The former Hong Kong executioner and Royal Navy seaman used to patrol Kennedy Town as a naval shipman. John visited theDesk to share stories of his amazing life and the changes he’s experienced in the Kennedy Town neighbourhood. Join us on a trip to Hong Kong’s darker side.
The gentleman executioner
Have you ever met an executioner? No? We at theDesk haven’t either. That is until John Fleming walked into our building.
The former British Royal Navy seaman used to patrol the waters off of Kennedy Town. He greets us like a true gentleman before he reveals his new autobiography ‘The Hangman and his Six Wives’.
And takes us through his grisly past as Hong Kong’s executioner.
Fleming, originally from the UK, joined Hong Kong’s prison service on February 11, 1959, after serving in the navy. First, he was an officer at Stanley Prison. But he rose up the ladder quickly and was assigned to the role of executioner – or ‘hangman’.
The first execution he witnessed was a man who’d murdered his wife in a rage. Fleming says he remembers seeing ‘his arms and legs jerking up and down’. “The superintendent said it was his nerves working like a chicken,” says Fleming, “but later I was told his face had turned blue. That doesn’t happen when your neck breaks. That happens when you’re strangled.”
“I’m a firm believer that if you kill somebody, you should face the punishment and die too.”
Despite this stomach-turning introduction to the role, Fleming became one of Hong Kong’s executioners; a position he kept until his retirement 19 years later.
Executions and floggings
Before carrying out his first execution, he recalls the condemned man telling him ‘don’t be nervous’. He says, “I thought to myself at that moment, I’m not nervous. I’m not the one who’s about to die now.”
In the 60s and 70s, Fleming was also a ‘flogger’; a person who whips prisoners.
“The prisoner is bent over. His or her hands and legs are spread and tied. And then they’re whipped as punishment. I remember when one prisoner released his bowels during this process. It was horrible, but someone had to do this job.”
Facing the punishment
Fleming worked as an executioner in several prisons in Hong Kong during his 19 years in the service.
He firmly believed – and still believes – in capital punishment. In his opinion, many of the prisoners had enjoyed a carefree life after committing grave crimes. Acts which took the lives of innocent people in Hong Kong.
He states, “I’m a firm believer that if you kill somebody, you should face the punishment and die too.”
When capital punishment was abolished in Hong Kong in 1993, Fleming was not surprised.
“Although it was officially abolished then, we had stopped performing executions in 1967,” he says. “That was the same year the United Kingdom abolished the law.”
Prisoners who were given the death penalty between 1967 and 1993 avoided execution by appealing to the Privy Council in the UK.
Sailing the seas
Before his job as executioner, Fleming was a Royal Navy man. He joined up in 1948 at the age of 15 years old.
He envisioned it as a ‘stable career’ that would provide him with ‘food, shelter and a salary’. Initially, he was based in Great Britain, but in 1952 he was drafted to the Hong Kong Flotilla.
He was assigned to ML 1323, a motor launch on loan from the Royal Australian Navy to British Royal Navy. The boat had been attacked during the ‘Pearl River Incident’ on September 9, 1953; a Chinese gunboat opened fire at the launch, killing seven people.
Fleming was lucky. He’d been reassigned six months before the incident. He says, “The chef on board got into a conflict with me. I wouldn’t lend him my uniform so at around 1 am he came and picked a fight.”
When they returned to Tamar, the two men were ordered to be separated. It was Fleming who was reassigned. “The chef was a good cook, and they wanted him to stay on board,” he explains.
Fleming recalls being furious with the transfer. But after the deadly attack on the boat, and the death of his former shipmen, he realised the fight had saved his life.
Every year on September 9, Fleming pays his respects to the men who lost their lives on ML 1323 at the Hong Kong Cemetery.
Hong Kong life
More than 20 years since the Handover, Fleming tells us all what it was like as the clock struck midnight in our city on the big day in 1997.
He was in Chai Wan, hoping to get a glimpse of Prince Charles as he sailed past. “I went down to the waterfront at midnight,” he recalls.
“There were only about seven of us, including my sister and brother-in-law.” Sadly for him, Her Majesty’s Yacht only paused briefly in the Chai Wan end of the harbour to let an officer off.
“There was a boy, no older than the age of 10 next to me,” says Fleming. “He waved and said ‘goodbye Crown Prince’ to the leaving boat.”
When talks for the handover began, Fleming wondered if capital punishment would be restored when China took over. After all, even today there’s a death penalty in the Mainland. Several executions of drug traffickers reportedly took place in early 2017.
But the same law has not been reintroduced in Hong Kong. Fleming says: “Well, I didn’t think Hong Kong would change much anyways. At least not overnight.”
After living in Hong Kong for more than 60 years, Fleming has watched the city develop under British control and grow under Chinese rule. In his time, the population has exploded from two million people to more than seven million in that time. Locally, he’s seen Kennedy Town Praya once filled with rickshaws and now Rolls Royces.
“Hong Kong is no longer the Pearl of the Orient,” he says. “The harbour has been reclaimed to such an extent that it’s now just a river separating Hong Kong Island from Kowloon. I was lucky to have lived here when we had blue skies and empty roads.”
Today, the 84-year-old is a full-time parent. He lives in the city with his 14-year-old son, who he had with his sixth wife. He dedicates himself to caring for his son and building a bond with him.
As Fleming walks into our three-storey building on Queen’s Road West, he tells us, “I remember there used to be a little beach around here.”
“It used to face Green Island. I remember it clearly because I used to cruise past it while I was in the navy. One time, we had a chase with the Communists.”
On a cold night, Fleming remembers a suspicious speedboat moored up in Kennedy Town harbour. It was attempting to smuggle flammable kerosene into China during a shortage.
“We chased the boat,” he says, “and to increase speed, our driver threw out containers filled with gallons of kerosene into the water. They floated onto the beach. People rushed towards the containers to keep them for themselves. So we sped towards shore and fired our guns down into the water. Bang! Bang! Bang! That frightened them away.”
A rich life
John Fleming life is indeed colourful. Now 84 years old, Fleming’s eyes have seen remarkable changes to the city at all levels.
We can be thankful Hong Kong no longer has the death penalty. And shiver when we remember that men like Fleming once had to do the grisly job.
Read more about John’s colourful life in his autobiography ‘The Hangman and his Six Wives’.For more details and ordering, email him at email@example.com
Or you could quickly pop into theDesk and flick through our copy. But don’t take it from us. ‘Til death do us part …’