged fourteen to sixteen and with gross indecency with another boy.

Duffy, however, was not going to go to jail quietly. He complained that he had been framed and that the three boys, all from one small area of Kwai Chung, had been coerced; the complaint was dismissed out of hand by the Complaints Against the Police Office. When Elsie Elliott wrote to him to tell him she had been shocked by the sentence he received, he wrote back to her that he had pleaded guilty because “I did not want other boys or people involved, though the motivating reason was my knowledge of my own guilt, and remorse.” He told her that the boys had not made any complaint to the police about him but that he could not deny all the allegations without perjury. “He who lives in glass houses,” he concluded wryly, “should not throw stones.” He wrote to her again subsequently to explain what he had done, having had time in jail to examine his own conduct in the “cold light of day”. He had committed offences he knew were against the law, he said, because he thought it public policy not to prosecute where no coercion, assault, or young children were involved. The police had said that his “victims” were innocent fourteen-year-olds who had never had sex before. In fact, he told Elsie Elliott, they had, and the youngest was aged fifteen years, five months.

However, now that he had smashed all his own windows, he could see no reason to stop throwing stones at those who had not protected him, who continued to conduct their affairs without any hindrance from the police, and who occupied high official positions which seemed to put them beyond the law. He squealed, and at length. What he told his interrogators shocked them. Superintendent Brooks took the material directly to Li Kwan-ha who showed it to Illingworth. It rocketed up through Hobley, the attorney general, to the governor and then to London. It was explosive.


Reprinted with permission from City University of Hong Kong Press. Please see the original for footnotes.

Nigel Collett won the 2017 Hong Kong History Book Prize for A Death in Hong Kong. His other books include The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer and Firelight of a Different Colour, a biography of Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung.