The city was this king's canvas

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am

'Crank' embraced by art world later in his life

His distinctive calligraphy was Hong Kong's most famous graffiti.

But with the death of 'King of Kowloon' Tsang Tsou-choi, the walls, pavements and telephone boxes of the city will never again feature his distinctive writings.

Tsang, 86, spent the last four years of his life wheelchair-bound and in ill health in a home for the elderly, too weak to even attend a fashion show this year that showcased his idiosyncratic calligraphy.

For more than five decades, he adorned surfaces throughout the city with screeds of thousands of characters, which claimed his family's royal background and declared himself King of Kowloon.

Often dismissed as a crank and a nuisance, Tsang was embraced by the art world later in life. In 1997, his 'Street Calligraphy of the King of Kowloon' went on show at the Hong Kong Art Centre, and in 2003, some of his works were displayed at the prestigious Venice Biennale's 50th International Art Exhibition.

He became celebrated in mainstream circles, featured in television and magazine commercials. Louis Vuitton featured him in a handbag advertisement and a Daihatsu car was covered with his writings at the Japan Expo in 2002.

Bags and clothes featuring his calligraphy are popular buys at ultra-cool store GOD, and movie director Fruit Chan Kuo celebrated him in Hollywood Hong Kong.

While many of his writings were interspersed with rants and expletives, that did not stop one fan from paying HK$55,000 for one of his pieces at a Sotheby's auction in 2004.

In October 2005, his work featured on the cover of Benetton's magazine Colors. That year he was voted in joint fourth place as the Hong Kong Personality of the Year with President Hu Jintao.

Art critic Lau Kin-wai, who has held exhibitions of Tsang's work over the years, once hailed his calligraphy as 'excelling in its plainness, simplicity and absence of contrivance'.

Tsang was born in 1921, in Liantang village, Guangdong . He claimed the village's ancestral documents showed much of the land in Kowloon belonged to his family and the government had annexed it without compensation.

After failing to get official recognition of his claims, he publicised them on the walls of the New Territories, Kowloon and later Hong Kong.

Most of it was quickly washed off or painted over by cleaners.

Tsang moved to Hong Kong at 16 and became a farmer in Choi Hung and Lok Fu. He also worked as a steward in a weaving factory, a labourer transporting water pipes and a caretaker in a rubbish collection station.

He married at 35 and had eight children, three of whom have died. It was soon after he got married that he started painting his grievances.

A sign he had painted outside his home in the Kwun Tong estate announced to visitors that they were entering 'the emperor's palace'.

His work typically consisted of a list of his ancestors, beginning with the first generation of the Tsang family, whom he said arrived in what is now Sau Mau Ping 1,700 years ago. Also included were places which his forebears owned. The lists often ended with 'Emperor of The Kingdom of New China, Canton and Kowloon Tsang Tsou-choi'.

Tsang was arrested regularly for vandalism, but his only known extended stint of incarceration was in the 1960s, when he smashed the window of a Choi Hung post office with a rock and was locked away in Castle Peak Hospital for 18 months.

He walked with crutches for many years after a rubbish container fell on him, injuring his legs permanently. As his knees could no longer support him, he retired from decorating the city walls in mid-2003.