Chan Yin-lam’s naked body found floating in the sea has sparked a maelstrom of media coverage and conspiracy theories
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.
Experienced protesters pulled masks over their faces and scrambled to put goggles on.
Many bystanders were slower to react, and took lungfuls of the stinging, choking gas.
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?"
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Like many young Hong Kongers, Chan supported the protest movement and took part in many 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 characterise the protests.
Naked body found in sea
Had things worked out differently, she would likely not have played a central role in the unrest.
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.
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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.
After Chan's body was discovered, 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.
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 local media.
"I've lost my daughter, please stop brutalising me. It's too hard for us ... Please leave our family alone. I want my daughter to rest in peace."
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 vandalised 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.
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 harbour 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 pm, 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.
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.
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.
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
Source: 9News https://www.9news.com.au/world/conspiracy-theories-over-what-happened-to-hong-kong-teenager-chan-yin-lam/0ff5f9fa-dd6a-4841-a8b5-cf7dacc85e77