A Death in Hong Kong: The MacLennan Case of 1980 and the Suppression of a Scandal (2nd Edition)

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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 tumultuous time in Hong Kong’s history. 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.

The second edition includes a foreword by Christine Loh (former undersecretary for the environment, former legislator, and founder of Civic Exchange) as well as updated information from new interviews with key people involved in the case. With endorsements from human rights researchers and the local community, this book provides insight into Hong Kong during a time of social unrest and corruption scandals, a time when homosexuality and paedophilia were often considered interchangeable and both offered easy targets for blackmail.

“Collett’s vivid account of the MacLennan case and its aftermath allows us to rediscover an episode that is important not only to Hong Kong gay history but to the history of law and criminal justice in a colonial context more broadly. A fascinating read.”
– Dr Marco Wan,
Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Programme in Law and Literary Studies, University of Hong Kong

“Nigel Collett has written a period masterpiece.”
– Christine Loh,
Former undersecretary for the environment, former legislator, and founder of Civic Exchange
City University of Hong Kong Press has issued two prints of this book since it was first published in March 2018, each with slight improvements to the text and amendments to minor details. I am grateful to the many, often anonymous, commentators who pointed out these errors and enabled improvements to the text.

The first edition of this book attracted much interest and generated discussion in both Hong Kong and the wider world when it was published. As a result, new witnesses stepped forward and evidence emerged that had not been available during my earlier research, evidence that has both added to the body of knowledge upon which this book is based and changed some of the conclusions I had come to while originally writing it. A number of retired police officers sought me out to give me the benefit of their knowledge of the times and of the case. I have been able to conduct interviews with witnesses whom I had not managed to meet before. Most importantly, I was able to speak to John Beveridge, QC, counsel for the inquiry into John MacLennan’s death, and to his deputy at the commission, the then Further Counsel Tony Neoh, SC, QC, JP. The additional insights into the case they both gave me have been invaluable in my reassessment of my conclusions concerning the course of the inquiry and its final report. I thank both warmly for their guidance.

As a result of my continued research, a second edition has been deemed warranted, and I would like to thank those who have made this possible. I would particularly like to thank Senior Superintendent Paul Collier, who gave me new information about John MacLennan’s time in the Police Training School and about his last days; Senior Superintendent Martin Cowley, who provided much information on the way cases of a homosexual nature were handled by the RHKP in the 1970s; Superintendent Guy Sirra, who provided details concerning the police force in the 1970s and 1980s; and Superintendent David Hodson, who corrected a few of my earlier mistakes about the force. I received further advice about some of the legal aspects of the case from Grenville Cross. I am also grateful to Major General Ray Pett, who provided me details concerning the military career of Colin Logan, and to Anders Nelsson, who gave me information about the Star newspaper and Hong Kong’s cultural scene in the 1970s. Kenzo Pannell was kind enough to meet me, speak to me about his father, Tony, and show me his father’s collection of press cuttings about the MacLennan case.

This second edition gives me a welcome opportunity to once again thank City University of Hong Kong Press, whose editorial and sales departments have been a tremendous support. It has been a great pleasure working with the Press and I count myself lucky to have them as my publisher. I wish to express my gratitude to my editor, Dr Abby Leigh Manthey, who has brought out this second edition, and to Ms Amy Kwok Wai-ching, the Press’s marketing and public relations officer, who has worked with me over the last year to bring the book before the public.

Regardless of the changes that now appear in this second edition, the principal conclusions published in the first edition have not been altered. Nothing has changed my belief that Inspector John MacLennan was driven to suicide by fellow police officers as a result of his sexual orientation and due to the deliberate enforcement of Hong Kong’s hitherto mostly dormant law on homosexuality by Attorney General John Griffiths. This was a dark and shameful episode in Hong Kong’s colonial past, the lessons of which reverberate in the city today, for discrimination against sexual minorities continues to have no legal remedy and prejudice still prevents the fulfilment of the lives of those who wish to marry same-sex partners. It is my hope that this book may play a small part in persuading people that discrimination can lead to misery and that, nearly four decades later, Hong Kong needs to right the wrongs that caused John MacLennan’s death.

Nigel Collett
Hong Kong
January 2020

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

Nigel COLLETT, a retired lieutenant-colonel of the British Brigade of Gurkhas now a biographer based in Hong Kong, is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar (2006), a life of General Dyer, perpetrator of the Amritsar massacre