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.
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.
- Hong Kong Murders, Kate Whitehead (Oxford University Press, 2001)
- ‘Braemar Hill killer freed’, Teddy Ng, Hong Kong Standard (June 29, 2004)
- ‘The Niven Days: 1983-88’, Chris Forse [no longer online]
- ‘For my brother: the double murder of Island School teenagers Kenneth McBride and Nicola Myers’, South China Morning Post (January 16, 2000) [SCMP has a subscription only-service but this article has somehow slipped through the net, accessible via Google]
- Island School Alumni Association Facebook Page
- Hemlock’s Diary blog