In cold blood: Murder in Tai O

In 1918, at a remote police station on Lantau, a cold-blooded killing by a Sikh constable left a baby without a father and a young mother a widow. With a new boutique hotel still bearing scars from the crime, Kate Whitehead delves into the death of Sergeant Thomas Glendinning


Australian Sandra Trimble didn’t discover the truth about her grandmother’s glass eye until she visited Hong Kong in 1978, and her father spilled the beans on a family secret, a tragedy that had taken the life of his own father, in Tai O, in 1918.

David Glendinning was barely a year old and couldn’t have remembered much of that terrifying day. Now 97, Glendinning gets easily confused, but his daughter, Trimble – a retired librarian living in Canberra – has taken a keen interest in this slice of family history.

“In those days, people didn’t talk about things like that. Not only was it a tragedy, it was a scandal, so it wasn’t discussed,” says Trimble, 72.

Tai O 2The story begins in 1916, when her grandfather, Thomas Glendinning, returned from a six-month break in Australia with his new wife, Daisy, to resume his job with the Hong Kong Police. Two of his brothers – Walter and Percy – were also in Hong Kong; they’d accompanied horses from Sydney to Hong Kong and then on to Shanghai before getting jobs with Hong Kong Tramways. Another brother, Robert, was working on the Shanghai-Nanjing railway. Glendinning had joined the Hong Kong force in 1904.

A report in the South China Morning Post dated July 18, 1918 – the two other incidents referred to were the shooting of a constable on February 13 and the deaths of five policemen in a shoot-out in Wan Chai on February 22.

Tai O village, on the west coast of Lantau Island, is remote and the police station, a 15-minute walk from the village, was even more isolated. But this rocky headland was an ideal vantage point from which to keep a look out for the pirates that roamed the South China coast. And there were plenty in those days – enough to warrant several cannon on the cliff below the station and the barbed wire surrounding it. Fishermen carried arms for protection.

Tai O 3The former police station has recently been restored and converted into a charming boutique hotel. It is a peaceful retreat away from the stilted village, which, on weekends, buzzes with tourists looking for a taste of traditional life in the former fishing community. A century ago, that isolation was heightened by the lack of a telephone; the nearest being at Castle Peak, 24km away across the water. One of the few other ways to raise an alarm was by waving a red flag – or, at night, shining a red light – which could be seen from Cheung Chau, 8km away.

Sergeant Thomas Glendinning was the only Western officer in Tai O, in charge of a team of Chinese and Sikhs. He wasn’t daunted by the isolation, nor was Daisy. Trimble has a copy of a letter dated October 1916 and written by her grandmother to the elder woman’s sister, Lil, in Australia.

“She said how she was looking forward to going across to Tai O and how she was going on an excursion to buy furniture for the police station, where they would live,” says Trimble.

The couple installed themselves in an apartment directly above the station’s charge room in 1916 and, in May the following year, welcomed baby David into their home. It may have been remote but the spot occupied by the station was – and still is – beautiful. The space above the old charge room has been turned into four guest rooms with high ceilings and a shared verandah that runs along a good stretch of the hotel and overlooks the bay.

The trouble began on July 3, 1918, when the station’s sergeant interpreter – a Chinese officer whose name has been lost in the mists of time – noticed some money was missing from the charge room. It was just a small sum – in 10 cent pieces – but it had been marked by himself and Glendinning. A couple of weeks later, the cook’s watch went missing. The sergeant interpreter checked the officers’ lockers, found some of the marked coins in Teja Singh’s (Police ID No: B18) locker and detained him in one of the station’s two cells.

One of 11 Sikh policemen based at the station, Singh would have been humiliated by being locked up. The Sikhs were a close group; they slept in basic quarters just off the charge room – a large dormitory that held eight beds and a smaller room with three beds. It would have been even more humiliating for Singh the following day, July 16, when Glendinning escorted him to the Hong Kong Magistracy, where he was charged with two counts of larceny. Out on bond, Singh was allowed back to Tai O to collect his belongings.

Tai O 4And so it was that the disgruntled Indian constable was lying in his bed in the Tai O station at 10 o’clock the following morning. He was due to take the 3pm ferry launch back to Hong Kong. He was in the larger of the two dormitories, which had a gun rack at one end. There were seven policemen in the room, napping in their beds, but Teja Singh was the only one with a handkerchief over his face – a fact Achar Singh (B152) noticed when he returned after sentry duty. His shift – standing watch with a rifle under a tree at the back of the station, from where the coastline could easily be seen – had ended at 10am. Achar Singh put away his gun, took off his uniform and lay down on the only empty bed. He was woken at about 10.30am by the sound of what he thought were firecrackers – or perhaps it was gunshots, he couldn’t be sure.

In the barely 20 minutes since Achar Singh had nodded off, Teja Singh had taken a gun from the rack and headed for the charge room, where he knew he’d find Glendinning.

A fisherman saw what happened next. Wong Tai-lung was at the station to renew a permit for his boat and was waiting for the interpreter to arrive. Wong had been told to wait outside and, from his spot beside the window, he looked into the charge room and saw Teja Singh approach from the Indian quarters. The Sikh had a gun and was loading it as he entered the room. He raised his pistol and fired at Glendinning, shooting him in the chest. Wong saw Glendinning slumped over his desk, his head in his arms. As Wong watched in horror, Teja Singh fired a second shot, which hit Glendinning in the temple, killing him almost instantly. The fisherman ran across the verandah. Teja Singh levelled his gun at him, he said, but didn’t fire. Wong ran for his life, as had the Indian officers, when they heard the gunshots.

Nine bullets ended up in the metal shutters behind Glendinning and others pockmarked the walls. But the Western officer had not been alone in the charge room; Teja Singh fired at Daisy as she ran for cover, holding her young son. He narrowly missed her, but as she ran up the staircase to their apartment, a bullet hit a stair and a shard of wood flew up and pierced her eye. She and David should have been safe – they were, after all, in a police station – but no officer came to their rescue; they had fled.

The sergeant interpreter was on his way to the station at just after 10.30am, his usual start time, when he ran into a labourer who told him the news – Teja Singh had shot Glendinning. The interpreter called on the only people he could be sure would have weapons – the fishermen. He took a sampan over to a junk and was given four Winchester rifles and 400 rounds of ammunition.

Before proceeding to the station, he dispatched an officer to Castle Peak, to break the news to the chief of police, and asked villagers to have the local pawnshop fire a distress rocket. Then, with two fishermen as back-up, he went up the hill to the station. The three of them stopped outside. The interpreter fired some warning shots into the air but there was no response. He returned to the village to wait before seeing smoke billow from the station; it was on fire. Some time after that two more gunshots rang out.

SERGEANT J. PERKINS was on the No1 police launch when he heard four long blasts of the Tai O ferry’s horn, the signal for help. The launch reached Tai O about half an hour later, at 2.20pm, and, even before it docked, Perkins saw that the station was on fire. From the pier he could see Daisy on the balcony, waving for help.

The interpreter met Perkins at the pier and quickly explained the situation. They raced up the hill. The fire had engulfed much of the building and cut off Daisy’s escape route down the stairs. There was nowhere for her to go but the balcony. Unable to find a ladder, Perkins and his men grabbed some boxes from an outhouse and stacked them up until they could reach her. She held David out over the balcony, into the outstretched arms of an officer and down to safety. Then it was her turn. Having seen her husband gunned down in cold blood and been blinded in one eye, she would have been in shock as she was helped to the ground. Perkins had her escorted to the village by a local woman and then set about exploring the rest of the station.

The smoke from the fire was thick. In the Indian quarters, he found Teja Singh lying in his bed. He was dead; two self-inflicted gunshot wounds. His body was still warm; it had been four hours since Glendinning’s murder and, in that time, Teja Singh had written three letters. An Indian officer would find them tucked into a book that was lying in the grass beside the station. Written in Hindustani, the first two were addressed to the captain superintendent of police and claimed he had been falsely charged with theft and pointed the finger at the interpreter for having taken bribes from gamblers.

“[The interpreter] always gave much trouble to Sikhs. He was a bad man. Don’t arrest the others on my account.

“I have done it myself. It is no-one else’s crime; it is only between the European sergeant and myself. He gave me much trouble, so I killed him …” wrote Teja Singh.

The third letter, addressed to his sister, began: “I say to my sister with folded hands and bowed head [to her feet] accept my greetings Sister, don’t be anxious because my death will give you much pain indeed, don’t be anxious.” And concludes: “If anyone says Teja Singh, B18, has done injustice it is not so; there is no injustice.”

Perkins found Glendinning at his desk in the charge room. He was sitting up, his head flopped forward. The reports he’d been working on were spread across the table, covered in blood. Perkins noticed, too, that the safe was open and the contents were “dishevelled”, according to the official report.

A few of the Indian officers had by now returned and were trying to save their kit from the fire. Perkins enlisted two of them as well as the interpreter and a couple of fishermen into carrying the two bodies to the pier. Glendinning’s body was put in a coffin, his killer’s onto a stretcher. At the pier, Perkins met Bishn Singh (B145), the officer who had been on sentry duty when the shooting started – the senior officer wasn’t impressed that the junior had fled his post.

Daisy and her son returned to Hong Kong Island on the launch that carried the body of her 36-year-old husband.

Attempts were made to put out the fire that afternoon but by the time a small handpump had been brought from the village, the flames had taken hold. They burned all night and it wasn’t until the next morning, when the police launch returned, that the fire was extinguished. The damage was extensive – most of the roof would have to be repaired.

The day after his murder, Glendinning was laid to rest in the Hong Kong Cemetery, in Happy Valley. His coffin was draped in a Union flag and borne on a gun carriage. Walter Glendinning headed the long procession, which was accompanied by two police bands. Almost 100 years on, the colonial tone of the eulogy is striking.

“Crown Sergeant Glendinning held his post at a remote and backward spot, the only European in a large population reputed by those who know it to contain many evil elements. Few of us perhaps give much thought to the position of a man in such circumstances as these – solely responsible from hour to hour for British law and order in a part which pirates and other ill-doers haunt, with only Asiatic subordinates to assist him,” the pastor of the Union Church said.

Daisy didn’t attend the funeral. She was at the Matilda Hospital being treated for her injuries and would spend six weeks there. Her sister, Effie Walker, accompanied her and baby David back to Australia on the mail steamer Tango Maru, which arrived on November 3, 1918.

An inquest was held into Glendinning’s murder and the Indian officers came in for much criticism. At the end of July, the inspector general of police, E.D.C. Wolfe, serving as the coroner, demanded of Achar Singh: “Did you know the sergeant was married? Did you know his wife was in the station?” When Singh replied lamely that he did, the coroner demanded to know why he had done nothing to save her.

“I did not think of her at that moment,” said Singh. “I heard and saw many shots being fired.”

Wolfe didn’t let up, firing a volley of questions and getting one-word replies. The inspector general wanted to know why the officer hadn’t stuck around to find out what was happening, why he hadn’t gone to the charge room, why he hadn’t picked up a gun himself.

“Because I could not think of anything as I had just woken up from sleep,” replied Achar Singh.

Wolfe wasn’t going to let him off lightly: “You mean to tell me you did not know what to do? You were 16 years in the police force and the senior sergeant!”

The interpreter later testified that he’d found a hole in Teja Singh’s mattress, the insinuation being that the Indian had used this as a hiding place for his booty. The interpreter also said he checked the charge room safe and found HK$100 missing, though this was never accounted for.

The jury concluded that Teja Singh was of sound mind when he shot Glendinning and therefore guilty of murder. For his part, Achar Singh was fined HK$25 in default of one week of hard labour and dismissed from the force, but allowed half his pension. Bishn Singh, who was armed and on sentry duty at the time of the murder, came in for the harshest criticism. Although he couldn’t have saved Glendinning, he could have helped Daisy and David, prevented the station from being set on fire and perhaps stopped Teja Singh committing suicide. He was given three months hard labour and was dismissed without his pension. Another Indian policeman, Jhanda Singh, was given six weeks hard labour and was dismissed without his pension. The other eight Indian constables weren’t dismissed, but they were reduced to third-class officers and lost their good conduct badges.

Such was the shame and scandal, the local Sikh community sent a letter to the colonial secretary a month after Glendinning’s murder, expressing regret for the tragedy. Bishan Singh, the secretary of the Khalsa Diwan, the Sikh Temple, wrote: “Such cowardly conduct is against the Sikh teachings and every true Sikh should view this as a shameful act to the Sikh Character [sic], which only on such occasions a Sikh can prove his merits by handling this situation boldly.”

The jury made other recommendations – that at least two European officers be stationed at isolated outposts and that these stations all get telephones. They also requested that Daisy receive a pension and donation over and above the standard allowance. And she did until she remarried, in 1925.

Her second husband had been gassed in the first world war and died of ongoing complications 18 months after the wedding. Daisy married for a third time in 1929.

THE METAL SHUTTERS in the Tai O charge room were not replaced. The nine bullet holes were still there when Trimble visited with her husband and three children in 1978. Her father and mother, David and Audrey Glendinning, who had visited Tai O a few years earlier, had seen them, too.

In 2009, the Tai O station was listed as a Grade II historic building and the non-profit Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation was chosen to transform it into a boutique hotel.

In 2012, the Tai O Heritage Hotel was opened. Much of the station’s character and many of its stories have been preserved; the cannon are still in place on the hillside and the two cells have been re-appropriated – one as a small souvenir shop and the other as a store for left luggage. A small plaque on the wall at the back of the building, beneath the damaged shutters, points to the nine bullet holes and briefly details the 1918 incident.

“As children we were always told you shouldn’t throw stones because that was how you could lose your eye, like my grandmother,” says Trimble.

She now knows the truth.

When she visited the station, she says, she felt a deep sadness at the thought of what had taken place there. It was only after her grandmother’s death, in 1976, that her father had felt able to talk about the incident. His memories are now muddled but Trimble suspects that something of that traumatic day has always stayed with David Glendinning.

“My father doesn’t like heights and he talks about not liking looking over verandahs and stuff like that – whether that’s something from then or not I’m not sure,” says Trimble.

Kate Whitehead is the author of Hong Kong Murders (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Original link: SCMP


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About author

Kate Whitehead

Kate Whitehead is a Hongkonger and has made the city her home since she was eight. She got her first degree (BA English Lit) from Warwick University and her postgrad (MA English Lit) from Sussex University. She was on staff at the Hong Kong Standard and South China Morning Post and was the editor of Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine, Discovery.

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