Chan Yin-lam is seen in surveillance footage from September 19, 2019 released by the Hong Kong Design Institute.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

The crowd recoiled as tear gas canisters rained down on them and riot police advanced up the street, carrying shields and batons.

It was August 10, 2019. Protesters had gathered outside a police station on Nathan Road, a busy shopping street in Hong Kong that had become the latest battleground in the anti-government protests that would rock the city for more than six months.

The smoke billowed forth as experienced protesters pulled masks down over their faces and scrambled to put goggles on. Many bystanders were slower to react, and took lungfuls of the stinging, choking gas as they hurried to get out of the way.

Chan Yin-lam was one of the unlucky ones. In a video the 15-year-old posted to social media, she complained she had been out shopping and wasn’t taking part in the protest.

“I want to ask what did I do wrong?” she said into the camera, her eyes red and puffy. “I am very normal, why do I have to suffer this?”

Like many young Hong Kongers, Chan supported the protest movement and took part in many of the large marches that eventually led the government to withdraw the extradition bill with China that kicked off the unrest. But she was never a frontline participant, her mother testified later, and largely avoided the increasingly violent action that came to characterize the protests.

Had things worked out differently, she would likely not have played a central role in the unrest – one of many supporters who threw their weight behind the movement but avoided direct clashes with police.

Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters gathered outside a police station in the Tsim Sha Tsui district after taking part in a rally against a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong on August 10, 2019.

Six weeks later however, on the morning of September 22, Chan’s naked body was found floating in the sea. She had been dead for more than 48 hours.

The discovery sparked a maelstrom of media coverage and conspiracy theories. While police swiftly classified the case as a suicide, some in the protest movement claimed there were signs of foul play – and even accused authorities of being involved in a cover-up..

In the almost 12 months since she died, the controversy has not waned, fed by surveillance footage that seems to show almost all of Chan’s final movements, with just enough gaps to invite speculation and conjecture.

And far from being peripheral to the protest movement, Chan has been adopted as one of its martyrs, her face plastered over posters and flyers as other young people demanded justice on her behalf.

On August 11 this year, after almost two weeks of hearings, a Hong Kong jury ruled the cause of Chan’s death could not be ascertained.

What should have been a private tragedy for her family has become a matter of public debate over who is to be believed: the police or the protesters. Questions about mental health support in Hong Kong, and whether institutions Chan was in contact with had failed to help her, have fallen by the wayside.

Yet in a city divided over the government and its police force, her case is unlikely to be the last engulfed by conspiracy theories.

Protestors stand off against riot police Tsim Sha Tsui on August 10, 2019.

Breakdown in trust

Many news events, particularly those involving unexplained or confusing deaths, attract conspiracy theories.

What has made Hong Kong particularly vulnerable to these since the protests broke out last year is the way trust in authorities has collapsed among certain groups, and the political divide has grown, with both sides advancing competing narratives around various events.

“The government and police created a very ripe environment for conspiracy theories to flourish in,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of “City on Fire,” a book about the unrest. “Both the police and government gave accounts of events that were so clearly at odds with the objective experiences of people who witnessed it themselves or witnessed it online.”

Violent protests involving tear gas, petrol bombs and police charges can be confusing events to follow, even for those directly involved. Hong Kong’s unrest was extensively live streamed, but not everything was caught on camera – leaving knowledge gaps in which conspiracy theories could thrive.

Police have denied accusations of excessive use of force and rejected claims they were too quick to use tear gas and other weapons, pointing to the difficulty of controlling large, often chaotic protests over an extended period.

While allegations of brutality were consistently leveled at authorities in the months after the protests began in June 2019, a particular series of events sent public confidence in the police into a nose-dive. In late July, officers were accused of standing by while thugs attacked protesters at a subway station in the northern town of Yuen Long. The following month, videos showed officers violently storming a subway train at Prince Edward station, beating protesters and bystanders while they pleaded for help. Separately, officers also faced allegations of sexual assault from some female protesters, both during arrests and in police stations – accusations the force has consistently and strenuously denied.

Before Chan’s death, unfounded rumors had swirled that several people had died during the Prince Edward incident. While no bereaved families ever came forward, and there was no public record from any Hong Kong authorities to substantiate the claim, the theory soon became accepted fact for many protesters, and the station became a memorial covered in flowers.

One man whose disappearance around that time was linked to the incident finally emerged last month. In a video posted online, he said that he’d fled to the United Kingdom two weeks before the Prince Edward protests, fearing arrest.

“He did not come out to dispel the myth sooner because he did not want to help the police,” said Paul Yip, director of the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention at Hong Kong University. “It’s all very, very sad, to see this level of mistrust between the people and police.”

Dapiran blamed the Hong Kong authorities for the breakdown in trust, pointing to long delays in facing the public after key events – such as the Yuen Long attacks – and the way top officials pushed conspiracy theories around alleged foreign guidance of the protests.

“All of it speaks to the absence of leadership from the government,” he said. “When the authorities either abdicate their responsibility or disappear, as the government did for weeks last year, and/or there’s no trust in the authorities, this creates a vacuum.”

Chan is seen in surveillance footage from September 19, 2019. At some point during the evening, Chan took off her shoes and continued walking around the HKDI campus barefoot.

Conspiracy city

Chan’s body was discovered three weeks after the Prince Edward incident, as allegations of police sexual assault were spreading. As news emerged that she had taken part in some protests earlier in the summer, claims began to spread online – with no evidence – that officers might have assaulted or raped Chan, killed her, and thrown her body in the harbor.

Speculation about Chan’s death continued even after her mother publicly said she believed her daughter had taken her own life, and asked people to stop focusing on the case.

But rather than stop the conspiracy theories, Chan’s mother was engulfed by them. She said she was inundated with phone calls and online harassment, accused of being an actor or somehow in league with the police in covering up her own daughter’s murder.

“My personal information was released online, I am being harassed by calls in the middle of the night,” Chan’s mother said in an interview with Hong Kong broadcaster TVB last year. “I’ve lost my daughter, please stop brutalizing me. It’s too hard for us … Please leave our family alone. I want my daughter to rest in peace.”

Chan’s family could not be reached for this story. A lawyer representing Chan’s mother did not respond to a request for comment.

People fold paper cranes at the Hong Kong Design Institute as part of a memorial to Chan on October 17, 2019.

Yip, director of Hong Kong University’s Center for Suicide Research and Prevention, said “mistrust itself is very contagious, when you feel very strongly about a certain subject.”

In a city where everything was being split along political lines, with politicians, companies and celebrities cast as either “blue” (pro-police) or “yellow” (pro-protest), the decision to speak to TVB – seen by many as friendly to the government – poisoned Chan’s mother’s words for some observers.

“That interview rendered (her mother) immediately suspect to protesters and other Hong Kongers who identify as ‘yellow,’” said Sharon Yam, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and regular commentator on Hong Kong politics. In an increasingly paranoid environment, she added, “Hong Kongers who are already made skeptical might believe that Chan’s parents had been paid off as well by the state to lie about their daughter’s death.”

When she appeared outside the coroner’s court last month, Chan’s mother was again the target of abuse, with a crowd shouting at her and accusing her of being an actor. Police said two people, a 17-year-old boy and a 65-year-old woman, were arrested and charged with public disorder.

Yet Chan’s family members weren’t the only ones to face repercussions from the case.

When the Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), where Chan was a student, initially refused to release all surveillance footage from the night of her death, students vandalized the school, smashing windows and glass panels, breaking cameras, and spraying graffiti. Though HKDI eventually released more videos showing Chan’s movements, including when she appears to leave the campus, some claimed the school was actively involved in a cover-up, and even suggested the girl appearing in the videos was an actress.

People stand in silent tribute at the Hong Kong Design Institute. Behind them, broken windows can be seen, the result of protests over an alleged lack of transparency regarding Chan's last movements.

Warning signs

That HKDI surveillance footage perhaps more than anything else, is what focused media and public attention on Chan’s case.

The sight of Chan walking aimlessly around HKDI, across the harbor from Hong Kong Island, with the knowledge that it is among the last times she was seen alive, is haunting. It is hard not to look for signs of what she was thinking, of what is to come.

In 16 videos shot across almost 90 minutes on the evening of September 19, Chan – wearing a black tank top and baggy, black-and-white striped trousers – appeared to look confused or lost, but not overly distressed. Her short hair, dyed brown, is pulled back from her face, and she clasps her hands in front of her as she walks, once stopping and appearing to count on her fingers. She does not look at a phone or talk to anyone in the footage.

For over an hour, she can be seen pacing around the campus, waiting for elevators, walking around an outdoor area on the roof and through a canteen where other students are seen huddled over laptops or eating dinner. At some point, she ditches her bag and then her shoes, continuing barefoot.

At around 7 p.m., Chan appears to leave campus. A witness at the inquest into her death testified to seeing her walking into a nearby subway station, but she didn’t go through the ticket gate. What happened between that time and when her body was discovered three days later remains unknown.

But while that gap in the official record has obsessed many observers, the full story of Chan’s death begins much earlier.

Evidence introduced during the inquest on August 11 painted a picture of an increasingly disturbed young woman who, despite multiple opportunities, appears to have slipped through the cracks when it comes to getting her the help she needed.

Before her death, Chan lived with her grandfather, but was in close contact with her mother, who said the pair were “like sisters.” She was not in contact with her father, who was a drug addict and used to beat her, the court heard.

Once a high-achieving student, from early 2019, Chan began struggling educationally, and was cycled through a number of schools in quick succession. Her grades suffered and she got into arguments with other students.

She began going missing for extended periods of time, the court heard, and in March 2019 she got into a confrontation with police, after which she was placed in a government-run juvenile home. There, she attempted to strangle herself with a plastic bag and banged her head against the wall, the court heard, forcing staff to send her to hospital.

This was one of the first of Chan’s many interactions with medical professionals, according to evidence provided to the court. She told a doctor she sometimes heard voices, but denied having tried to kill herself. The doctor examining her felt she might be suffering from acute stress disorder, but was unable to get her to agree to a follow-up examination. Social workers responsible for her, however, dismissed the incident as an attempt to get away from the juvenile home – an opinion Chan solidified by slipping away from them outside the hospital and disappearing for several weeks, the court heard.

In May, Chan reemerged and expressed a desire to turn her life around. She wanted to enroll in a design course at HKDI and began looking into part-time work. As protests kicked off that summer, Chan took part but remained on the periphery, her mother told the inquest.

Around this time, the court heard, she also began corresponding with a boy, surnamed Wu, who was being held in the Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, on Lantau Island in western Hong Kong. She later described him as her boyfriend and would go to visit him alongside Wu’s father, the court heard.

Two days after she was tear gassed in Tsim Sha Tsui, on August 12, police were called to a subway station on Lantau, where Chan was screaming and shouting, in severe distress, saying she had lost her phone and needed to contact her boyfriend’s father. Police said she refused help from officers, who then left.

Eventually, Wu’s father arrived at the station, and took Chan to a nearby restaurant. There, she continued to act strangely, talking to people on other tables and ordering food that wasn’t on the menu. After he dropped her off, she said she was going home, but instead returned to the correctional institution where Wu was held, the court heard.

She spent the night sleeping outside the building, and attempted to enter in the morning, getting into a confrontation with staff that resulted in her being handcuffed and taken to a nearby police station.

During a subsequent examination with a doctor, Chan again reported hearing voices, and became agitated. She was sent back to the juvenile home, where she again began self-harming, destroying her room and banging her head against a wall, the court heard. She was then transferred to Castle Peak Hospital, a mental health facility, where staff said they had trouble controlling her and had to restrain her at one point.

Chan refused to return to the juvenile home, saying she heard voices when she was there, and complained of not sleeping. A doctor gave her a tranquilizer, but dismissed her complaints as signs of her “being rebellious,” the court heard.

This would be the last chance for an intervention that might have saved Chan’s life.

Following the inquest, jurors recommended the Hospital Authority review how follow-ups are conducted after psychiatric consultations with juvenile patients.

Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department also did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Castle Peak Hospital said it had “noted the verdict of the Coroner” and would review “the recommendations made by the jury.”

Chan walks through the canteen at the Hong Kong Design Institute. This was one of the last times she was seen alive.

Final day

Towards the end of August and into September, Chan’s behavior was mostly normal, the court heard. She returned home and soon enrolled at HKDI, where she made friends and appeared to be enjoying her classes.

Yet on September 19, the situation again took a turn for the worse. At 3 a.m., her grandfather testified at court, he was woken by the sound of Chan tidying her room. She said she was hearing voices and couldn’t sleep. Later that day, at HKDI, she took off her shoes and lay down on the floor during class, using a backpack as a pillow, the court heard.

After class, Chan told friends she wanted to tidy her locker. She spent almost half an hour doing so, before friends persuaded her to leave with them. When they got on the train at Tiu Keng Leng station, Chan said she would return to the school later to continue tidying. She refused to take a seat on the subway, instead sitting on the floor.

Eventually, Chan left her friends, saying she was heading home. Instead she returned to HKDI, where she would spent the last hours of her life, before heading towards a nearby waterfront park, evidence presented at the inquest showed.

What exactly happened next is unclear, the crucial gap in surveillance and witness testimony that left the jury ultimately unable to reach a verdict.

During the inquest, forensic psychiatrist Robyn Ho said Chan’s behavior in the time leading up to her death demonstrated signs of a potential psychotic break. Ho’s assessment would appear to be supported by Chan’s complaints of hearing voices, her inability to sleep – which also could have been a contributing factor – and her obsession with tidiness.

The state of decomposition meant that ascertaining the cause of Chan’s death was impossible. But pathologist Garrick Li, who performed the autopsy on Chan, said that while he could not be sure, there was a “distinct possibility” that she had drowned.

Evidence was introduced at the inquest that Chan was naked when she entered the water, an interpretation the jury agreed with in its verdict. A strong swimmer, according to court testimony, it seems unlikely that she would choose this method to kill herself, but, while in the midst of a psychotic episode, on a hot summer night, it is not beyond belief that she might have decided to go for a swim, with fatal consequences.

In instructing the jury, coroner David Ko ruled out both suicide and “unlawful killing” as the potential causes of Chan’s death, saying there was insufficient evidence for either verdict beyond a reasonable doubt, the legal standard. When her body was discovered, it showed no signs of obvious bruising or injury, and no evidence of sexual assault or rape, though pathologists admitted that such evidence might have disappeared during her time in the water.

Ko told the jury to consider whether Chan might have died as a result of an accident, or reach an open verdict, essentially an admission that the truth cannot be fully ascertained. In doing so, the jury cited insufficient forensic evidence about exactly how Chan had died, and whether a mental disorder or break had caused her death.

A diatom test, which compares the levels of a certain type of microalgae in the water and a victim’s lungs and blood, might have shown that she drowned, but such testing is not conducted in Hong Kong. The jury recommended that diatom tests be used in future suspected drowning cases.

Chan waits for an elevator at the Hong Kong Design Institute on September 19. She spent almost 90 minutes walking around the campus that evening.

Tragic consequences

Taken alone, Chan’s death is a tragedy, of a young woman demonstrating signs of mental distress, who might have been saved had she received the right help at the right time.

To date, the conspiracies surrounding Chan’s death have largely obscured important questions of whether various authority figures and institutions with whom she interacted, from doctors to social workers, failed to help her or even recognize that she was in need of help. Her death also points to wider issues about mental health provisions in Hong Kong, particularly for young people.

Since 2015, when a string of youth suicides led to public demands for action, the government has increased funding for mental health support. However experts warn that gaps remain, and social stigma around acknowledging mental illness may prevent people from seeking help.

Political unrest has exacerbated the burdens facing young people in Hong Kong, who already face intense pressure to succeed at school, along with the reality of a shrinking job market and extortionate housing that could leave them struggling to ever get on the ladder.

For some young people, said Yip, the HKU expert, the protest movement may have saved their lives, providing the sense of community and solidarity that can be needed when someone is at their most vulnerable.

But he was deeply concerned at the way Chan and several other deaths linked to the movement have been turned into so-called “martyrs,” something he said risked inspiring copycats – even when the person may not have intentionally killed themselves.

“Every suicide death for us is a very tragic case, we have to deal with them very carefully, not sensationalize them, not try and glorify them,” he said.

“When people feel very helpless they might think if I die I can stir up so much emotion and energy, and give fuel to the (protest) movement itself, that is very tempting.”

He partially blamed the long delay between Chan’s death and it being investigated by the coroner for giving space for conspiracies to spread. And he was concerned that future cases in which confusion or lack of evidence around how someone died could be seized upon in a similar way.

Yam, the University of Kentucky professor, said “while mental illness, especially depression, anxiety, and PTSD, has become more prevalent among Hong Kongers, it continues to be stigmatized.”

“This stigma, coupled with the public’s propensity for anti-government conspiracy theories, may result in a significant public health crisis in Hong Kong, where people are unable to access mental health support,” she added, given that most support is provided by the government or government-linked bodies.

She ultimately tied the issue back to the protests, particularly the “lack of police accountability and transparency.”

And this lack of trust is spilling out far beyond the police, casting a pall over any action by the government, no matter how much officials insist that their action is in the public interest.

When the authorities announced voluntary mass testing for the coronavirus this month, some saw it as a way to gather samples of citizens’ DNA, or a sop to Beijing, which sent medical staff to help out with the drive. An initial delay in closing Hong Kong’s border with mainland China in the early months of the pandemic was also seen as politically charged, even as countries around the world struggled to react in time.

In summing up the case, the judge in Chan’s inquest expressed sorrow for her family, particularly the way her mother had been treated. Before her death, he said, Chan had finally been able to study what she wanted, and was kind to her friends and family.

“Although there were disputes, I believe (Chan) treated you well,” the judge told her mother, adding he hoped the family would find a way to return to normal in time.

As Chan’s case shows, however, Hong Kong itself may find such normality harder to come by.

Journalist Phoebe Lai contributed reporting.