“A Death in Hong Kong” Writer Nigel Collett Interview

1980, it was a time in Hong Kong when homosexuality and paedophilia were considered the same and offered easy targets for blackmail.  In January of that year, a police officer by the name of John MacLennan took his own life at his flat in Ho Man Tin, just a few hours before he was to be arrested for the crime of homosexuality.  Hong Kong based author Nigel Collet documents the events surrounding MacLennan’s death and attempts to answer questions that have remained unanswered for years through recently unreleased documents. 

Dim Sum: How did you first learn about John MacClennan?  
Nigel: Not long after I got back to Hong Kong after four years in England, I watched director David Chow and writer Eric Carrera Lowe’s documentary Spaces of Desire, which deals with gay life in Hong Kong and came out in 2006. That film includes a short episode from the case.  Later, through my writing for Fridae.com and my work in the Pink Alliance, I started to get to know more about Hong Kong’s gay history, and John MacLennan has a large part in that as his death in 1980 was the spur that led to the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts eleven years later in 1991.  But it was not until I was befriended by Aileen and Ken Bridgewater in about 2010 that I really started to learn about the case. Aileen had been a chat show hostess on Commercial Radio for many years in the ’70s and ’80s and she had been involved with her friend Elsie Elliott (later Elsie Tu) in the successful campaign for a public inquiry into John MacLennan’s death.
 
Dim Sum: What inspired you to write the story of John MacClennan?  
Nigel: Firstly, it was because Aileen and Ken asked me to write it. They had accumulated a great deal of material relating to the case over the years and wanted the story told.  Ken preferred to turn what he knew into fiction, which he did in his novel Open Verdict, which came out in 2013. They wanted a non fiction writer to reveal what they had learned.  I was intimidated by the sad nature of the story and by the huge amount of information that it required researching, so was not initially keen, but the importance of the story to Hong Kong’s history and a growing feeling that John MacLennan needed his story told properly persuaded me.
 
Dim Sum: How does this story relate to the current state of LGBT politics in Hong Kong?  
Nigel: Well, the fact that he died forced the government to appoint the law reform commission to recommend changes in the law on homosexuality, and that resulted in decriminalisation in 1991, so in that respect everything we do nowadays has been made possible by his death. The story has a wider resonance, though.  He killed himself, it seems, because the prejudices in society boxed him into a corner of being outed, ruined and, as he thought, shamed, or taking the only available alternative, which was death.  The law may have changed, but Hong Kong’s conservative elements continue to enforce their prejudices on their fellow citizens, for many of whom there remains the choice of either the shame of outing and the loss of job and family, or conformity and hiding in the closet. We are not done yet with the depression and distress this causes, nor, I fear, with still the occasional case of suicide.  John MacLennan’s death is a lesson in what happens when society cannot face the reality of the way the world is, and Hong Kong’s has yet to open its eyes.
 
Dim Sum: Do police officers in Hong Kong who are LGBT still have issues with being out? 
Nigel: I am no expert in this, but from the little I know, I think that some gay policemen have found that it is OK to be discreetly gay in the police now, as long as you do not make anything public of it.  You’d better ask a police officer this question!
 
Dim Sum: What are you hoping to achieve with the publishing of this book?  What are you hoping people will take from this story? 

Nigel: I am hoping that the record of what happened to John MacLennan will be set straight and that establishing the facts, as I hope I have done, will allow the right lessons to be learned from his death.  I hope readers take away from it the same sense I have of the tragic waste of a young life blighted from birth by the simple fact of his sexual orientation. I want people to see that we need to change the way things are now so that something like MacLennan’s death does not happen again.

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Words by Russell Boaz, Photo By Joe Lam

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