King of Kowloon's legacy must not be erased

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 November, 2004, 12:00am

Call it art or call it graffiti, the King of Kowloon's writing has gained icon status. Yesterday's successful auction of work by Tsang Tsou-choi only confirms this. The irony is that as Tsang's work gains wider acceptance in design and fine arts circles around the world, it is disappearing from the city's public spaces that served as his canvas for decades.

For 40-odd years, Tsang's neighbours and police in districts he frequented mostly viewed him as a nuisance. His rambling screeds ran to thousands of characters if he could find the room. They were written in black ink and broke all the rules, from logic to stroke order. The running theme, that his ancestors had once owned most of Kowloon and been cheated out of it by the British, earned him his nickname. The British queen, Tsang and his relatives figure prominently in the stories which mixed history, fantasy, names, addresses, mundane details of Tsang's life - and a good dose of profanity.

More than a few found Tsang's work ugly and are probably glad to see it disappearing. But to many of his admirers, merit is found in Tsang's original and graphically striking characters. Others are impressed by his eccentric persistence in claiming public space for his protests and family histories. One advertising director has given him credit for singlehandedly creating 'some of the most powerful typography in Hong Kong's history'. The invitation to last year's Venice Biennale and Tsang's growing following in places such as Japan and Korea - not to mention yesterday's auction - are signs that his star is still rising in the art world.

The reaction at home, however, is decidedly mixed. Tsang is no longer being carted off for long stays in psychiatric wards, but he continues to live in relative poverty and gets little local attention - other than the odd commission to paint a nightclub wall or appear in a television advertisement. After an Arts Centre exhibition seven years ago, no local museum leapt to display his work. And with only a few exceptions, his street writing has been painted over. Already, Tsang's writing is easier to track down in galleries and the commercial work of copycat designers than it is on phone boxes and walls around town.

Now that Tsang is confined to an old people's home, he has no hope of outpacing the clean-up crews charged with painting over his writing. In his 80s and relying on crutches, it is unlikely he will ever become prolific again. His is a story worth contemplating as Hong Kong moves to encourage more art in its public spaces and more artistic development in general. A spontaneous form of expression that has been labelled uniquely Hong Kong has struggled to be recognised at home. In fact, it has been virtually erased.

Possibly his legacy will be more indelible. When the next-generation kings of Kowloon appear, will our arts establishment be able to appreciate their significance or help promote them? We hope so.