[REVIEW] “A Catalyst for Repealing Anti-Gay Statutes: Reviewing Nigel Collett’s A Death in Hong Kong” by Akin Jeje

{Written by Akin Jeje, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Nigel Collett, A Death in Hong KongThe MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal, City University of Hong Kong Press, 2018. 552 pgs.

Over 40 years after the events chronicled in Nigel Collett’s landmark narrative of corruption, bigotry, hypocrisy, homophobia, death and scandal within the ranks of the Royal Hong Kong Police, A Death in Hong Kong‘s powerful legacy, now in its second edition, still recounts the enduring pervasiveness of homophobia and highly selective anti-LGBTQ discrimination in late-colonial Hong Kong. The apparent suicide of Inspector John MacLennan in January 1980 sparked off a series of events that nearly derailed the credibility of not only the RHKP, but the entire Hong Kong colonial government in its zeal to suppress the facts behind the young officer’s demise.  

Clavellian intrigue and Shakespearean tragedy blend as we follow the progress, decline and eventual death of John MacLennan, a Scottish Highlands boy lured by promise of adventure in the Far East in 1973 to serve as a junior inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force. In his discovery of a sexuality that he would have been unable to express back home in Scotland, MacLennan ran afoul of prevailing strictures in the colonial system. Hong Kong’s anti-sodomy laws, a colonial holdover that had been rescinded more than 10 years earlier back in the UK, were in fact only selectively enforced in a territory where many high-ranking and senior police officers, lawyers, civil servants and other government luminaries were rumoured to live closeted but active sexual lives alongside a more openly gay community of both expatriates and local Hongkongers.

Characterised by controversial figures such as John Duffy, Ian MacLean and other civilian expatriates, one particular gay party scene involved disproportionately older expatriate men with younger Chinese and other Asian partners, sometimes even involving underage boys, which provided an excuse for the RHKP to persecute gay communities at large, unless they occupied positions of power or influence with government. John Duffy, himself jailed primarily for the openness of his lifestyle and lack of official status, threatened to reveal the identities of numerous powerful figures in the police, government and civil service who were involved with his scene, and this event became one more incident which led towards MacLennan’s eventual demise. As Collett relates:

The prosecution of MacLennan was part of the proof that had to be offered to London. The sacrifice of a few selected junior officers of the government and police was necessary in order for the more serious security issues raised by Duffy’s allegations to disappear.

—Nigel Collett’s A Death in Hong Kong, 160.

MacLennan fell afoul of his superiors by publicly appealing to the Governor to reinstate him into the Force after an incident in Yuen Long involving a young local man nearly led to MacLennan’s dismissal. The Force, having lost face before the Governor, thereafter employed highly illegal and immoral investigative tactics, particularly through the elite Security Intelligence Unit (SIU) to target MacLennan, leading to his apparent suicide.

Collett not only expertly narrates the immediate debacle and the resultant controversy surrounding MacLennan’s death, but also reveals, detail by lurid detail, systemic flaws in the RHKP—a paucity of proper equipment and other physical resources; inadequate training or knowledge of forensics and investigative procedure; most ominously, a recurrent tendency to use coercion, intimidation and physical violence to obtain evidence or extract information from suspects and informants. Only through the crusading efforts of legendary social activist and legislator Elsie Elliott and radio host Aileen Bridgewater was an inquiry even opened into the suspicious death of Inspector MacLennan; even then, Elliott and Bridgewater were met with a combination of official discouragement, obstruction and anonymous intimidation in their demand for an inquest into MacLennan’s demise. Only when the sordid news of the MacLennan Affair reached the Hong Kong English, the UK and Hong Kong Chinese-language presses did then-Governor Murray MacLehose order an inquiry into the case.

From there, the book delves into the workings of a commission that was fraught with cover-ups, lies, intimidation of witnesses who subsequently refused to testify, and the murder of at least one witness, Australian Ian McLean, an antiques dealer and alleged procurer of boys, strangled at his home by suspected triad members. The investigating SIU officers discredited their own investigation through a blend of incompetence, inconsistency, and especially, as personified by Inspector Gus Graham, very frank and disturbing admissions of homophobia. What the inquiry revealed were primarily systemic failures in the legal system, for, as Collett states:

From the evidence (that had been) heard so far, however, there had been no indication of any conspiracy, merely of a series of mistakes, misjudgements, and failures, compounded by belated attempts to tidy the evidence to cover all these up.

—Nigel Collett’s A Death in Hong Kong, 279.

As an investigative report on police discrimination and corruption, Collett’s research and detail is meticulous and exhaustive, but as a grander social statement, since A Death In Hong Kong concentrates mainly on MacLennan’s relatively small social sphere of expatriates and local rent boys, it highlights a limited view that does not speak for how expatriates and locals in stable same-sex relationships, or for that matter local Hong Kong gay communities, were impacted by the same anti-sodomy laws used to destroy MacLennan. Interestingly, Collett’s strong examination of the expatriate-dominated government and police force’s attitudes towards homosexuality is not complemented by a study of similar attitudes among Hong Kong’s majority Chinese population. While Collett hints in sections at the deep conservatism and prevalent homophobia in Hong Kong’s Chinese communities, we are given a fairly confined view of gay Chinese individuals in the book, mostly as sex workers, boyfriends of expatriates or exploited teenagers, with the singular exception of DC Liu Man, himself a closeted gay man like MacLennan.

Despite its limited scope, the MacLennan Affair did serve as a catalyst for the eventual repeal of anti-gay statutes in Hong Kong in 1991. Still, it is telling that it took the death of a white police officer for change to begin towards the legal status of LGBTQ communities in Hong Kong. The final analysis from the commission was that MacLennan committed suicide, and Attorney General John Griffiths and Deputy Commissioner Peter Moor were criticised for targeting MacLennan. This came at a cost of 134 days, 110 witnesses, 57 statements, 13,000 pages of transcript for HK$20 million (HK$86 million in today’s money). Presiding Justice Ti-liang Yang, under pressure from the Governor’s office, softened his report to exonerate most of the investigating officers, and save censure for Griffiths, who had made the case unforgivably public and Elsie Elliott, whose advocacy had brought the case to light.

Government considerations towards the MacLennan case were highly political—the British could not be seen to be exploiting Hongkongers on the eve of the Handover, and MacLennan’s story was inconvenient. The commission’s final report was seen as a whitewash, and government persecution of gays if anything, became fiercer. In 1982, a leaked government document advocated banning gays from the Civil Service in general, and even though the government apologised in the face of public furore, a number of junior officers were dismissed from the police force and Civil Service, ostensibly for incompetence, but they were generally believed to been fired because of homosexuality. Only in 1983 were there first attempts at decriminalising homosexuality for those aged 21 and over, but most of the 80s were tough for LGBTQ communities in Hong Kong, having lost ground as an effect of the MacLennan affair. The SIU continued to search for gay men in public service; gay sex workers suffered, as trade plummeted after the inquiry, and only near the end of the eighties did gay communities in Hong Kong re-emerge publicly with renewed activism.

A Death in Hong Kong ends as a tragedy, for not one official or police officer was ever sanctioned for their role in the MacLennan Affair, and many in fact continued to thrive in public service in Hong Kong. Most of MacLennan’s personal effects had been lost or stolen in the process of the inquiry; MacLennan’s family in Scotland were devastated, convinced that the RHKP had killed their John. However, the involvement of Elliott and Bridgewater in the MacLennan Affair had a positive effect; they produced their own version of the commission report, which went far and wide; Hong Kong LGBTQ communities were galvanised, after a period of fear and paralysis to pursue more forthright and aggressive activism in order to defend and advocate for their rights.

Most importantly, Collett’s chronicle of the MacLennan Affair serves as an important document on the inherent inhumanity of legalised and codified bigotry, and its corrosive effect on even those who work within a system that upholds, however inconsistently, those institutions of legalised and codified bigotry. Although at times Collett’s A Death in Hong Kong can be a complex and dense read, it is a must for those interested in Hong Kong true crime stories, colonial history and LGBTQ history.

Also see this review in Cha:

How to cite: Jeje, Akin. “A Catalyst for Repealing Anti-Gay Statutes: Reviewing Nigel Collett’s A Death in Hong Kong.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 14 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/14/the-maclennan-case/.

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Akin Jeje.jpg

Canadian poet Akin Jeje lives in Hong Kong. Jeje’s works have been published and featured in Canada, the United States, Singapore, and Hong Kong. His first full-length poetry collection Smoked Pearl: Poems of Hong Kong and Beyond was published by Proverse Hong Kong in 2010. Jeje’s most recent publication “Land of Rain” is in Hong Kong’s Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine (Issue #51, January/February 2020). He is working on another full-length poetry collection entitled write about here. Jeje is a previous MC of the English language poetry collective Peel Street Poetry and one of its three directors. He is also a regular contributor to Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine and Cha, and a member of PEN Hong Kong.

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