When John MacLennan arrived at Kai Tak Airport, he was assaulted by the sensory overload so many expatriates experience when they first come to Hong Kong. The unrelenting crowds of Kowloon, the overwhelming noises, the balmy breathlessness and the curious smells were all startlingly different from his native Scotland, where MacLennan had grown up on a remote farm in the highlands.
It was 1973, MacLennan was 22 years old, and he had just joined the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, a move that offered a remarkable change in scenery from his old post as a constable in the sleepy Scottish town of Stirling. It is unlikely he would have known the extent of the social unrest, vice, corruption and homophobia that was starting to give his adoptive force such a bad reputation. It was a deadly mix that led to MacLennan’s death.
This is according to author Nigel Collett. In the opening passages of his book, A Death in Hong Kong, he gives a blow by blow account of the events leading up to MacLennan’s alleged suicide in 1980.
Collett speaks the way he writes, with an assiduous sensitivity to the meaning of words and their effect, alongside a flair for painting intricate, vivid pictures that make you feel like you are in conversation with John Steinbeck. That is, if Steinbeck had been a retired lieutenant-colonel of the British Brigade of Gurkhas turned biographer who lives in Hong Kong, where he now works as a biographer with a slightly dark but disarming sense of humour.
In person, Collett is kind, thoughtful and quietly funny, bringing in unexpected punchlines to serious, personal anecdotes, and flitting with ease between sombre subjects and lighthearted stories. That ability to use humour to lighten the weight of heavy subjects must have served him well while he was writing A Death in Hong Kong. It is a meticulously researched book that examines the events leading up to MacLennan’s death, which came hours before he was to be arrested for committing homosexual acts at a time when they were still illegal in the colony.
It was also an era of widespread corruption across government departments, including the police, whose officers subsisted on bribes from ordinary citizens and triad gang members. In 1973, the year MacLennan first arrived in Hong Kong, an independent commission, the ICAC, was set up by governor Murray Maclehose to ostensibly cleanse the force of its endemic corruption problem. Painting a picture of how far reaching corruption was, Collett holds no punches.
“The police got the blame for the corruption but, actually, everything was corrupt,” he says. “When you start scratching the surface and asking people how they lived and what they had to pay, who they had to bribe, it’s really quite astonishing what happened through the 60s and 70s.
“And it was the Brits’ fault. We allowed this to happen. A lot of young people nowadays, or some, like to think that there was a golden age, that it was all good under the Brits, that the flag should come back, that the Brits might want to come back, that it was all very nice and tidy. This book shows it wasn’t so nice and tidy – there were lots of downsides, and that being a colony was maybe not a good thing to be.”
When he first arrived in Hong Kong, MacLennan passed through training school in Aberdeen and the Police Tactical Unit in Fanling before being posted in Kwun Tong. He took a break from the force and rejoined in 1977, after which he was posted to Yuen Long. Collett paints a nuanced picture of a man well liked by some, but who had rubbed others up the wrong way. Some found him charming, others a tad arrogant. As an officer he was competent, and was proud of his police force. Winston Churchill was his hero.
Brought up on a remote farm in Scotland, MacLennan was in the closet, and prone to making homophobic slurs. “He had to hide his sexuality, as we all did, back in on those days,” says Collett, who lives in Hong Kong with his husband, a research psychologist from Singapore. Since leaving the army in the 1990s — before it decriminalised homosexuality in 2003 — Collett has become involved in Hong Kong’s LGBT activism, becoming particularly invested in the Tongzi literary group, a gathering of gay Cantonese and European writers.
“My understanding of gay rights has developed just as Hong Kong’s has developed,” says Collett. “The gay community began to grow and flourish [in the 1990s]. I didn’t get involved in activism until 2008. I’d never seen myself as a political activist, or any form of activist, but that changed. I’ve gradually become more and more radical in my activism, and much more comfortable about talking about the whole thing and doing the whole thing. There have been some people who have been very uncomfortable about this. But sometimes making people uncomfortable is the only way we can change the world. Otherwise they will never change, and they have to.”
It was through the friendships in activism that Collett took up MacLennan’s complex story as the third in a series of biographical work. The young Scottish police officer is preceded by General Dyer, the perpetrator of the 1919 Amritsar massacre in Punjab, and a book about gay icon and Cantopop star Leslie Cheung.
“I like biography because to me it is the meat of history. History is about people, it’s not just about isms and theories and vast impersonal forces. It’s about how those are worked out through individual people,” he says. “In this case, MacLennan was subject to a lot of forces he couldn’t control. He suffered from it and died. And to me that was interesting. History writ large in one person.”
Collett describes MacLennan has a “small fry” who was offered up as a sacrifice. “All he’d ever done was pay prostitutes for sex, which is maybe not very nice, but wasn’t exactly a big crime, and he ends up being forced into a corner,” he says. “The tragedy was that he came from a society and a background of conservative, old fashioned Scots-Presbyterians who didn’t believe in anything gay, couldn’t accept, probably. He could see that he had no way out this time.”
Running over 400 pages, A Death in Hong Kong details the events leading up to MacLennan’s suicide and the aftermath, which included a public inquiry and, eventually, the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1991. The book does stellar work placing MacLennan’s complex story in its socio-political and historical context. A host of characters and settings are fleshed out, bringing life and colour to a dense read that Collett had already had to cut in half from its original length.
“To me it’s a lesson on what goes wrong when society impinges on the reality of the individual and their life,” says Collett. It’s a story that is ongoing. LGBT rights still have a long way to go in Hong Kong, stymied by the high proportion of evangelical Christians in top positions of power, who waylaying much-needed reform and acceptance. This is nowhere more apparent in Carrie Lam’s much-criticised inability to show enthusiasm for the 2022 Gay Games, which will be held in Hong Kong.
In that context, it’s easy to see MacLennan’s story as a cautionary tale. When he moved to Hong Kong, he might have been in the closet, and outwardly contemptuous of homosexuals, but he was sexually active with a number of men, alongside some women.
Collett explains that while homosexuality laws in Hong Kong lagged behind those of the UK, which had decriminalized sexual acts between men over the age of 21 in 1967, attitudes towards same-sex relations were relatively more open. Farflung Hong Kong provided a haven for many expatriates escaping the conformities of home, offering ample opportunities for these newcomers to explore their repressed proclivities.
That changed in 1978, when a prominent lawyer called Richard Duffy was put behind bars for having sex with underage boys. In a bid to receive a lighter sentence, Duffy offered up a long list of members of the establishment who were homosexual. He claimed that there were many high profile Hong Kong figures who were gay, and that many had had sex with minors procured through triad-run syndicates. Among those named by Duffy included two of the four most important figures of the colony: the chief justice and the commissioner of police.
The list sent shockwaves through the regime, and spelled the start of a crackdown in homosexuality as high ranking officials scrambled to suppress the scandal that would inevitably break should the information go public. What transpired was a witch hunt spearheaded by the newly set up Special Investigations Unit, which was tasked exclusively with rooting out homosexuals. No distinction was made between pedophilia and same-sex relationships between consenting adults.
In A Death in Hong Kong, Collett describes the men MacLennan had sexual encounters with. There is “Slasher George,” whom he had first met in 1975 while swimming in Repulse Bay, a place where homosexual men looked for other men. Of mixed Chinese Filipino heritage, George would have been fourteen or fifteen years old when they met, and the two became close confidants.
Then there is Bobby Po, whom MacLennan took home to his quarters after nights at the Waltzing Matilda Arms on Cameron Road, which was then a gay haunt and a place to pick up sex workers. Its bartender, Dick Stanford, was both gay and a police informant. There was also Jimmy Cheung, a 25-year-old garment factory worker and bisexual who worked as a prostitute for several procurers.
And there was David Lau, a 17-year-old student who wanted to join the police force, whom MacLennan propositioned during his stint at Yuen Long. The latter encounter set in motion the wheels that would ultimately bring about MacLennan’s downfall. Lau made a formal complaint against MacLennan, prompting an investigation. Collett intimates a number of doubts surrounding the incident.
Lau’s statements had been conflicting, and his decision to issue the complaint was prompted when he told a friend whose father was Tsang Shing — a corrupt ex-station sergeant who had lost his job amidst the ICAC’s cleanse. During his time at Yuen Long, MacLennan was known to hand envelopes containing bribes that had been left in the office to the ICAC’s Community Relations Office in Sham Shui Po, a habit that would not have endeared him to his peers. Pursuing the complaint against MacLennan may have been a form of revenge for his refusal to participate in the kickback scheme.
As the investigation into MacLennan progressed, it was passed up the ranks to police commissioner Roy Henry, who ordered MacLennan’s contract be terminated, with no chance to defend himself. Collett writes that Henry himself was gay, a fact that he had exercised discretion over while in Hong Kong, into which he had been recently parachuted from abroad. But on holiday he was less discreet, and had been seen in Penang with his boyfriend, a 30-to-40-year-old Chinese cook.
MacLennan appealed the case, denying that he was gay and making known that he had seen a list of suspected homosexuals canvasing lawyers and prominent figures. Among those he would come into contact with was Elsie Tu, née Elliot, an indomitable champion of the underdog in Hong Kong.
“Elsie had deep throats all around town,” says Collett, who describes how a lot of the resources he used came from the tireless campaigner’s extensive collection of materials, including notes from interviews that help reveal some of the layers of rot festering across government departments. “There is an entire history of Hong Kong in Elsie’s files – the files are enormous.”
Tu canvassed Maclehose to have MacLennan reinstated, claiming that MacLennan had been framed, and intimating that MacLennan had been tasked with “investigating some high policeman who now wants to get him out of the way.” MacLennan’s reinstatement was swift, but did not come without repercussions.
In 1978, MacLennan began duty in Hung Hom, which would end up being his last post. That year, the SIU began pursuing MacLennan, rounding up a host of sex workers, pimps and members of the gay community and extracting information out of them about the young officer. Some alleged that this was done by force. The SIU conjured up false witnesses and dubious and conflicting accounts.
By the end of 1979, the SIU had compiled enough evidence to prosecute MacLennan for eight counts of indecency with five sex workers. In January 1980, MacLennan was found dead in his flat with five bullet wounds in his chest, a .38 service revolver and a note by his hand. It read: “Please, please tell my family it was an accident and that I was a good police officer.”