THE OLD MAN is grumpy and spits as he talks. Sitting on a low plastic stool in Sheung Wan's Wing Lok Street, Yu Kam-pui, or 'Ah Kam', is dressed in a white sweatshirt, black cloth shoes and a pair of dirty, old shorts. He is waiting quietly for work that seldom comes. The 78-year-old with muscular shoulders and arms is among the last of a dying breed. He is an old-style coolie - the manual labourers who were once synonymous with Hong Kong's bustling port. Years ago, he carried everything from sacks of rice to the decomposing bodies of British soldiers. But these days, work has dried up. To pass the time, Ah Kam sits around, rolling cigarettes. Next to him is a plastic bag holding an old pair of sharp metal hooks used to carry goods. It also doubles as a carry-all for drink cans and newspapers he scavenges from the streets. 'Often I wait for one whole month and still I have no work,' he says. The term coolie is derived from the Hindi word for hired servant, quli, and in Chinese literally means 'hard effort'. In Hong Kong, it is a term most commonly associated with wharf labourers. In the 1950s, coolies were omnipresent in Hong Kong's thriving port - the most important trading link between China and the rest of the world. Waterfront communities dotted busy piers in Tsim Sha Tsui, North Point, Tai Kok Tsui, Western District and Sheung Wan until as recently as the 1980s, after Deng Xiaoping announced China's open-door policy. The policy increased direct trade between the mainland and the rest of the world, reducing Hong Kong's role as a go-between and the need for coolie labourers. Improved land access between the mainland and Hong Kong also took a toll on the profession, which has been further clobbered by the economic downturn. Where Sheung Wan's piers, collectively known as 'Triangle Pier', once had thousands of coolie labourers, now only about 40 are left, says Kam Chung, 58, who joined the trade in 1980. Most of them are middle-aged, and about 20, including Kam, are based under a flyover on Connaught Road Western; the rest are on Ko Shing Street. The oldest coolie, it seems, is Ah Kam. His turf is Wing Lok Street, where he sits alone, watching the world go by. Ah Kam once belonged to one of four gangs of 300 coolies who toiled around Wing Lok Street and Queen Street, but in 1986, when the company that employed them closed, the gangs went their separate ways. Some coolies became watchmen, some left Hong Kong, others have since retired or died. 'I am the only one left from then,' says Ah Kam. What about his family? 'How can I tell you about them?' he asks. 'I feel embarrassed, and a family's ugliness should not be revealed to others.' The mere mention of his wife provokes the surly retort: 'Don't mention her,' though other coolies say his sons live on the mainland. No one is sure how many children he has or exactly where they live. All they know is that every day at 7.30am, Ah Kam turns up at Wing Lok Street and stays until dusk. He often returns home without having made a cent and estimates that he earns less than $100 a month, which supplements his $705 Old Age Allowance. He refuses to apply for social security, saying it is 'too difficult'. His 'home' is a stairwell near New Market Street, and his belongings are stuffed inside an old office cabinet and a broken fridge. He spends $11 every day on lunch at a cheap restaurant. Born in Dongguan, Ah Kam has always known poverty. His father was a coolie and lack of money meant Ah Kam was never able to attend school. Unable to read or write, he made his way to Hong Kong after World War II and found the only work available to him was as a coolie. Ah Kam soon found himself shouldering sacks of rice or bundles of fruit and vegetables from junks to lorries on the wharf, work that brought home $2 to $3 a month. At night, he lived in a crammed cubicle in Sheung Wan with seven strangers. As he drags on his cigarette, Ah Kam remembers being asked to carry from the North Point pier the decomposing bodies of British soldiers killed in the Korean War. 'The bodies were soft and smelly,' he recalls. 'Many people were scared and didn't dare to carry them. Which is why they increased the money to $3, $4, then to $5 per day, and in the end $1 per body.' The threat of injury or even death hung over him daily. His shoulders were often cut by the loads he was carrying and he once shattered his knee by falling over on a rainy day. 'I often saw people [losing their balance on the gangplank and] falling into the sea and drowning,' he says. 'People wouldn't compensate their families. As coolies, we had no protection.' He did find some comfort in the company of his countrymen, however. When he first arrived on the docks Ah Kam had no friends, but he soon found himself alongside coolies from the same Dongguan clan; they shared jobs and generally looked after one another's well-being. The gangs also monopolised certain jetties, such as Tai Hing, Kwongtak, Ming Shan and Wing Lok. Competition among clansmen from the different jetties over work consignments often led to bitter battles. 'We always fought,' Ah Kam says. 'Once, several dozen of us fought all the way to the tramway - the trams had to stop for us.' Those competitors are long gone but Ah Kam still constantly glances around, as though on watch for any opposition. Looking over at him from the opposite side of the road, a handyman from a local Chinese medicine trading company says people usually won't give Ah Kam work because of his age. 'He can't even carry a sack of rice,' the man says. But sometimes Ah Kam is asked to move a piece of furniture from an office or to throw away rubbish and cardboard from street stalls. On this particular morning, he says he has made $12 from an undisclosed job. Sometimes he leaves his post to walk the surrounding streets asking people for work. Passing by a well-dressed man, a preserved seafood stall's owner, Ah Kam immediately becomes sociable. 'Wei, big boss, do you have work for me?' he says, shaking his hands. The man smiles, obviously uncomfortable, and quickly moves away. Ah Kam continues his way along the street mumbling, to no one in particular, 'Now he doesn't know me.' It is 3pm, Ah Kam is tired, and soon he falls asleep. Maybe he is dreaming about the long-gone 'Triangle Pier' and a harbour bustling with junks and coolies. An hour later, the old man wakes up and is silent. He takes out a can of fresh tobacco, rolls and then lights a cigarette. Puffing gently, Ah Kam says he doesn't feel sad being the last coolie on Wing Lok Street. He says he will work as a coolie until he dies. 'What else can I do?' he asks.