BEIJING -- The last time I saw Leung Ping-kwan, a poet who celebrated and defined Hong Kong, was in December at his home in the city's Causeway Bay district. He had just been released from the hospital and sat, trademark flat cap on his head, surrounded by spilling boxes of books.
Even though I knew that P.K., as his friends knew him (he also wrote under the pen name Ye Si), had been fighting lung cancer, I was taken aback by his appearance. Below the cap, his mouth and jaw were drawn tight. His hands were thin. Yet his bright chuckle, wide-ranging mind and enormous appetite for discussion were still there.
We talked about the recent changes in Beijing, where Xi Jinping had become China's new leader, and about the author Mo Yan, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize. P.K. gave me his latest book, a collection of poems titled "Dong Xi," which means "East West" in Chinese, but also "Things." It was a clever title for a writer who excelled at what he called "things" poetry, a "unique 'poetics of quotidianism,' of the everyday," as Esther M.K. Cheung wrote in her introduction to his book "City at the End of Time."
P.K., who according to his publisher died on Jan. 5, was Hong Kong's leading literary voice. In an enormous oeuvre translated into many languages, he began, before almost anyone else, to sift through Hong Kong's edgy, overlooked identity, in poems that looked at life using images of ordinary things -- a papaya, a colonial building, a car ferry, a fish. He wrote of Hong Kong's handover from British colonial to Chinese rule in 1997, an event that lay at the core of the poems in "City at the End of Time," first published in 1992, which probed the reverse nostalgia for a future about to be lost. He wrote of skepticism about colonialism, of the 1989 crackdown on democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, about food, and much more. He found his voice early, in the 1960s.
"Later, in the 1990s and after the handover, a lot of people began talking about Hong Kong's identity. But he had already started a long time ago," said Chan Koonchung, author of the novel "The Fat Years," who lives in Beijing but grew up in Hong Kong.
"He was an early one to use the Hong Kong point of view to consider Hong Kong," Mr. Chan added.
"He often felt that outsiders used very simple metaphors to judge Hong Kong. For example, they called it a 'cultural desert,' a 'prostitute.' Very early on he protested against this."
The result was at once unpretentious and vivid, highly readable poetry.
In "Images of Hong Kong," the narrator searches for a postcard of his home to send to a friend overseas. Yet he finds mostly "Exotica for a faraway audience / Entangled with what others have said / Why is it so hard to tell our own stories?"
P.K. was both profoundly local and international, as likely to be reading something by a Czech as a Chinese poet. He traveled widely, liking Berlin especially. In its strange tale of East-West division and unification he found echoes of Hong Kong's own fractured identity.
The 1989 Tiananmen crackdown horrified a Hong Kong facing its own return to Beijing's rule. After the massacre, when the Communist state had reasserted control, he wrote in the poem "Refurnishing," "Well, they returned with their grand old tables and chairs / The solid stuff, the elegant, classy stuff that has / Symmetry, unmistakable aesthetic appeal ... / They hung their paintings and calligraphy where you couldn't not see / Couldn't not honor the good old snows, the flowers and birds smiling again / Though one crimson beak seemed forced by the artist's hand."
Born in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in 1949, the year of the founding of the People's Republic -- he found the timing significant -- P.K. emigrated to Hong Kong with his parents as a child.
He loved the Cantonese language, a rich Chinese brimming with color and puns. He loved its food and the high-spirited humor when Hong Kong friends gathered.
"We treat everything with laughter," he told me in 2009 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where we were part of the Hong Kong writers delegation -- the overlooked "younger siblings" of China's Guest of Honor delegation that year. "It's a way of dealing with things."
Hong Kong people need their humor. On the edge of China, with a different language, legal system and values from those of the mainland, its politics have grown rough of late. P.K. was downcast at the increasingly angry public discourse and the apparent lack of solutions, as resentment grew at the influx of rich Chinese mainlanders and their impact on the small territory.
When I interviewed him last October -- about writing, not politics -- he repeated the call that marked his life: Hong Kong and other places that represent diverse Chinese voices should be allowed their place in the sun and not be overshadowed by the giant mainland, with its drive to unify and homogenize language and culture.
Speaking by telephone from Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong, Huang Lihai, his editor at China Theater Press, said: "He had a lot to say about Guangdong culture. He was a local, and he took that and other things and pieced them together in ways that pointed out the differences."
And that perhaps is his legacy: a caring, intelligent voice for the pluralism of Chinese culture. In an age that saw so many attempts to reduce the many to the one, he wrote for the many.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.