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A Suspicious Death Changes Gay Hong Kong: Murder or Suicide? - Part 1

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More than a decade ago there was a post here about a famous suicide/murder in Hong Kong that reverberated through the gay community and how the general community reacted to it. Given the interest that has been expressed in a thread recently in learning more about the gay history of Bangkok, I thought some might find an expanded version of the events in January 1980 in Hong Kong of interest.

This long article was written by a prominent gay expat journalist and author based in Hong Kong for several decades. Before he sadly died, he asked me to assist him with some research for the following article which he hoped would be published in one of the international gay magazines. It was written in mid-2019 to commemorate the events of mid-January 2020. Sadly no magazine was interested. So the article was expanded to its present form. It illustrates a number of issues - police corruption in Hong Kong (almost worse than here in Thailand), major official attempts to root out homosexuality, the confusion between pedophilia and homosexuality . . . and how it was that the 19th century British colonial law making sodomy between men illegal came finally to be repealed in 1991.

Unfortunately, this is not posted on any website so I have to post the full article. Given its length, I will split the article into several posts.

Was It Suicide? Was It Murder? 

Whatever The Facts, It Changed Hong Kong’s mid-1800s Anti-Gay Law Forever


A young Special Unit detective is found, fatally shot five times in his abdomen, the night before he is to appear in court on a charge of abusing a teenage boy.

His hometown girlfriend was planning to join him in his distant posting for their announcement of engagement to marry. Neither she nor his family could accept the suicide report or homosexual slanders about him.

His drinking and partying friends in the police force also refused to believe that he was a closet homosexual or paedophile. 

The suspicious death of an overly curious detective prompted a seemingly endless stream of scandalous reports, manipulated official inquiries, and revelations reaching the top heights of the Government and its police force.

But might the detective also have been a closet gay? Was he also a secret spy for the federal police authorities? Was the local government covering up hidden affairs in its own ranks? Was the community suddenly made aware of a host of expatriates in senior positions who had to hide their emotional attachments to younger Chinese men?

Those five bullets in an abdomen ricocheted through a community rife with corruption, prostitution, racism, political uncertainty and exploitation. 

Nothing was what it appeared to be ... or what people wanted to believe.


The Death 

On the morning of January 15 1980, five gunshots rang out. In bustling, over-populated Kowloon preparing for the day ahead, no one seemed to hear those shots above the noise of the rush hour traffic below. In the source of the shots, a government flat, a young expatriate police inspector lay dead in his bedroom. It was a scene reminiscent of an Agatha Christie or John Le Carre novel. Five bullets had pierced his body – but not his heart or head. A police revolver lay by his side. Allegedly the door and windows to the room were all securely locked from the inside. 

Had anyone taken a snapshot of that body, the conclusion would almost certainly have been one of murder. As the events leading up to this death ever so gradually became public knowledge, they were to resound for years and lead to the uncovering of a secret world where the gleaming, glistening facade of prosperous Hong Kong would be shown to be no more than surface deep. As layer upon layer of the undergrowth was exposed, an incredulous public was shocked. No one on that January morning realised it at the time, but these events would ultimately lead to a change in a law that had been on the statute books for more than 100 years. Gay men would finally be able to lead much more open lives.


Under British rule following the two Opium Wars in 1841 and 1860, Hong Kong in 1980 with its 236 islands and the Kowloon Peninsula is situated on the southern mainland of a China that is just starting to recover from the murderous decade of the Cultural Revolution. That decade from 1965 had all but destroyed the very fabric of Chinese society, its education and legal systems and, above all, the family unit. 

Hong Kong’s economy had for some decades been built by and expanded through immigrant labour from China. Its population had grown from 600,000 after World War II to over four million by 1966. After the Cultural Revolution, the stream of migrants increased. By 1980 the number of small shantytowns visible on many Hong Kong hillsides had increased. To accommodate the inflow, the Hong Kong government commenced what at the time was the largest urban development programme in the world, creating vast new housing estates and four New Towns that would each eventually accommodate over 500,000 people. With a land area of just over 400 square miles, Hong Kong was the most densely populated part of the planet.

By the 1970s, Hong Kong’s economy was in transition from a “sweat shop” producing cheap goods for export to an international centre of trade and finance. Hong Kong’s freewheeling capitalist economy was attracting much international praise and investment. Local Chinese entrepreneurs who had hitherto headed small to medium scale companies began to take over long-established international British colonial conglomerates (known locally as “hongs”).

Criminal Activity in Hong Kong

Underneath its glittering surface, though, there was much the world did not see and which the all-powerful British colonial administration did not want it to see. The Hong Kong Governor, always British and usually a senior civil servant who had spent time in Beijing, was appointed by the United Kingdom. He wielded far more authority than the British Prime Minister. Hong Kong’s legal system was based on British Common Law.

 Maintaining order in the British colony (the British preferred to call it “Territory” whereas the Chinese claimed it was “Chinese Territory temporarily under the control of the British”) was the Royal Hong Kong Police (RHKP), a large body of Chinese whose senior officers were almost exclusively from Britain and its former colonial outposts. Rampant and endemic corruption and triad-organized crime activity were rife at all levels of society. With the Cultural Revolution had come a period of considerable instability in Hong Kong, including riots. Maintaining civil order became a key objective of the RHKP.

The crime rate in Hong Kong had been rising rapidly. Official statistics show the violent crime rate had risen from 48 per 100,000 of the population in 1963 to 477 in 1976 [1]. It was also known that the percentage of violent crimes reported to the police was almost certainly a small fraction of actual numbers.

Another well-known fact was that corruption within the RHKP itself was rife and had reached epidemic proportions. Bribes were expected equally from businesses and individuals. Worse, many of the senior police were in the pay of the triad bosses whom they were supposed to be suppressing.

 In 1974 the then Governor Sir Murray MacLehose (the longest-serving Hong Kong Governor from 1971 to 1982 and much admired by all in Hong Kong for his achievements) decided the time had come to get rid of corruption. The previous year Peter Godber, a Police Chief Superintendent, had been discovered to have assets of HK$4.3 million (at that time approx. US$860,000) in bank accounts in six countries. It was suspected his wealth had been accumulated through corruption. Given a week by the Attorney General to explain the source of this wealth, Godber managed to slip out of Hong Kong and fled to England. The result was a public outcry in Hong Kong with students spearheading a mass rally condemning the government for its failure to tackle corruption. (Godber was extradited from England in 1975. He was convicted of corruption and sentenced to four years in jail.)

Following Godber’s escape, MacLehose established the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) with its own police force and separate Judiciary and answerable only to the Governor [2]. In essence, anyone accused of corrupt activity was thereafter basically guilty until proven innocent. Immediately a number of high-ranking officials fled Hong Kong.

The ICAC itself was not a total panacea in solving Hong Kong’s problems. One police officer at that time, Stephen Griffiths, claims in an article that many policemen suggested the initials stood for “I Can Accept Cheques” [3].

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