Mourning Humble ‘Uncle Kwok,’ 83, Killed in Chinatown Rampage

Mourning Humble ‘Uncle Kwok,’ 83, Killed in Chinatown Rampage

10 mins read

For years, he lived outside, sleeping in a small alcove in a storefront on the southern end of the Bowery. For meals, he often ate at modest restaurants in the neighborhood, always ordering inexpensive, filling meals — a pork chop or roast duck over rice.

People tried to get to know him: an 83-year-old homeless man that some residents of Chinatown knew as Uncle Kwok. But he kept to himself, they said, never wanting to talk about what landed him on the streets.

Uncle Kwok, whose given name was Chuen Kwok, was bludgeoned to death on Saturday as he slept in the familiar alcove where he had sought a degree of security. He was among four homeless men beaten to death with a three-foot, 15-pound metal bar in attacks that took place just after 1:30 a.m. on a chilly night.

Randy Rodriguez Santos, a homeless 24-year-old man with a history of violence, was arrested two blocks away and charged with their murders.

[What we know about Randy Rodriguez Santos, who is charged with four counts of murder.]

Homelessness in New York is not always fleeting or anonymous. A homeless person can become a fixture in a neighborhood, accepted as part of the local community fabric, and cared for — a recipient of spare change, castoff clothes or the leftovers from a meal. Mr. Kwok seems to have been that kind of character, accepted and liked by those who encountered and helped him.

“There are many homeless men around, but for some reason he caught my eye,” said Kim Mui, who brought incense to his alcove on Monday to mourn him. “He’s such an elderly man,” she remembered thinking when she first met him. “He’s not bothering anybody. He’s so quiet. He just seemed so sweet.”

It was Mr. Kwok’s murder that led to the police finding and arresting Mr. Santos. A couple returning home saw Mr. Kwok being beaten with the metal bar, his blanket wrapped around him. They called 911, and then flagged down a passing police car and helped officers comb the neighborhood until Mr. Santos was found.

Mr. Kwok appeared to have been the last victim of the night.

Police said Nazario A. Vazquez Villegas, 54, had been killed minutes earlier, as was Anthony L. Manson, 49, whose last known address was the general delivery address of Manhattan’s main post office, a place where many homeless people get their mail. The fourth man, found at East Broadway, had not yet been identified on Monday.

All were killed by repeated blows to the head, resulting in skull fractures and brain injury, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said Monday. A fifth man, David Hernandez, 55, was left in critical condition.

At around 2 a.m. on Saturday, Mr. Santos was arrested after a police officer spotted him near the intersection of Mulberry and Canal Streets, police said. Fresh blood and hair clung to the metal bar he was carrying, the police said.

On Monday, at the spot where he was killed, someone had placed a photo of Mr. Kwok, looking up as if to answer a question, amid bouquets of flowers. “A polite, humble, gentleman,” it read, under his name, which is sometimes spelled Kok, and the years of his birth and death, 1935 to 2019.

“Our Friend and Brother,” read another note, along with a translation in Chinese.

As people paid their respects on Monday morning, or gathered for a nearby vigil led by local elected officials, no family members of Mr. Kwok appeared. But Ms. Mui, her hair askew and in dark sunglasses, spoke lovingly of him to anyone who asked, taking on the role of surrogate daughter.

In an interview, she recounted that she had met Mr. Kwok two decades ago and had visited his apartment, when he still had a home. He had been an old friend of her mother’s family, known to her as Uncle Kwok, and he had lived in an old tenement building on East Houston Street with a bathtub in the living room.

“I remember him standing in the living room,” she said. “He was wearing a tank top and he was smiling.”

She said did not recognize Mr. Kwok at first when she befriended him about a month ago on the streets, helping him to get food and chatting with him in Cantonese. Then her mother told her he was the same family friend who had been living on the streets and tended to avoid people he knew.

Little was known about his background, Ms. Mui said. He was from Hong Kong and spoke no English. He told people he had no wife or children. When he was younger, he had traveled widely, looking for restaurant work. Ms. Mui said she did not know how he had become homeless.

A clue may have been in the bottles of Chinese-branded Green Bamboo Leaf Liquor that restaurant workers said he sometimes carried with him when he came in to eat. He liked to drink, though he was never boisterous or ill-behaved when he did.

He had the money to pay for some of his meals, perhaps from panhandling. Andy Wang, 45, a manager at the Taiwan Pork Chop House, said Mr. Kwok would often sit at the same table by the kitchen and order a pork chop over rice for $5.75.

He would sit for an hour, “eating very slowly,” Mr. Wang said, adding that it seemed he had a problem chewing. “He never really spoke,” he added. “He wouldn’t need to say anything.”

At Great N.Y. Noodletown, he would order the roast duck. “When he was too dirty and we were busy, we wouldn’t let him come in,” one waiter said. But when he did eat there, the waiter added, he would always leave a $1 tip.

For other meals, he took leftovers from people in the neighborhood who looked out for him.

Caifeng Lin, 57, said she often stopped to bring Mr. Kwok her homemade rice noodles as she came through Chinatown to run errands from her home in Sunset Park.

Ms. Lin broke down in tears as she explained that Mr. Kwok was a “very good person, a very honest person,” who would often refuse offers of food or money. “If he wasn’t hungry, he would tell you,” she said in Mandarin.

Mr. Kwok never asked for much. On Sept. 23, Ms. Mui visited Mr. Kwok and stepped into a nearby bakery and bought him a few items. “Just one,” Mr. Kwok said. “I’m full.” It was his usual response, she said.

With autumn temperatures beginning to drop, Ms. Mui said she had brought Mr. Kwok pork buns on Friday night. She had offered to get him some lotion for a skin condition, but he said nothing helped.

She planned to bring him shoes and a hat and scarf for the colder days ahead. The next morning she heard four homeless people had been murdered. She said she prayed that Mr. Kwok was not among them.

On Monday, she came to mourn him, holding three sticks of incense. She bowed in front of the makeshift memorial. Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, Ms. Mui and other people from the neighborhood followed. Each placed incense sticks inside a tall cup. Votive candles burned.

“Uncle Kwok. It’s Ms. Mui. I hope you remember me,” Ms. Mui said in Cantonese, through sobs. “I gave you the roast pork buns. I met you when I was a little girl.”

“I’ll never forget you,” she said.

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