Is crime a window onto society? The recent spate of true-crime tales, both in print and on the screen, certainly suggests so. After all, it isn’t just the crimes themselves that are fascinating, it’s what they have to say about the people they impact. That’s true in Hong Kong Murders, which predates the current true-crime boom by about 20 years. But in many ways, it’s an outlier in the genre, because its author, longtime journalist Kate Whitehead, does her best to refrain from sensationalism. Her accounts of drug-fuelled domestic violence, serial killers and triad hits are written in a stolid, level-headed way that lets the facts of these gruesome cases speak for themselves.
It’s an impressive feat because, although Hong Kong has remarkably few murders for a city its size, the ones that do occur seem outlandishly gruesome. In her introduction, Whitehead offers some theories for this. Strict and effective gun control means the only weapon on hand is usually a kitchen chopper, with all of its grim implications. A low crime rate means there is little of the gang activity or petty disputes that account for most of the murders in American or European cities. With 7.5 million people, Hong Kong tends to have around 30 homicides per year, compared to more than 120 in London and well over 400 in New York City, both of which are home to roughly 8.8 million people.
And so we are left with murders that seize the imagination due not only to their rarity but to their ghastliness. Think of the Hello Kitty murder of 1999, in which a young nightclub hostess was abducted and taken to a Tsim Sha Tsui flat where she was raped, tortured and dismembered, with her skull sewn into a Hello Kitty plush. Or the so-called milkshake murder of 2003, in which an American expat named Nancy Kissel served her abusive husband a strawberry milkshake filled with sedatives, bludgeoned him to death after he passed out, then rolled his body up in a rug and stuffed it in the closet.
Both of those cases are too recent to feature in Whitehead’s book, which was published in 2001. But her selection of murders, all from the late colonial period of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, is no less compelling for it. Whitehead dives into 14 cases, describing the crimes in efficient detail before delving into the police investigations that solved them (but did not always result in a conviction). One chapter examines the so-called Jars Killer, a serial-killing taxi driver who preserved his victims’ body parts in brine. Another focuses on a Chinese-American playboy whose cocaine and gambling habits led to an ill-fated love triangle and a horrific attempt to discard a body through a bathtub drain. There are chapters looking at notorious gangsters Yip Kai-foon and Broken Tooth, as well as one that sheds light on the death of John MacLennan, a gay officer with the Royal Hong Kong Police who found himself hounded by secret police at a time when homosexuality was still illegal.
What do these cases have to say about Hong Kong? In some ways, a lot. MacLennan’s death — officially ruled a suicide — revealed a subculture of gay British expats who often occupied important positions in the civil service. His death became a cause célèbre championed by progressive legislator Elsie Tu, which ultimately resulted in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1991. The case is a reflection on a city whose relationship to LGBTQ people has changed in some significant ways but not in others.
There are other threads linking these historical cases to Hong Kong today. Misogyny, drug abuse and expat privilege are all present in the story of the Chinese-American playboy, who in 1989 was charged and convicted — but eventually freed on appeal — for the death of his girlfriend, Brenda Wong. It brings to mind the horrible 2016 case of Sumarti Ningsih and Jesse Lorena, two young Indonesian women who were murdered by a sadistic British banker on a cocaine bender.
Each section of Hong Kong Murders is prefaced by a brief introduction that explores some of the larger cultural, social or political themes revealed by the crimes. Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest aspect of the book, as Whitehead’s analysis often feels trite, straying at times into reductive notions of East and West. “Hong Kong does not have the culture of violence that is endemic in many Western cities, mainly because in general the Chinese shy away from aggressive behaviour,” she writes in the introduction. Edward Said might have a few things to say about such cultural essentialism.
Still, aside from the occasional foray into armchair sociology, Hong Kong Murders is enjoyable for its wealth of compelling details: the pastor and his wife who smell something foul in their Spanish-roofed village house; the police detective who is surprised to find that many people in Hong Kong fastidiously keep the boxes their appliances came in; the chan chaan teng where tram drivers devour steaming hot bowls of noodle soup. Just as the cold open and witness interviews of a classic Law & Order episode convey a certain quintessential New Yorkness, Whitehead’s precise, economical style of writing manages to capture something that feels distinctly like Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Murders is published by Oxford University Press.