Hong Kong – Gays Under Colonial Rule and A Murder Most Foul
When its last Governor Christopher Patten sailed out of Hong Kong harbour at the stroke of midnight on 30 June 1997, the curtain all but fell on centuries of the British Empire. It was perhaps appropriate that Patten left without fanfare, for Britain’s conquest of much of China’s coastline and the various annexations resulting in present-day Hong Kong were an ignominious and lasting disgrace. It had stemmed from superior force, but its root cause was the insistence of the British that the Chinese accept opium instead of silver in payment for its exports, thereby condemning millions to slow death.
Despite the presence of the hated British sodomy law, Hong Kong under the surface had for decades been a relatively gay outpost of Empire – certainly at the upper reaches of society. Long-term colonial servants had long-term Chinese boyfriends. In the late 1970s Hong Kong had one gay bar, Dateline, and one mostly gay disco, Disco Disco. Dateline was reached by a brightly-lit set of steps leading down from the street. It was well known that the police had cameras in an apartment opposite and that photographs were taken of everyone leaving that bar. So life for the gay community always carried a degree of risk that public exposure could not only result in a few years in jail, it could end a career or, worse, in death. The owner of a well-known antique shop was found dead in his elegant apartment on Victoria Peak. After picking up two young male prostitutes, something got ugly and he was murdered.
Ironically, it was a disputed murder worthy of an Agatha Christie novel that eventually led to massive public insistence the law finally be repealed, despite strong efforts of the colonial administration to prevent it. On the surface all seemed simple enough. On 15 January 1980 a man was found dead in his government apartment. In accordance with local law, an inquest was held, albeit – and highly unusually – a good seven weeks late. In hindsight, that was the first clue to this being far more complicated than a simple death. A second was that the inquest jury delivered an open verdict, despite police claims with evidence from two of their own pathologists and an outside expert that it must have been “suicide”. So this was no open and shut case – much to the fury of the Royal Hong Kong Police.
The man who died was one of their own, 29-year old Inspector John MacLennan. MacLennan had been found on his bed after being shot five times with his police .38 Colt revolver. The door and the windows to his bedroom were locked from the inside. Unusually, no forensic tests were carried out on the body and it was quickly cremated.
Now you would expect any man intent on killing himself to do it the quick way, with a bullet to the head. Not so! Bizarrely, MacLennan had attempted to shoot himself in the chest – not once, not twice, but no less than five times before he managed to complete the act. Have you ever heard of anyone attempting suicide by twisting his hand holding the gun almost 180 degrees to shoot and penetrate his heart? And having failed to succeed the first time, despite being injured how does he have the physical and mental stamina to try again no less than four more times? It totally beggars belief.
The next nugget to come to public attention was MacLennan’s membership of a secret police operation, the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) set up in 1979 with a specific role to hunt down homosexuals. To do this, police actually cooperated with local Triad gangs to procure youths who would then ensnare government officials. One senior judge had been caught in the net and left Hong Kong in considerable haste during that first year.
After arriving from Scotland, MacLennan had been co-opted into the SIU. Soon he had put together a dossier of senior colonial figures who were known or assumed to be homosexual. One was his ultimate boss, the unmarried Commissioner of Police. Not long after, some of his colleagues suspected MacLennan himself might be gay. To get him out of the Unit, they prepared a case involving testimony from eight young male prostitutes. It seems that MacLennan was probably bisexual since he had a girlfriend yet he had certainly had sex with one of the prostitutes. The so-called evidence of the other seven was found to be fabricated. MacLennan’s suicide/murder was discovered as police arrived to arrest him.
Some in public life believed not a word of what they were being fed from official sources. A campaign was started to find out the truth. That July a Commission headed by the highly respected Chief Justice, Sir T. L Yang was set up by the Governor. Yet its terms of reference were limited and the lack of co-operation from some in the government severely hampered the Commission’s work. When its Report appeared a year later, the finding that MacLennan’s death was indeed suicide was widely ridiculed.
Public anger increased with the Chinese media heavily involved, thereby giving the lie to the government’s oft-stated view that the sodomy law could not be repealed because of Chinese cultural aversion to homosexuality. Finally, the pressure reached such a level that the government asked the Law Reform Commission to examine the whole issue of homosexuality and the old British law. In 1983 it published its report recommending the decriminalizing of homosexual acts between consenting adults. But still the government stalled – for years. It was only when public fears about the 1997 return to China became more pronounced that a need for a Bill of Rights was recognised. As part of that Bill, Hong Kong finally decriminalized homosexuality in 1991.
To this day, no-one knows the truth about the death of John MacLennan nor why the government continues to keep that truth a secret. As one writer commented after the change in the law, the on-going ramifications of the MacLennan affair illustrate how colonial Hong Kong, on the surface a glittering, forward-looking economic success story, “was shot through with a high level misuse of power, vice, triad infiltration, police incompetence and corruption, murder, extortion, blackmail, violence and intimidation. The underbelly of the colony was black and control of it was exercised ruthlessly.” Hardly the thriving, free, financial hub painted by the government’s own spin masters. But it is thanks to John MacLennan and the circumstances surrounding his death that Hong Kong finally rid itself of the 1861 Victorian law and now has a vastly freer and thriving gay community.
What’s your observations about Gay Hong Kong History and Culture? Please post your comments below
Contribution by Penn Regis who is an academic who regularly visits Asia.