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A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal
Nigel Collett


152 x 229 mm

In January 1980 a young police officer named John MacLennan committed suicide in his Ho Man Tin flat. His death came mere hours before he was to be arrested for committing homosexual acts still, at that point, illegal in Hong Kong. But this was more than the desperate act of a young man, ashamed and afraid; both his death and the subsequent investigation were a smokescreen for a scandal that went to the heart of the establishment.

MacLennan came to Hong Kong from Scotland during a time of social unrest and corruption scandals, a time when the triads still took their cut, and when homosexuality and paedophilia were considered interchangeable and both offered easy targets for blackmail. The governorship of Sir Murray MacLehose was to be a time of reform and progress, but with that remit came the determination of many to suppress scandals and silence those who stirred up trouble. Both the life and death of John MacLennan seemed to many of those in power to threaten the stability of one of Britain’s last colonies.

*Winner of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong History Book Prize 2017

Prize judges:
Professor John Carroll (Department of History, University of Hong Kong)
Professor Kerry Brown (Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London)
Mr. Mark O'Neill (Hong Kong-based Journalist and Author)

In January 1980, the body of a young Scottish police officer, John MacLennan, was found in his locked police quarters along with a suicide note. He had apparently shot himself five times. It soon became known that he had been about to be charged with homosexual acts, then still illegal in Hong Kong, and that he and others had alleged that he was being victimized because he was aware of the names of homosexual police officers far senior to him. This caused a public outcry and such pressure upon the government that a Commission of Inquiry was appointed to investigate the case. In the course of the eight months in which the inquiry sat, a succession of senior figures found themselves examined and often discredited in public. The commission’s report was widely seen as a whitewash but it, and the case itself, had lasting effects on Hong Kong, one of which was the eventual decriminalization of homosexual acts a decade later.

Behind the case lay something more sinister, the sexual exploitation of underage boys by prominent figures in Hong Kong’s establishment. Although MacLennan had no part in this, the discovery of this scandal led directly to his death. It was, as were similar contemporary examples of the sexual exploitation of juveniles in Britain, a scandal that was kept firmly under wraps.

This book seeks to recount the story of John MacLennan’s life and death, and to put it into the context of the suppressed scandal for which his case became something of a smokescreen. It also seeks to reveal the workings of the organs of government and control in one of Britain’s last colonies, as they were faced with the need to deal with crimes that endangered their status and power.

Some of what is published here is well known, but much is new. The report of the Commission of Inquiry published in 1981, and the local press reports of the time, give a good basis of fact, all of which is already in the public domain. Some accounts of various aspects of the case have been published in works dealing with other matters of the time, particularly: Elsie Elliott / Tu’s 1981 Crusade for Justice and 1988 Autobiography; Aileen Bridgewater’s 1985 Talk of Hong Kong; John Conway’s 1994 To Speak for the Dead; and Kate Whitehead’s 2001 Hong Kong Murders. The case has also featured in fiction, especially Ken Bridgewater’s 2013 novel Open Verdict and on the stage in Agnes Allcock’s 2013 adaptation Behind the Curtain.

This book, however, is the first to attempt a comprehensive account and analysis. It makes use of a large number of interviews with many who were involved in the case; these are listed in the bibliography. The records deposited by the late Elsie Tu in the library of the Hong Kong Baptist University and those held in the private Bridgewater Collection have provided much new material, as have files in the British National Archives at Kew and those records issued to the author by the British Foreign Office under a Freedom of Information Act request (and which are now housed with the Bridgewater Collection). Hong Kong sources have proved less fruitful, either because of the failure of the Hong Kong Government to retain records or make them open to the public, or through their refusal to allow access to what exists. For example, all departments of the Hong Kong Government and the Hong Kong Police have denied the existence of transcripts of the inquiry, meaning that only those excerpts from that transcript held in the library of the University of Hong Kong are available to researchers.

Finally, it is the personal hope of the author that this book may at last do justice to a young police officer whose sexual orientation made him such a victim of persecution by his own colleagues that he was driven to kill himself. The waste of John MacLennan’s life is a reminder of what all too easily can occur if law and prejudice combine to discriminate against a minority that has no defence.

Nigel Collett
Hong Kong, Malmesbury and Rostock
May 2017

1 Scotland
2 Hong Kong
3 Corruption
4 Amnesty
5 Homosexuality
6 John Richard Duffy
7 Yuen Long
8 Appeal
9 The SIU
10 Pursuit
11 The Honourable John Griffiths
12 Set-Up
13 Stumbling Blocks
14 Suicide
15 Investigation
16 Outcry
17 Inquest
18 Campaign
19 Commission of Inquiry
20 The Carratu Investigation
21 Opening Moves
22 The SIU Case Collapses
23 Discrediting the Police
24 Hostile Witnesses
25 Intervention
26 Endgame
27 The Commission Report
28 Justice T.L. Yang
29 Aftermath