Tsang Tsou Choi (1921-2007), the self proclaimed “King of Kowloon”, was born in a small Chinese village called Liantang in Guangdong province. According to his bibliographic records, he traveled to Hong Kong at age 16.
It has been reported that his family disinherited him it, arguing that he was mentally unbalanced and shameful; in the same way his wife left him, allegedly because she was fed up with his “obsession”. Tsang Tsou Choi, a poor and barely literate worker, began to mark the streets of Hong Kong with his calligraphic graffiti at the age of 35.
TSANG TSOU CHOI.
He filled every inch of available space with his graffiti: streetlights, utility boxes, pillars, pavement, street benches, walls and cars. In the 1960s he broke both his legs, but this didn’t prevent him from painting the streets of Hong Kong, which he roamed with the help of two crutches. That is the image that remains engraved in the memory of his friends and the people that knew him.
His graffiti depict his signature, a made up title (Emperor or King of Kowloon), his family tree, the names of emperors and the phrase “Down with the Queen of England!”
He frequently talked about his family’s noble origins and alleged to own vast expanses of land, for which he eventually sued the Government for payment of taxes and interest. This story has never been verified, and seems to be the product of his imagination.
The fame of his urban typographies spread over the art world and served as inspiration to a select group of fashion designers, art directors, decorators and fellow artists. In 2004 Sotheby’s auctioned one of his works for about $7,000 dollars, becoming his first commercial success. In 2003 his work had been presented at the Venice Biennale, and in 2000 he took part in a project in the United States, organized by the Grinnell gallery, under the moniker Power of the Word.
Pedestrians walk past a graffiti made by the late self-declared “King of Kowloon”, Tsang Tsou-choi, in Hong Kong, on April 10, 2013.
Photo: AFP / Philippe Lopez.
He spent the last years of his life in a retirement home, where he didn’t paint the walls, but continued to work on paper, clothes and other objects.
After his death people began to photograph the graffiti he had left in the streets of Hong Kong. Some of these works have been covered with a special coating to protect them. City authorities promised not to “clean” the graffiti, and made a commitment to study different methods for their preservation.
Occasionally there have been protests for or against the “cleansing” of the public spaces that are covered by the works of Tsang Tsou Choi, and cyclically the controversy about its artistic value is a matter of debate.
In 2012, Sotheby’s sold a work of Tsang for a record price of $103,000.
2012 was the most critical year in the controversy surrounding the preservation of Tsang’s work in Hong Kong. It is estimated that he painted more than 55,000 graffiti, but by the end of 2012 only four “survived” in the city streets: a pillar at the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui, a light pole in Ping Shek Estate, a wall close to the Academy of Visual Arts of Baptist University, and the steel doors of Kwun Tong theater. The rest of the paintings have succumbed to redevelopment or have been covered by the authorities, and it was not until very recently that they have agreed to recognize, although with not much enthusiasm, the value of his creations.
One of Tsang‘s friends, and an ardent advocate for the conservation of his artistic legacy, has been artist Chung Yin-chai, who in 2012 took some extreme measures that were even described “perverse”, in order to draw attention to the destruction and the risk of losing all of Tsang´s work. He devoted himself to painting over the graffiti still on the streets of Hong Kong, as a form of protest against the Government for not doing anything to protect them. Many people were shocked, but at least he got the attention he wanted. Unfortunately some people demanded that he should be jailed.
Finally, the authorities of West Kowloon Cultural District purchased the door of the Kwun Tong theater, which will become part of the permanent collection of Museum M +, scheduled to open in 2017. The amount paid for the doors has not been revealed, but it is known that it was below the market price. It is a remarkable fact that the interest to conserve the works of Tsang Tsou Choi in Hong Kong prevails against all odds.■