Yip Kai-foon, a notorious Hong Kong gangster known for holding up jewellery stores in the 1980s with an AK-47, has died in a public hospital, aged 55.

One legislator remembered the violent criminal as a committed advocate of prisoners' rights, and a "loving and optimistic man".

Formerly Hong Kong's most wanted man, Yip was serving a 36-year stint in the maximum-security Stanley Prison for possession of firearms and escaping custody in 1989.

He had been in custody since 1996, when he was rearrested after a shoot-out in Kennedy Town, during which he was shot in the spine, leaving him wheelchair-bound.

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Yip publicly expressed remorse for his crimes in 2010, the South China Morning Post reported.

"I definitely regret the wrong things I did in the past. My family experienced great trouble, and had to bear the burden and the worrying. Society was also hurt," he wrote in a five-page letter.

Yip Kai-foon and his gang members were known for wielding AK-47s during robberies. Photo / Handout/ South China Morning Post
Yip Kai-foon and his gang members were known for wielding AK-47s during robberies. Photo / Handout/ South China Morning Post

It was understood that Yip, who became a Christian in 2004, had cancer and needed regular care in prison and public hospitals.

On April 1 he was sent to Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam, the same hospital from which he made his daring escape 28 years earlier.

He had complained of being in pain. Disgraced former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was being treated in the same hospital at the time.

While he was in hospital, Yip's "condition deteriorated and he was certified dead at 1.02am on Wednesday," the Correctional Services Department said in a statement.

A department spokeswoman did not comment on whether he had had cancer, citing privacy concerns. Yip could have been released in 2019 at the earliest, with good behaviour.

- South China Morning Post