Hong Kong Murders: The Braemar Hill murders

Even now, the Braemar Hill double-murder provokes sadness and horror over twenty years after it happened, not just for the brutality shown to its teenage victims but also for the fact that this continues to be one of the only murder cases to involve the expat community in HK.

This was back in the old days, when colonial Hong Kong was still very much in its pomp. Kenneth McBride, 17, and his 18 year-old girlfriend Nicola Myers failed to return home after an al fresco revision session on Braemar Hill one April afternoon in 1985. The next morning, an unfortunate hiker made the grisly discovery of their badly-beaten bodies.

Braemar Hill, a luxury residential area and beauty spot, was an unlikely scene for a crime and Westerners were unlikely victims. Violence was usually confined to the triads and any previous murders in HK had been strictly local affairs. Kenneth and Nicola’s deaths sparked a huge police hunt, the scale of which HK has never seen before or since, with around 600 police officers and soldiers from the British garrison combing the area for clues, plus an aerial search by helicopter.

Whitehead fails to expand sufficiently on the issues this raises, whether through tact or wishful thinking. Her discussion that the investigation wouldn’t have commanded the same amount of manpower if the victims were Chinese is over in one sentence, and even then she qualifies it with ‘that’s not to say the case wouldn‘t have been thoroughly investigated’. Her later revelations that there was a reward for $500,000 (the largest in HK’s homicide history and a bounty that seems to have been lacking in the case of the prolific Tuen Mun Rapist) and that the Chinese press accused the police of racism, complaining about the unnecessary level of spending and use of manpower on the case, are relayed to the reader in such a colourless manner that she fails to convey the strength of public feeling about the case, which there evidently was given how widely-remembered it is even now. One HK blogger remembers blurting out “Can you imagine the Government going to all this trouble if it had been a couple of Chinese kids from a public housing estate in Kowloon?”; it’s certain he wasn’t the only one thinking it. In those days, most senior officials were expats, the them/us divide was more obvious and the one of the most shocking aspects of this shocking case was that such a thing could happen to expats in their self-anointed paradise in the first place.

The murders themselves had been brutal. Kenneth had been bound, beaten and suffocated. He had more than 100 injuries on his body. Nicola had 500. She was also bound, almost naked, had been raped and clearly tortured for a greater length of time. These brief details are horrific enough but had more been provided in Whitehead’s narrative, I feel it would have supported the assertion that police devoted such resources to the case because of the violence of the murders and not the race of the victims. It would also have helped the reader understand the true depravity of this crime and why people still shudder when it’s mentioned today.

The Chinese information reveals more – that Kenneth was strung up, beaten and strangled with an arm-sling that he was wearing, that he had obviously put up a painful struggle, that both were beaten brutally with branches, that the gang thrust a stick and a bottle into Nicola’s genitalia, that her jaw was broken, her left eyeball was out its socket, that she had an expression of terrible suffering on her face. Yes, these details are truly terrible but I think they’re important to highlight the utter heinousness of this crime. I was reminded of the James Bulger case, where a long list of the sickening specifics behind his torture were released, and which I think of every time discussion of his killers crops up in the media. It is easy for people to dismiss numbers and vague generalisations of ‘bruises’ and ‘lacerations’, less so when there is some sickening bloody detail that lodges itself into your consciousness. It also indicates that Whitehead’s categorisation of the case as a ‘Sex Crime’ is flawed – the sexual element, though awful, is hardly the most significant element of or motivating factor behind the crime.

It took eight months for the culprits to be found, despite the wealth of evidence discovered at the scene (including Nicola’s torn clothing and personal effects, including pictures of life in London); forensic technology was still in its infancy and a bloodied branch with Nicola’s hair on was unsuccessfully analysed for fingerprints (there is a suggestion that the evidence was compromised by police unknowingly handling it). Superstitious HKers were spooked when one potential witness, under hypnosis by the police psychologist, began to speak more fluent English, although she only spoke broken English with a Chinese accent in real life – people believed she had been possessed by Nicola’s ghost.

It was sheer luck that an informant overheard a youth (Pang Shun-yee) boasting to his gang that he had killed a Western couple, proving it with the fact that he was wearing Kenneth’s trainers. Following their arrest, the youngest member of the gang, 15 year-old Won Sam-lung, duly confessed.

The confession is raked over only briefly in Whitehead’s account. Won said the gang spotted the couple and decided to ‘have some fun’ with them, asking if they had any money. They didn’t, were tied up and one of the group ‘sprang onto the woman like a hungry dog’. [Chinese information suggests that Pang asked Nicola to have sex with him and on her refusal, dragged her down the hill to rape her and threatened the rest of the gang to do likewise.] Pang decided they kill them, lest the pair identify them later, murdering Kenneth first before turning to Nicola. They tortured her for ‘dozens of minutes’ (the autopsy results suggest significantly longer as she died at least an hour after Kenneth) but when the gang left, she was still breathing faintly. Having witnessed the terrifying murder of her boyfriend and then been brutally raped and tortured herself, she lingered on only to die alone.

It says much about Whitehead’s lack of detail that we only learn the rest of the gang’s names in her penultimate paragraph and although she states that another of the gang confessed, we are told only one sentence of his account (this conflicts with more recent news reports that Won, who has since been released, was the only one who admitted his guilt and regularly had nightmares about his part in the murder). We never hear about the gang’s background, whether they had committed any crimes before or what drove them to such extremes for this one. We never hear the voices of the gang members who denied their involvement (later appealing against their sentences) or of Pang, whom the two confessions fingered as ringleader. One source claims that some denied raping Nicola at trial even when forensic evidence clearly proved the contrary was true. Similarly, although we learn that the case was disturbing enough to prompt the chief investigating officer, Norrie MacKillop, to quit homicide, we never learn any of his private thoughts or suppositions about the case or its perpetrators.

kenneth mcbride nicola myers braemar hill murders

However, the biggest disservice in Whitehead’s account is done to her young victims, who frankly deserve better. They warrant a mere paragraph which talks about their good looks (sans photo), clunkily linking them with some guff about seeing ‘beyond the narrow confines of a fast-decaying colonialism’ and giving no feeling of the absolute sense of loss felt by all who knew them. They were popular figures at Island School, something of a golden couple – members of the debating and rowing teams, Kenneth the president of the Students Union, who would write poetry to each other on the school roof. Former schoolmates looked up to ‘warm, bright and sunny’ Nicola (‘I wanted to grow up and be just like her’); Chris Forse, a teacher of theirs, remembers Kenneth speaking stirringly about apartheid in the school assembly the day before his death and how the rowing and debating teams went on to win in the wake of their murders – ‘was it that beam of light from the heavens?’ David James, vice-principal at the time, recalls Kenneth rallying the school to knit squares for Soweto (‘I remember him, knitting all those squares’); Kenneth’s sister, Marion (who resembles her brother so much that her parents often say ‘You look just like Kenneth when you did that’) laughs when she remembers how Kenneth and Nicola wanted to raise money for Ethiopia by gathering toys and clothes, but the parcel was so big that they didn’t have enough money for postage. ‘And I remember coming home and there was Kenneth baking cakes, and there was a smell of burned cakes in the house, and he just made all these cakes, had a cake sale the next day and that’s how they got the money for the stamps.’

Forse still keeps photos of Kenneth and Nicola and remembers his shock on hearing the news (‘I couldn’t really accept what I heard, or even continue with the conversation… I remember putting the telephone down and saying “Sorry, I can’t deal with it”); the school was overwhelmed with silence, sadness and as James says, ‘such grief… grief you could never imagine happening in a school… you don’t know what to do.’

Twenty-five years later and everyone who knew them still remembers them vividly, with a smile, fondness, warmth and sadness. It was reading these memories and seeing fuzzy photos of them looking young, bright, hopeful and idealistic that made this not just a bloody statistic in a book but a real and human tragedy, making me cry for people who died before I was even born. As Forse writes, we should ‘regret their missing years, remember their former glories and know that they will always be, in our eyes, forever young.’

Given the character of the victims, it is fitting that there is still some hope to be salvaged. Island School set up the Kenneth McBride & Nicola Myers Memorial Fund (partly-raised by students and presented for many years by Kenneth’s parents, then sister) awarding scholarships to students who would struggle financially to continue on to secondary education. The Myers and McBride families have remained close – the only time the Myers’ returned to HK after the murders was to attend the wedding of Kenneth’s sister. Won Sam-lung was released in 2004, not only with the McBrides’ blessing but incredibly, their forgiveness. He wanted to make personal apologies to the families for the ‘enormous sorrow’ he had caused, knows in his whole life he can never ‘compensate them for what they have lost’ and says, ‘I found it hard to understand being forgiven. It shocked me, but it also told me that love can change a person.’

Hong Kong may still have one of the lowest homicide rates in the world but the murders of Kenneth McBride and Nicola Myers were a harsh awakening for many. Previously, the fragrant harbour had seemed a safe escape from UK life but these deaths marked a loss of innocence for a whole generation and proved that expats were not untouchable. It is a case that will live on in history books for years to come but I hope that alongside every mention of sickening brutality and cultural landmarks, there is some tribute to the exceptional lives that were lost. The reader deserves to know, and Kenneth and Nicola deserve to be remembered. It is the least we can do for two people who will always remain forever young.

Sources:

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29 responses to “Hong Kong Murders: The Braemar Hill murders

  1. Ugh what an awful story. I was so disturbed by this, but it was an interesting read. Never heard about these murders. Well done + good research, Rach.

  2. norman MacKillop

    Rachael,

    You raise some interesting points in your review. Yes, I agree that Kate’s account is superficial and does not adequately deal with the backgrounds of the killers or the issue of allegations that this case received special attention because the victims were expats.

    The Chinese community were outraged by this crime more than the expats, some of whom come from countries where this type of crime is more commonplace. The reward was provided by an anonymous Chinese donor.
    After the Braemar case, I went on to investigate many other homicide cases, including the brutal rape and murder of an 11 year girl in Lok Fu Estate which occurred in the same year. As with the Braemar case, I was provided with unlimited resources to investigate this murder. It does not surprise me that the Chinese press did not give the same level of coverage to the Lok Fu case. After all, they are in the business of selling newspapers and the Braemar case held the public attention for longer.
    I often think of the victims of both cases and can assure you that both received equally devoted attention from my predominantly Chinese colleagues.

    Norman MacKillop

  3. Hi Norman (or should that be Norrie?!),

    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment – it’s greatly appreciated and your insights make for interesting reading. How did you come across this article?

    No-one I know had ever heard of the Lok Fu case to which you refer, which I guess just proves your point. I’m just pleased you haven’t noticed any glaring factual inaccuracies in my account which was my main concern! Whitehead’s book disappointed and frustrated me on many levels, especially since it appears she did all the right research. Have you ever thought about writing your own memoirs?

    Thanks again for the comment,

    Rachel

  4. norman MacKillop

    Hi Rachael,

    I heard of this article through Elfed Roberts of HKU, an old friend. Like most old cops, I have often thought of writing a memoir. But this would take a lot of research and like most of my colleagues, I did not keep a diary or hold on to copies of official reports, which of course would be illegal. However, the main draw back for me is the knowledge that memoirs of this type, open up old wounds, especially for the relatives of innocent murder victims. However much they try, I believe that they never really recover from their horrific memories. For Chinese families in particular , to see the story published again could be seen as disturbing the spirits of the deceased and bring back the same level of grief that they have worked so hard to overcome.

    Norrie MacKillop

    • Hi Mr MacKillop. I’m a filmmaker from Sydney, Australia trying to write a movie script on this case. I was wondering if there is a way of contacting you to ask some questions for research purposes.

  5. Hi Rachel
    I stumbled across this page whilst looking up something quite different. My husband, a colleague of Norrie Mackillops (who I see has posted a comment above this) was the Commander in Causeway Bay when this murder took place. I know it was the most savage and brutal murder he ever witnessed and he would have agreed entirely with Norries sentiments.

  6. Will Doherty

    Hi Rachel,
    I was on duty that day and attended the scene as a Police tactical Unit Inspector with a team of 41 officers. (A Coy) I will never forget the image, the pain, the suffering and humiliation both must have endured. The depravity and sadistic nature fully justified using all the resources available. From this experience I am sure the HKP has learned a lot and has more to learn about crime scene forensics – and everyone in the team did their best and more. A terribly sad day for everyone in the community – but it is still a great place – with great people and one day I hope to return.

    • Hi Will

      It’s really interesting to read more perspectives from people involved in the case; thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  7. Hello Rachel,

    Saw this on crime channel and had to look it up. Yours was the first artical that I looked at. Do you have any idea what happened to the gang members involved in the crime? Did they go to jail? Killed? Given harsh sentences? It would be nice to know that they got what they deserved (and I dont mean loads of respect for killing “guilo” in jail). I would hope the opposite but who knows.

    Sincerely,

    David

    • I think my article mentions it, as did the crime programme last night, but all the killers received life imprisonment – the three adult ones the death penalty, automatically commuted to life in those days, the two underage ‘detained at her Majesty’s pleasure’. One died in prison of cancer (in his 40s, I believe) and the underage two have since been released, I guess that leaves Pang (the ‘ringleader’) and one other still in jail. Won, the youngest and the only one who pleaded guilty (he confessed first and gave evidence against the rest of the gang), publicly spoke of his remorse and guilt on his release, and McBride’s family forgave him.

      I sincerely doubt they were lauded in prison for killing the gweilos – Norrie Mackillop, the chief investigating officer of the case, has left a comment above stating that the Chinese community were just as outraged and disgusted by the crime as Westerners and it’s probably still remembered as the most brutal and senseless murders committed in HK, to two defenseless teenagers who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      Hope that helps,

      Rachel

  8. I was 10 when this happened and I knew nothing about race then, but in retrospect (and later years living in North America) I can’t help but agreeing with the point made that if these were Chinese kids there wouldn’t have been that kind of manhunt/media frenzy. The RHKP as it was known in those days was still very much a colonially-influenced police force.

    Thanks for the memory jog though.

  9. joe mcgilligan

    I knew them both well and was there at the time and it was not anything to do with race, it was the appalling violence and aggression that shocked the colony! I will never forget the tragic event and admire the McBides in their ability to forgive for I have yet to reach that place.

  10. I saw a documentary about this story and recorded it around six months ago.To me,Nicola and ken were angels on earth.I`m livid about the way they died.I calculated they would both be in their early 50`s were they alive today.I dont think i`ll ever forget them.

  11. Interesting post Rach. I moved to Hong Kong in 1992 and even back then this horrible, brutal murder was something that people discussed and were extremely disturbed by. I remember when I heard about it in school I asked my drama teacher about it and he refused to go into details, this was before the Internet afterall but it didn’t take long to get the facts.

    Anyway, I really don’t think it was so much a race thing, like you said, this kind of brutality was unique in Hong Kong’s history in ’85, murders outside of the triad underground circuit are still quite rare I believe and until the last 2 big ones, the “Hello Kitty Murder” and “The Milkshake/Kissel murder”, the aggression scale seen there in Braemer Hill was pretty unique. Nicola endured hours of rape, torture to be left there to die, on this fact alone, I’d say the attention given to it at that time both by locals and Gweilos was pretty much in balance to the insidious nature of the crime. Had this been done to a local couple, certainly tge outrage would have been the same.

    The fact that these 2 kids couldn’t have been a nicer couple if they tried, that is what really makes this a haunting, sordid and painful story ’cause it’s a classic clash of opposites, the most evil and hateful element in society clashing with the best and most charitable, kind and caring… It’s really disturbing how this seems to be a theme in crimes of this sort. Evil begrudges good, seeks to wipe it out so you’ve got a point in calling the author’s miclassification of this as simply a “crime of a sexual nature”, this was evil at it’s worst, it wasn’t about sex or power, it was simply about doing harm for harm’s sake, for mild entertainment and bragging rights, out of boredom and a sense of self-entitlement. These are the most shocking of crimes in any society, regardless of race, sex, etc…

    Anyway, it’s been interesting reading your post & the comments here, as someone who’s pondered about this case a great deal, I’m glad people still take the time not so much to dwell on the crime itself, but on the horrible loss suffered by all who knew these wonderful kids and the generations after who still take the time to ponder about Kenneth & Nicola, two good kids who touched so many lives in their short time on this earth and who were taken from us too soon, it’s their names that will live on forever, the bastards who commited this crime, they are scum and though some may feel that they’re special, one thing is true of all murderers, regardless of their crime: they’re the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth and there’s nothing “deep” about their nature, nothing fascinating about their minds or deeds, they’re just fucking losers and if this world was a fair place, this people would be thrown into a deserted place and left to fend for themselves among their kind or be put down like the rabid dogs they are then forgotten.

    It bothers me that after all these years once in a while I get to read about Chales Manson & his kind, there, still breathing, having “fans” and his bloody followers applying for parole after what they did to Sharon Tate, her unborn child, her guests and the La Bianca’s… what is the attraction? Why give these people press? Anyhow, it’s a mad world and people are stranger everyday. They know the mad men’s names but not the victim’s, evil gets way too much attention, I enjoyed your post for focusing on the real story, that of two students who lost their life tragically and deserved more of a mention not just in this book but every time this subject comes up. May their spirits rest and may their families be blessed and know that if indeed there is a heaven out there, their son and daughter are at peace now, in a place far from the suffering in this world.

  12. Cruel dogs, no human beign has right to do such evil

  13. They featured this horrific double murder case on TV last night as a documentary. I had never heard of it and thus looked it up on the computer. I was horrified by the descriptions given of the last hours of these two lovely young people. I was also shocked that those responsible were not all given the death sentence and have it carried out. Pity. Then again, maybe making them live with what they did is also punishment?

  14. I was a 2nd year at Island School when this happened. I have a rose-tinted memory of Kenneth, tinkling his bicycle bell and zipping past me on Bowen Road as I walked home every afternoon lugging my over-large school rucksack. At that tender age I regarded Kenneth as an almost-adult, up there at the lectern giving his serious speech for the SU elections. Quite imposing. It is sad now to look back and realise they were just kids. It is also with some guilt that I recall my reaction when I heard of the murders. It seemed ridiculous to me, almost cartoonish. Things like this simply didn’t happen. I felt that they must have done something terribly stupid. There had to be an explanation. I couldn’t digest the tragedy at all. The huddles of weeping teachers and students at school were too surreal. Strange, in retrospect, that I felt no fear either. That this could happen again, to any of us, never entered our expat teenage heads. I think that demonstrates what happy lives we had there.

    I’ll be meeting Chris Forse in a pub in London in a few weeks, one of his regular get-togethers with former Island School pupils. I might suggest we raise a little glass to Kenneth and Nicola, who should have been there.

  15. It happened today, exactly 28 years ago, and i am STILL spooked by what happened to the folks who were just a couple of years older than me at the time. Thanks Rach for all your research in filling in details that i myself had never been aware of – it’s made the image all the more haunting and tragic. To Nicola and Kenneth, lest we forget.

  16. RIP Ken, you will always be remembered by your friend from Headcorn! Paul Martin

  17. HI, I’m interested in the victims’ family. you mentioned the only time the Myers’ returned to HK after the murders was to attend the wedding of Kenneth’s sister. Was Nicola the only child of the Myers? Does Kenneth’s sister still live in Hong Kong right now? I’d like to know something about the current status of both families.. Thank you! And is it possible to find out where it happened when I travel to Braemar Hill?

  18. 29 years on will never forget the day I got telephoned the news from the Head Boy. I think we had a school break… The news was gutting and school really never was the same after that. They were popular, not rose colored at all, absolutely genuine. Kenneth really was a leader ahead of his time , Nic was the kind of person you wanted to be.
    So lucky to have been inspired by them all those years ago. I think of them often.

    P.s. Race aside, this was a heinous crime , coverage was crude and shameful by some of the local papers . I am thankful there was no internet: even without images .

  19. Thanks very interesting blog!

  20. Pelham Higgins

    I remember this well – I was born and raised in HK. This was perhaps the major incident in HK in the 1980s along with Thatcher’s signing of the Sino-British Agreement and the Tianamen Square demonstrations…

  21. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a coworker
    who had been doing a little research on this. And he in fact ordered
    me dinner because I found it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this….
    Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to talk about this matter here on your site.

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