The Death of a 15 year-old (Part 1): Did the 11-day Trial Dig Out the Truth about the Death of Chan Yin-lam?

‘Chan Yin-lam, the victim, was only 15 years old when she died. When her dead body was found, it was all naked, which is deeply saddening and disturbing.’
On 11 September 2020, on the 12th day of the coroner’s inquest on Chan’s death, the coroner, Ko Wai-hung, guided the jury. Earlier, the evidence was presented at the coroner’s inquest,and it was expected that the jury will discuss the case this afternoon.
Chan Yin-lam, who studied design at the Hong Kong Design Institute, was found dead on 22 September in the sea opposite Devil’s Peak at Tseung Kwan O.
Since the corpse was found naked, and as there were reports that she was an agile swimmer and diver, and that she was involved in anti-legislation movements, her death triggered a lot of speculation. In the past year, Chan was seen as one of the people sacrificed to the cause.
Although the police already clarified at a press conference, denying that Chan was arrested in the anti-legislation protests. But in the midst of social controversies against police aggression, it was widely rumoured that Chan was killed by the police and her body was then discarded. Later, in an interview with TVB, her mother claimed that her daughter committed suicide, and denied that her daughter was involved in anti-legislation protests.
However, her claim only served to deepen suspicion among the public, and there were rumours that Chan’s mother was already murdered, and that the interviewee was simply someone pretending to be her mother.
Throughout the two weeks of coroner’s hearing, Chan’s family and boyfriend, social workers, the forensic, as well as the marine police who found the body, came to the hearing to testify, and a total of 32 witnesses were called, while 32 items were presented to the court as evidence.
By piercing together different information sources such as Chan’s encounters before her death, her mental states, her whereabouts beforehand, the court tried to come to a conclusion on the cause of her death.
The coroner’s hearing is there to find out about the truth and the cause of death, and to come to a conclusion. But they cannot intervene in the case of a civil or criminal allegation, as these should be handled by other courts.’
Over the past year, how much evidence has been presented at the court? And how much mystery remains unresolved?
Some Hong Kongers went to set up an altar for Chan
* * *
Over the past year, there has been a rumour on the Internet that the person interviewed by TVB who claimed that her daughter committed suicide, is actually not Chan’s mother. According to that rumour, Chan’s mother has either disappeared or died. Therefore, on the first day of the court hearing, Ho Pui-yee’s appearance stirred up commotion in the community, and she was even disturbed and shouted at by the others.
Tsang Hoi-kei, the coroner’s hearing chief, invited Ho—as a first-hand witness— to reconfirm Chan Yin-lam’s birth certificate and other documents to do with the missing person. During the court trial, other witnesses such as Tong Wing-yan, the social worker for Chan’s case; Wong Yin-lai, the assistant officer at the girls’ home, and expert witness, Ma Shuen-lap, etc. were invited to identify the persons involved. Many identified Ho as Chan’s mother during the trial.
To clarify things, Wai Wing-kong, the government chemist, carried out DNA tests to reconfirm the mother-daughter relationship between Ho and Chan. According to Wai, the DNA sample taken from Chan’s liver last year, matched the swap taken from Ho, and so it proved that the two had matching DNA samples. There is therefore strong evidence to prove their relationship. When bearing his witness in the case, Ma admitted that he was the witness present when the DNA sample was taken.
On 24 August 2020, on the first day of the coroner’s inquest, Ho Yun-loi (Chan’s grandfather), Ho Pui-Yee (Chan’s mother) and Chan Chi-kwan (her cousin) went to testify.
During the hearing, Ho explained Chan’s family background. In her recollections, she broke down and cried several times. According to Ho, she gave birth outside marriage in 2004. At first, the three of them lived together. When Chan was three years old, she left her partner because of his drug addiction and violence. Subsequently, they moved to Ho’s father’s home in Yuen Long and lived there temporarily. Later, Chan was taken care of by her grandfather, while Ho moved elsewhere. Since then, the mother and daughter would only meet once a week. Ho explained that, in other people’s eyes, the two of them looked like sisters. Although sometimes they would argue because of Chan’s refusal to attend school, Chan would often made it up and they maintained harmonious relationship despite these quarrels.
One recent speculation has to do with the fact that, in her interview with TVB last October, Ho declared that her daughter committed suicide and was not murdered, because her daughter revealed that she could hear a man’s voice since August. This led to her suspicion that her daughter was mentally disturbed. However, some involved in the social movement criticised her for jumping to a conclusion without much evidence, and it seems most unusual for a mother to think that way.
However, in the hearing, Ho did not leap to the conclusion that her daughter committed suicide. On the contrary, she insisted that her daughter became much calmer and more easygoing after she left the girls’ home in September, as Chan was keen to turn over a new leaf and to study hard. She was also determined to walk away from some bad influences. Ho also emphasised that, a few days before Chan’s disappearance, she was still in touch with her daughter, and the latter appeared happy and caring, and did not mention anything suicidal nor a desire to do harm to herself.
In her testimony, Ho said that although Chan tried to strangle herself with a plastic bag in the girls’ home back in March, she learnt from her later correspondences with her daughter that Chan was trying to pretend to kill herself, and so it is not a case of suicidal inclination. From what she said, it seems that Ho failed to understand Chan’s mysterious death.
Chan Yin-lam’s Life
16 July 2004
Ho Pui-Yee gave birth to Chan Yin-lam in Tuen Mun Hospital.
2007
Ho Pui-Yee left her partner. Together with her daughter Chan Yin-lam, she moved to live with her own father in Yuen Long.
2017-18
Chan Yin-lam learnt diving for a month when she was in form one. Later, she had to give up diving because of leg injury. She tried to run away from home and was later reported missing. Later, she was admitted into a girls’ home for a period.
2018
Tong Wing-yan, a social worker, began to follow the case of Chan Yin-lam.
March 2019
After she ran away from home, Chan was charged and admitted into the girls’ home for the fourth time. She was mentally unstable and tried to strangle herself with a plastic bag, but was sent to hospital.
May 2019
Chan was found by the police, and was admitted to the girls’ home again. Later, she told her mother and the social worker that she made a living from working as a bar girl.
10 August 2019
She ran away from home after her quarrel with her mother and her uncle.
11 August 2019
She was hit by a teargas when she was on her way to buy a cake in Tsim Sha Tsui. Later, she went to Kowloon Bay to meet a male friend, and took marijuana.
13 August 2019
She allegedly kicked a female police officer in Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, and was arrested by the police for attacking the police. Later, she was admitted once again into a girls’ home
12 September 2019
Allowed to bail out and to return to live with her maternal grandfather.
16 September 2019
Attended her first day of school at the Design Institute.
19 September 2019
The last day she was seen in public.
22 September 2019
Some people found her dead body floating on the sea opposite Devil's Peak in Tseung Kwan O.
In October last year, the school released 16 video clips from the CCTV, showing a girl who looked like Chan lingering on the campus. In some of these film clips, the girl was seen wearing black shoes and was holding some item. Strangely, in some of these clips, the girl could be seen with bare feet and did not hold anything. When these clips were released, some people suspected that some of the CCTV film clips did not actually feature Chan. It could be that someone else was pretending to be Chan and that these clips were created to disguise Chan’s actual whereabouts.
In October 2019, Hong Kong Design Institute revealed some CCTV film clips, which showed that Chan could be seen lingering on the campus around 6pm on 19 September, which was the last day she was seen before reported missing.
In October 2019, the Hong Kong Design Institute revealed some CCTV footage, showing that Chan was seen lingering around on campus at around 6pm on 19 September, the last time she was seen publicly.
Chan’s route at the Hong Kong Design Institute
At the hearing on 28 August, the court revealed a 30-minute CCTV film clip that was handled by the police. The clip revealed that Chan was seen arriving at the campus at around 5.47pm on 19 September 2019, and stayed there until nearly 7pm. On that day, her hair was tied up into a bun or a short ponytail, and she was seen wearing a black sleeveless top, loosely-fitted trousers and black shoes. However, when she left the campus, she was shown as bare feet.
The staff at the institute claimed that the timing of the CCTV can have a time lapse of several minutes compared to the actual time, and so could only be used as a reference. According to the CCTV footage, Chan was seen on the 9th floor of the school from 5.47pm to 5.54pm on that day. At that time, she was seen with a piece of black rope around her neck, and she was holding a white bag in her hand as well as a few pieces of paper. (The below were the timings revealed on the CCTV, and so could be different from the actual timing of the events).

Hong Kong

Design Institute

17:54

Li Wai Lee

Building 9/F

17:49

Li Wai Lee

Building G/F

17:47

Entered the school

Hong Kong

Design Institute

17:54

Li Wai Lee

Building 9/F

17:49

Li Wai Lee

Building G/F

17:47

Entered the school

However, until 6.13pm, when she appeared on the second floor on block B, the black rope and other items she had with her earlier could no longer be seen. Some officers at the institute stated that, around 7-8pm that evening, someone picked up Chan’s items on the second floor inside the school. These items included her personal identification, some leaflets published by the Hong Kong Youth Federation about cocaine, and a piece of black rope with a key attached. However, the court never provided any CCTV clips that explained where or how Chan discarded these items.

It was infered that Chan lost her shoes when she was on the 10th floor.

18:31

18:27

18:30

18:28

18:13

18:10

18:12

18:13

18:11

Around 7 or 8 p.m. on the same evening, someone picked up Chan’s personal belongings on the second floor podium.

It was infered that Chan lost her shoes when she was on the 10th floor.

18:31

18:27

18:30

18:28

18:13

18:10

18:12

18:13

18:11

Around 7 or 8 p.m. on the same evening, someone picked up Chan’s personal belongings on the second floor podium.

As far as her shoes are concerned, the footage revealed that she was wearing black shoes when she was at the podium garden on the 9th floor around 6pm. Later, she went to the 10th floor by stairs, and was suspected to have lost her shoes on the 10th floor. When she was captured by the CCTV later, Chan was seen as not wearing shoes anymore as she went up to the 11th floor via the staircase. The CCTV footage did not indicate when she took off her shoes.
According to the footage, Chan tried to open the door on the 11th floor to go to the rooftop, but she failed and returned to the podium garden on the 9th floor without wearing any shoes. There was also footage that revealed Chan holding a yellow sign when she went past the footbridge between Li Wai Lee Building and Block B, and placing the yellow sign in the middle of the footbridge path. Later, Chan was seen on the same floor as she tried to press the elevator button three times, but she did not take the lift.
According to Lee Ho-kit, the police officer, they asked the cleaning staff whether they picked up Chan’s shoes, but the cleaning staff had not seen her shoes.

18:36

On the 11/F, Chan tried to open the door to the rooftop.

18:47

Chan moved a yellow sign to the middle of a corridor.

18:42

18:36

18:47

Chan pressed the elevator button three times before departing.

18:54

Escalator (nicknamed

stairway to heaven”)

18:59

Departed the school

18:36

On the 11/F, Chan tried to open the door to the rooftop.

18:42

18:47

Chan moved a yellow sign to the middle of a corridor.

18:36

18:47

Chan pressed the elevator button three times before departing.

18:54

Escalator (nicknamed “staiwary to heaven”)

18:59

Departed the school

Last year, some media interviewed Chan’s friends, who claimed that Chan took part in several protests. There were also footage online that were apparently self-produced footages in which Chan indicated her support for the protests after getting hurt by the tear gas. There were also online sources revealing that Chan is an administrator of a telegram group and an active participant of the movement. However, Kong Wing-cheung, the then Chief Superintendent of the Police Community Relations Division, pointed out at the press conference on 11th October that Chan was not arrested because of anti-legislation activities.
Chan’s boyfriend, Ng Shiu-kong, is now serving his sentence at the Tong Fuk Correctional Services Institute. Ng Kam-hung, his father, revealed that he once saw Chan handing out leaflets with other protestors in Tung Chung at around 7pm on 12 August 2019. He recalled that she indicated support to the protestors, but at that time, Ng felt that Chan did not seem to know the other people there that much, as they did not seem to be friends.
According to Ng Shiu-kong, Chan told him that normal citizens were injured by the police. But back then, Ng indicated that he did not like to talk about these topics. Therefore, they did not talk any further about it. Chiu Kwan-yee, a classmate, also indicated that Chan had talked about the social movement with her, but because Chiu was not keen to talk about it, she did not take it to heart.
Tong Wing-yan, the social worker, indicated that Chan was involved in the social movement from June to August last year. According to Tong, Chan was keen to help the students but did not want to be in the front line. Also, as Chan did not spend too much time on it, she was not seen as a core supporter. Tong pointed out that, on 11 August 2019, Chan went to Tsim Sha Tsui to buy a cake to celebrate her cousin’s birthday, and was hurt by the teargas. On that day, her cousin pointed out that there were such footage uploaded on Instagram. At that time, Chan’s cousin was also in Tsim Sha Tsui, but she could not find out where Chan was.
One of the biggest mysteries about Chan’s death is that Chan’s friend told Apple Daily that Chan was an agile swimmer and in the diving team, and had won swimming competitions. It becomes suspicious why she—such an agile swimmer—was found floating on the sea.
According to Chan’s mother, Chan learnt to swim by herself, and the two of them went to swimming pool together. As early as in Form One, Chan took a course on diving, but later she stopped diving because of a leg injury. After her leg injury, Chan became increasingly rebellious, and wanted to quit school, not to mention running away from home several times. Tong Wing-yan, the social worker, said that Chan already stopped diving when she got to know Chan. However, Chan would still go to swim with her friends from time to time. The coroner, Ko Wai-hung, asked the forensic (Lee Yu-wah) whether a swimmer would choose to commit suicide by jumping into the sea. Lee said that it is quite unlikely.
Lee—who is the forensic responsible for the autopsy—testified that the dead body was in its beginning or interim stage of decay when found, with signs of bloating ,, while various parts of the body already turned red and green. Moreover, because it was in the water for a long time, the body already showed signs of wrinkled skin or even shedding. The findings of the anatomy indicated that the victim’s left and right side of chest contained some 550ml and 50ml of deep red corrosive liquid. Part of it could be the water released from the decayed lungs. Also some 10ml of powder-like liquid was found in the stomach. Lee said that there were no signs of fatal blows on the body. There was also no sign of medication or drug intake, and no evidence that the victim was drugged to death by chemicals such as chloroform.
Therefore, Lee concluded that the causes of death are uncertain, but given the environmental evidences, it is possible to derive that the victim was drowned. Lee also estimated that the time of Chan’s death was within the same day of 19 September, i.e. the day she went missing.
Autopsy report
22 September 2019: the dead body was found
160cm height
55kg
Body was found naked, with signs of early and moderate decay
With blood and water leaking out from the body, wrinkled skin, and so it was estimated that the body was suspended in water for one to two days.
No fatal blows nor evidence of ill-health
No drugs or medication found in the body
Cause of death: uncertain
Findings on various parts of the body

Throat

No bone fractures

in the throat and

cartilage

Head

No bone fractures on

the skull; no haemor

rhage in the brain

Heart

Normal

Right chest

Right lung weighed 281g

Right chest contained

50ml fluid

Left chest

Left lung weighed 347g

Left chest contained

550ml fluid

Stomach

Contained 10ml

starch-like liquid

Signs of decay in the

lungs, pancreas, liver,

adrenaline, thyroid

and bronchi

Private parts

No injuries

No foreign DNA found

Nails

No fabric found

Blood sample matched

the victim’s DNA

Inner right shank

A 4-inch long, 2-inch

wide scratch found

Head

No bone fractures on the skull; no haemorrhage in the brain

Throat

No bone fractures in the throat and cartilage

Heart

Normal

Right chest

Right lung weighed 281g

Right chest contained 50ml liquid

Left chest

Left lung weighed 347g

Left chest contained 550ml liquid

Stomach

Contained

10 ml of starch-like liquid

Signs of decay in the lungs, pancreas, liver, adrenaline, thyroid and bronchi

Nails

No fabric found

Blood sample matched the victim’s DNA

Private parts

No injuries

No foreign DNA found

Inner right shank

A 4-inch long, 2-inch wide scratch found

However, Ma Suen-lap, a veteran forensic who appeared as an expert witness, remarked that those who died from drowning tend to have bloated lungs because of water inhalation, which would lead to the increase of weight of the lungs to 1000g, and the distribution of water across the lungs should be similar, and that there should be signs of water trapped in the stomach. However, there was a discrepancy in the amount of water across Chan’s lungs, and that the lungs were not particularly heavy, while the stomach did not have much water trapped in it. He felt that it is unusual. However, he also said that for some people with sensitive throats, their throats would contract once they get into water. This could mean that water will not enter the lungs and stomach excessively.
Ma pointed out that, the dissection of the body could not verify the cause of Chan’s death. There was no evidence that she was murdered or that she committed suicide. Ma agreed that they could not establish her cause of death, and that there was no proof that she drowned.
However, the fact that she was stripped naked when her body was found, is very unsettling. Ma pointed out that, even though some loose-fitting clothes could be swept away by the waves, it would be difficult to explain why the tight-fitting underwear was also missing.
Another point Ma raised was that one way of finding out if a person got drowned is to analyse the seaweed present in the victim’s lungs and blood, and to compare those with the seaweeds in the sea where the dead body was found. In this way, they could find out if the victim was still breathing or with blood circulation when he or she plunged into the water.
However, Lee claimed that the city’s water pollution made it difficult to conducts tests of the seaweeds, and so the forensic had stopped using this test since 2015.
On September 2, 2020, Ma Suen-lap, a veteran forensic who appeared as an expert witness. Ma pointed out that autopsy could not verify the cause of Chan’s death.
Combining all the evidence, Chan was last seen on 19 September 2019, and so her state of mind on that day and her whereabouts became key questions for investigation.
Other than the taxi driver, Chow Tai-loi, who brought Chan to Lohas Park, her classmate, Chiu Kwan-yee, also saw her on the same day, and was the 13th witness in the hearing. Chiu said that on that day, Chan went to her locker once after school, and took away everything from her locker. At that time, Chan said that she would return a bit later to tidy up. When Chiu asked her why Chan could not come back the next day to tidy up, Chan insisted that she would return to school later in the evening.
Later, together with another classmate, Nia, Chiu and Chan went to take the MTR to leave Rennie’s Mill. Chiu said that Chan—who lived in Yuen Long— should change at Mei Foo, but she didn’t, and mentioned to Nia that she needed to go to Tsuen Wan to buy something.
According to the CCTV footage at Rennie’s Mill station, a girl wearing a black sleeveless top, who was thought to be Chan, appeared at the A1 exit at around 5.35pm, and sat down on a stone step outside the station for a short while before leaving. The station’s cleaning staff said that she found Chan’s personal belongings there, including her mobile phone and some art supplies.
On 27 August 2020, Chiu Kwan-yee claimed that she last saw Chan at Mei Foo MTR Station on 19 September 2019.
At the hearing, the coroner presented several CCTV footage from Rennie’s Mill MTR Station, the Design Institute, Le Pointe shopping mall and Sing Ming Estate, which all indicated Chan’s whereabouts that evening. They showed that she went to the Design Institute at around 5.47pm, and lingered there on different floors for some time, before leaving the school at around 7pm. Around that time, some footage revealed that she entered Rennie’s Mill MTR Station and went to Le Pointe shopping mall via Exit B. Later, several cameras captured her movement to Level Two of the mall. She eventually left via Level Two exit and enter Sing Ming Estate.
The footage showing Chan’s last appearance was taken at Shin Chi House in Sin Ming Estate. Chan was seen going to the Chui Ling Lane playground at around 7.11pm.
Last October, Chow Tai-loi, the taxi driver, reported to the police that he drove a girl not wearing shoes on 19 September 2019, and suspected that she must be Chan. In the hearing, Chow said that Chan asked to go to Hemera Lohas Park. He said that he remembered her because she was not wearing shoes.
Based on what Chow said, when the taxi arrived at the junction of Wan Po Road and Lohas Park Road, Chan suddenyl asked him to make a right turn to Lohas Park Road, and wanted to get off at a construction site next to Hemera Lohas Park, located just 200 metres away from the sea. Chow told her that the area was very remote, but Chan insisted that she would be fine, and paid her fare.
Chow said that since that area was illuminated and patrolled by security guards, he decided to let her get off as she requested. However, he said that he could not tell from the rear view mirror where she went after getting off, because the day was turning dark. Lee Ho-kit, the police officer in charge of this case, remarked that there was a CCTV located at the roundabout near the construction site. However, the police could not find CCTV footage from that camera to prove that Chan actually went there. Lee said that the CCTV at that point could be a bit blurred, and since there was little lighting, it is possible that Chan’s movements could not be detected.
Chiu, her classmate, pointed out that she found Chan a bit strange as they said goodbye to each other in Mei Foo. She also sent Chan messages on WhatsApp asking how she was and urging her to go home and take some rest. Chan responded to her messages the same afternoon, saying that she wanted to go to school, to be happy and be herself. Chan also said that she hoped to take more photos and do more drawings, and wanted to date Chiu to meet at Rennie’s Mill Station and go to school together the next morning. In their last WhatsApp message at 7.22pm, Chiu reminded her to do her Chinese homework, but she did not receive a reply from Chan.
Chan’s mother also said that Chan was a cheerful person, but she turned rebellious after her leg injury, and had run away from home five times. On 13 August 2019, when she went to Tong Fuk Correctional Services Institution to visit her boyfriend, she was charged for attacking the police. Ho said that when Chan was brought to the police station, she was walking around and mumbling to herself. She said that Chan failed to communicate with the others, while the social worker, Tong Wing-yan, said that Chan was almost beyond herself that night.
Later, Chan was admitted to the girls’ home again, and was sent to the hospital twice in August because she was found mentally unstable. However, the psychiatrist at Castle Peak Hospital confirmed that Chan only suffered from ODD, not a mental breakdown. Other than taking tranquillisers, the doctor did not give her other mediation.
Chan’s grandfather described her as a bit rebellious but otherwise a fine girl. However, Ho felt that she looked a bit unusual the night before when she tidied up her room, saying that she could hear people talking next to her, bothering her and not letting her go to sleep. Ho thought that Chan was acting strangely, but then the next morning, she went to school as usual.
However, at least nine witnesses—including Chan’s mother, her grandfather, her cousin Chan Chi-kwan, her boyfriend Ng Shiu-kong, the case social worker Tong Wing-Yan and her classmate Chiu Kwan-yee, as well as the three psychiatrists who had seen her, did not know that Chan had a desire to commit suicide or harm herself.
Ho Mei-yee, a psychiatrist who served as an expert witness, said that Chan had behaved strangely in August 2019, based on evidence from her family and the social worker, such as talking to herself and not being able to communicate with others normally. Ho concluded that Chan could have suffered from mental disorder. Quoting the social worker, Ho mentioned that Chan had taken marijuana twice on 11 August, and did not exclude the possibility that her mental health was affected by the drugs.
On 19 September 2019, on the last day before she went missing, some of her classmates said that she was sleeping under a desk, while the CCTV footage captured her lingering on the campus. Ho felt that these strange behaviours could suggest that Chan was mentally disturbed. She also said that there is a higher chance for mentally disturbed patients to commit suicide. When responding to the jury’s questions whether a mentally disturbed person may lose her innate abilities, such as the ability to swim, Ho said that while there was no such documentation, a mentally disturbed person could find motor coordination more difficult than a healthy person.
* *
The hearing took 12 days to finish and involved 30 witnesses as well as 30 items of evidence. The five-person jury will soon come to a decision on the controversial case of death.
In the past year, numerous Hong Kongers were keen to find out the truth about the death of this victim. Will the jury’s decision convince the public? Are people convinced by the evidence presented at the hearing? Could those who once persevered feel their efforts rewarded?

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