We heard about Uncle Sea in January this year. 90 years old. Collector of cardboard boxes and other useful junk. Former smuggler. And according to Wai Tung, a Real Character. Uncle Sea had apparently been born into a family so wealthy, his father hired a personal tutor to teach him how to sing opera. So how then did he wind up living on the streets for a good ten years? We were intrigued.

We spent a blustery afternoon looking for Uncle Sea. Tung took us to all his usual haunts in Shamshuipo. But he was nowhere to be found. No one knew where the old man had gone. We left Hong Kong without seeing him.

And then last week, Tung said he’d run into Uncle Sea. Spotted him pushing a cart overflowing with odds and ends near Hoi Tan Street. He had moved into government housing. Tung even had his address. We were beyond excited.

“Maybe he’ll even sing some opera for you,” Tung said on our way up to Uncle Sea’s apartment. But no one came to the door. Tung knocked again. And again. No reply. Finally, he jumped up and peered into a window above the gate. Jumped down, looked at us, bewildered.

The flat was empty. Where had Uncle Sea gone?

Few people on the floor wanted to talk much. Uncle Sea’s immediate neighbour told us what we already knew. He left. Some people further down the corridor said the same. He’s no longer here. A Filipina helper had a bit more to add. We’re very sad.

And then it hit us. The old man was dead.