Man in famed image ‘not notorious Hong Kong robber Yip Kai-foon’

Despite classic image long linked to Yip, lawyer and film director both believe he was not involved in 1993 Mong Kok robbery

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 1:52pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 9:44pm

When Hongkongers think of late gangster Yip Kai-foon, most probably think of an image of a man wearing a dark jacket and black balaclava clutching an AK-47 assault rifle.

That famous image of the “King of Thieves” was taken in broad daylight outside a Mong Kok jewellery shop as a gang thought to be Yip and his fellow robbers were preparing their getaway.

But those close to the former gangster insist the man in the television footage was not Yip – even though the image has been used for more than two decades.

Yip, known for being heavily armed while holding up jewellery shops in the 1980s and 90s, died in a public hospital on Wednesday, aged 55.

“That picture ... was actually published by the media before [his first arrest, with speculation that the man] was Yip,” actress turned lawyer Mary Jean Reimer said on a radio programme.

Reimer, who helped Yip launch a judicial review focusing on the right of prisoners to use Chinese medicine, said: “It was not him because his body shape was much smaller than the person in the picture.”

She added that the image had irked Yip for years, because the raid resulted in the death of an innocent person, unlike the robberies he was involved in.

The image was taken during a robbery by a gang armed with AK-47s on a jewellery shop on Nathan Road in January 1993. A stray bullet hit a passer-by during a firefight between the gang and police. She later died.

Yip wrote in a five-page letter in 2010: “Although I did something bad, I never killed anyone. Those kidnappers who killed hostages, made their families lose a loved one and separated them from their families left people horrified.”

‘King of Thieves’ Yip Kai-foon forced Hong Kong police to change tactics and beef up arms

Although the raid was similar to those carried out by Yip, authorities could not prove he was involved. Yip also denied involve- ment, according to Reimer.

The former robber was sentenced to 41 years in prison in 1996 for possessing arms and ammunition and escaping from custody. The sentence was later reduced to 36 years and three months on appeal.

A prison source said the department had notified the police about Yip’s death and the corpse would be passed to his family if an autopsy was not needed.

Reimer also told the Post that Yip’s brother would handle funeral arrangements as Yip and his wife had ended their relationship.

Film director Jevons Au Man-kit, who researched Yip for his award-winning film Trivisa – a thriller based on the lives of Yip and two other gangsters, Kwai Ping-hung and “Big Spender” Cheung Tsz-keung – agreed with Reimer.

“We interviewed lots of inspectors and policemen involved with the investigation and learned that many [robbery] cases were not related to Yip but were reported to have been committed by him,” he said on the same programme.

“The [Mong Kok] case was not associated with him and those who were involved were actually arrested.”

Yip was, however, most certainly involved in many other violent armed robberies. He began his gun-toting raids in his early twenties, leading five mainland thieves in a series of robberies of jewellery stores in October 1984.

He was sentenced to 16 years in prison for firearms offences the following year, but in 1989 he escape from a toilet in Queen Mary Hospital, where he was receiving treatment. It was believed he fled to the mainland.

But in June 1991, Yip returned to Hong Kong to carry out his most audacious raid yet, stealing HK$10 million worth of gold and jewellery from five shops on a single street in Kwun Tong.

Armed with AK-47 rifles and pistols, Yip and his gang exchanged around 54 rounds of gunfire with police.

Reimer stressed that even though she believed Yip was not involved in the Mong Kok raid, it did not redeem him, saying he was a “bad man” – something Yip himself acknowledged and for which he expressed remorse.

“The circumstances ... caused him to be remorseful. If he was never arrested, would he have felt remorseful? I have doubts. But we must look at things objectively,” she said.

“This is not something to be glorified ... This was the outcome for a bad guy. His biggest punishment was not being able to [be free], which was what he wanted.”