By Andrew Ashley
He was soon following an intriguing trail … nearly forty years after MacLennan’s apparent suicide, a suicide that left five bullets in the victim’s corpse.
Nigel Collett very nearly didn’t write A Death in Hong Kong: The Suppression of a Scandal, his just completed manuscript from which he’ll read at the 21 July meeting of the Tongzhi Literary Group. “It seemed such a depressing subject,” he said in a recent conversation, “and after The Butcher of Amritsar [Nigel’s acclaimed biography of General Reginald Dyer and his role in the 1919 massacre of nearly 400 Indians] I really didn’t want another downer.”
But even the story of the death of Inspector John MacLennan of the Royal Hong Kong Police, with its undercurrents of corruption, sexual blackmail and official cover-ups couldn’t keep Nigel down for long. He was soon following a murky trail through the complacent officialdom and homosexual demi-monde of the Crown Colony’s final decades: a trail that was to lead to intriguing discoveries in the United Kingdom National Archives and some sobering reflections on acceptance and discrimination in Hong Kong nearly forty years after MacLennan’s apparent suicide, a suicide that left five bullets in the victim’s corpse.
Nigel’s interest in the MacLennan case grew as he developed a friendship with Ken and Aileen Bridgewater, who read at a TLG meeting in July 2014, after Ken published his fictionalised version Open Verdict: A Hong Kong Story (2013).
The Bridgewaters had long hoped for a comprehensive nonfiction account of the case and soon identified Nigel as the man for the job.
“Ken and Aileen had masses of information about MacLennan,” Nigel recalled, “and going through it made me realise that I wanted to write this book.” He soon forgot his reservations about the gloomy subject matter and started work on the Bridgewaters’ material.
The project took a major step forward when Aileen introduced Nigel to her close friend Elsie Tu, the redoubtable social activist who died last December at the age of 102. Aileen and Elsie shared a strong belief that MacLennan hadn’t committed suicide but had been killed to prevent him from talking. No fewer than five bullets were found in his body, after all. According to Nigel, “Elsie didn’t have much written stuff but she knew a huge amount about the case and its protagonists. She was feisty, deeply involved and determined to set the record straight. My interviews with Elsie were invaluable.”
Even so long after the events in question, Nigel found the Hong Kong Government rather less helpful. “The government representatives I dealt with stonewalled masterfully,” he said. “They refused to acknowledge that any records of the case had been kept and insisted that the transcript of the enquiry was simply ‘not available’.”
Official intransigence in Hong Kong led Nigel to the UK, where he first made the discovery that large volumes of records relating to the former colonial administration were stored – neither sorted nor organised – in a country house in Buckinghamshire belonging to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But they weren’t accessible to the public.
Things took an unexpected turn for the better when a civil servant in the UK’s official archives suggested that if Nigel made a Freedom of Information request he might find some useful material. “Kew [the location of The National Archives] was a revelation,” he said. “The staff were very helpful and I was surprised at what I could see, including correspondence between the governor of Hong Kong, Sir Murray MacLehose, and Lord Carrington, the then foreign secretary. Some of the papers were quite startling.”
But did anything he found change Nigel’s mind? “I came to the conclusion that MacLennan’s death was almost certainly suicide. But it became clear that there were bigger issues than the death of a police inspector.” The force had set up a Special Investigation Unit in 1979 to look into homosexual activity in the Crown Colony. “The records showed that paedophilia was a widespread problem,” said Nigel. “Small boys were being procured for some very senior people but the government was determined to keep the lid on this. The SIU was only allowed to pursue much smaller fry.”
It was MacLennan’s misfortune that he fell into this category. He had made himself unpopular by working with the Independent Commission Against Corruption to fight police dishonesty and had successfully resisted efforts to have him moved from Yuen Long Police Station. Eventually he was summarily dismissed by then acting commissioner Roy Henry but reinstated after a vigorous campaign by Elsie Tu, who brought MacLennan’s case to the notice of the governor. As Nigel noted, “MacLennan kept the job he loved but he was to pay a high price.”
The formation of the SIU gave the inspector’s detractors within the force a powerful weapon to use against him, and eight charges of gross indecency with male prostitutes were prepared. “The charges were almost entirely trumped up,” said Nigel. “MacLennan had never met most of the men involved. But the police had a stroke of luck and found one prostitute he had slept with.”
Plans were made for MacLennan’s arrest and he received a tip off the night before it was due to take place. That was the night he died, in a locked room in his police quarters. Nigel pointed out that the police were in a very difficult position. “They had driven man to kill himself and it soon became clear that the investigation was a major cock-up.”
It took three months for an inquest to return an open verdict, after which Elsie Tu fought hard for a full enquiry, though a further four months passed before it began. “The enquiry wasn’t quite the whitewash that might have been expected,” said Nigel. “There was some vicious intimidation of witnesses by the police but Yang Ti-liang, the judge in charge and subsequently a chief justice of Hong Kong, was strong and independent minded.”
But Nigel’s Freedom of Information request revealed why the final report didn’t answer all the questions that hung around the case. The governor tried hard to restrict the scope of the enquiry, by shortening it, reducing the terms of reference and having it held in camera. Justice Yang successfully resisted this onslaught but was forced to compromise on the content of his report.
“In the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the transcripts of the enquiry are unavailable,” said Nigel. “The final report clearly doesn’t reflect everything that was said at the time. Justice Yang was ordered to pull his punches and no one was ever blamed for what happened to John MacLennan.”
But this all happened nearly forty years ago. Nigel has told a fascinating story but does he think it’s relevant to life in Hong Kong today? “The MacLennan case is an extreme example of what discrimination, in this case on the basis of sexuality, can do. Lives can be lost. Yes, things have improved since homosexual activity was decriminalized in 1991 but we can’t be complacent. The social stigma is still there and without an effective anti-discrimination law, that won’t change.”