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The King of Tonga has died in Hong Kong, sparking an outpouring of grief in the Pacific nation.

King George Tupou V, 63, went into an intensive care unit in a Hong Kong hospital about 10 days ago but his condition rapidly deteriorated and he died last night.

Last year, the King was reportedly diagnosed with cancer and flew to the US to have a tumour removed. A close friend of Tupou told the New Zealand Herald he had a liver transplant but was given a clean bill of health.

The Tongan Government confirmed his passing on Tongan radio this morning. A statement from the government is expected later this morning.

He made the headlines in New Zealand last year while trying to sell the official royal residence in Auckland.

Known for his extravagant lifestyle, the King rarely visited Auckland and when he did preferred upmarket hotels to the $9 million Epsom residence, known as 'Atalanga', which protesters stopped him from selling.

Tongan media reported that he met Pope Benedict XVI on February 24 in the Vatican in Rome - and gave the Pope a signed picture of himself.

The news of the King's death spread quickly on Twitter early today, and many Tongans paid tribute.

Christinah Lataisia said: "Black and Purple begin to flood the fales in Tonga to mourn the passing away of our King."

Tessi Leila Tolutau said: "I am saddened by the news, our beloved King of Tonga has passed away ... our country has gone thru major losses in the past couple years."

Another resident said: "Sad day for our little Kingdom of Tonga. RIP King George Tupou V.