Nigel Collett, A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal, City University of Hong Kong Press, 2018. 552 pgs.
My first impression of Hong Kong—apart from descending between lit-up apartment buildings in Kowloon City—was being greeted outside the jetway by beret-clad paramilitary police carrying machine guns, cocked and ready.
It was 1990 and over the next eight years I never had much interaction with the police apart from asking for directions a few times. I’d learned to recognise English-speaking officers by the little red pin on their shoulder sleeves. Gone were the days of a mostly-expatriate police force. By that point, the Royal Hong Kong Police (RHKP) had been known as “Asia’s finest” and that really seemed the case.
But just a decade earlier the RHKP was entangled in a web of corruption that had plagued it for generations. The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was founded in 1974 after several failed attempts to clean up the police force. I had assumed that police corruption had disappeared overnight once the ICAC was formed, but that’s not exactly how it happened.
In his new book, A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal, Nigel Collett brings to light one of the most horrific RHKP coverups 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.
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 in 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 that in the late-1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong lagged behind the UK when it came to decriminalising homosexuality. The UK passed a decriminalisation law in 1967 but Hong Kong didn’t follow suit until 1991. But the ironic part of this was that the culture in the UK wasn’t open to change after decriminalisation, whereas people in Hong Kong—not bound by Christian mores—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.
That all turned around in the late-1970s when a series of pedophilia scandals rocked the UK, and for some reason, became confounded with homosexuality. The Hong Kong government knew that many top ranking civil servants were gay, but it also recognised that triads and some expats were supplying underage boys to other civil servants. 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 started to bring more men back to his police residence, yet still wasn’t open about his sexual orientation. The RHKP sent him to Yuen Long in the New Territories for work, 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 with his independent actions, and according to Collett, even the honest police in the New Territories would have frowned on MacLennan taking this matter into his own hands.
The leadership in the RHKP panicked because MacLennan had seemed to act on his own initiative. Even worse, he was privy to the secrets in the Black Book. What would happen if he took that information to others? Some top level administrators—including the incoming police commissioner—were mentioned in this book and scandal would erupt if this information were leaked. The police figured it would be best to dismiss MacLennan. When activist Elsie Elliott (later Elsie Tu) learnt about MacLennan’s dismissal, she went to the governor, Murray MacLehose, to ask him to reinstate MacLennan, which Murray, known for his fairness, ultimately did.
The RHKP became both furious with Elsie Elliott and nervous that MacLennan knew too much. By the end of 1979, the RHKP schemed to oust MacLennan once and for all. This time he wouldn’t be reinstated because the RHKP would set him up to procure a minor. (This wouldn’t be too difficult to arrange because even after homosexuality was decriminalised in 1991, the age of consent was twenty-one. For heterosexual couples, it was sixteen. So if the RHKP planned to bait a nineteen year-old to the twenty-nine year-old MacLennan, that would still be classified as pedophilia.)
Collett sets up the first half of the book brilliantly for what comes next. When MacLellan learnt of the witch hunt against him, he felt trapped and powerless. He knew these orders were coming from above, and in the RHKP, like in most police forces, it’s not acceptable to go against one’s superiors. To complicate matters, the new police commissioner, Roy Henry, was known to be gay and knew about the issues with MacLennan but didn’t want to get involved less he draw attention to himself. Other government administrators wanted to protect Henry because he was a far better commissioner than what the RHKP had had going back decades.
When it comes to the details of MacLennan’s suicide and the ensuing investigation, Collett goes into great—and necessary—detail to explain the cover up. It’s in this part of the story that Collett reveals the heroes of this story after MacLennan’s death: Elsie Elliott and radio talk show host Aline 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, Elsie Elliott and Aline Bridgewater stood firm in their convictions about human rights.
By the end of the book, the blow to the gay community in Hong Kong was just as palpable as the tragedy of MacLennan’s life, as 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 who had 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 decriminalisation in the early 1990s. Looking back at the Collett’s narrative, I can’t help but wonder if MacLennan would still be alive if the UK had decriminalised homosexuality back in the 1960s.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)