Play about gay officer revives memory of John MacLennan's 1980 suicide

Agnes Allcock's script is loosely based on the story of Hong Kong policeman John MacLennan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 6:40am

A play by a retired senior civil servant has reopened a forgotten chapter of history about attitudes towards homosexuals in Hong Kong.

Agnes Allcock, who retired as director general of London's Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office late last year, tells an intricate story about a police inspector in the 1970s driven to his death by discrimination against gays.

Behind the Curtain, which the True Heart Theatre group premiered in London this month, is based loosely on the suspicious death of John MacLennan. The Scot was found dead with five gunshots wounds to his chest on the morning he was to be arrested on charges of indecency.

His death in 1980 led to the most expensive public investigation in the city at the time. Not only did the public ask how a person could fire off five rounds into his own heart, but conspiracies arose over the motive behind the police force's charges against MacLennan of homosexuality.

"Homosexual behaviour was very much a taboo in those days - and unfortunately still is," said Allcock, who was a fellow inspector of MacLennan before she became a government administrative officer.

She said homosexuals were closeted and those in the public service had to take extra risks.

"The atmosphere back then was extremely repressive and discriminatory," said Allcock. "Gay lawyers, policemen etc were susceptible to being blackmailed by undesirable characters."

Hong Kong does not yet have a law against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and the government said this year it would not launch a consultation on anti-gay discrimination.

While gay people may encounter discrimination today, homosexual male law enforcers in the 1970s faced life in jail if they were found out.

MacLennan, who "saw police service as his life", died at age 29 after repeated investigations by the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), which was set up in 1978 with an exclusive focus on homosexual activities involving law-enforcement officers.

Despite his sexual interest in men, MacLennan appeared outwardly to be an extrovert Scotsman attracted to women.

"John was just an ordinary guy," said Allcock, who drank socially with McLennan and recalled his overnight stays with girls in the police quarters in Ho Man Tin. "He was a bachelor so that was just taken as a normal guy's behaviour."

His other, secret life was highlighted in comments made by Yang Ti-liang, the judge who chaired the commission investigating MacLennan's death: "[It] was not only against the law as laid … but also against the high moral code that he outwardly professed."

MacLennan first became a target of the SIU after being reported for making homosexual advances, which led to his subsequent firing.

The matter was complicated when he sought help from then urban councillor Elsie Tu, who linked the sacking to MacLennan's knowledge of a list of homosexual officials in the then-colonial government.

MacLennan was reinstated after the case reached governor Murray MacLehose. But the high-profile case had kept him in the sights of the SIU, which allegedly attempted to lure another homosexual officer to "test" MacLennan's sexual preferences.

The SIU decided to arrest him in January 1980 - but he died hours before they could do so.

The origins of the play date back to 2005, when Allcock was asked during a screenwriting class to think of the incident that had the most impact on her.

"I am surprised I said the MacLennan case without any hesitation," she said.

She set about writing, but despite a tremendous research effort, questions remained - as they were left in the 35-page commission report - such as whether anyone in the force had intended to frame MacLennan.

Perhaps some details were better left murky, Allcock said.

"I now realise why the private detective hired by MacLennan's parents to investigate the case refused to see me when I tried to approach him in 2005 to find out more," said Allcock, who has now moved on to write her second play. "He asked someone to relay to me the message, 'Don't rub salt in sore wounds.'"