How best to honour the King of Kowloon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 July, 2007, 12:00am

Opinions vary as to whether the late Tsang Tsou-choi was an artist or a nuisance. Claiming that his ancestors had owned the land that is now Kowloon and that it was therefore his, he relentlessly marked his perceived turf with messages hastily written in Chinese characters.

The scrawled missives, which bestowed royal titles on relatives and led to him being dubbed 'the King of Kowloon', were eccentric, given that there is no documented proof of his claims. His five decades dedicated to the cause meant that few people failed to notice his handiwork.

Tsang's writings stood out in a culture where graffiti is rare. Great poets and writers of Chinese dynasties visited famous places and left writings on rocks or walls, but this was not in the same artistic vein; generally it was perceived that Tsang's were the scribblings of a madman.

But in the 1980s, the international media found out about the King of Kowloon and, gradually, infamy became fame. Soon, his disregard for authority was inspiring fashion designers, art directors and traditional artists. His works were framed and hung in restaurants, homes, even art galleries; they were selling for serious money. Then came the exhibitions, merchandising, advertisements and magazine covers and the alleged crazy man was an icon.

Tsang's death on July 15 raised a dilemma for authorities, caught up in the debate about heritage and collective memory. Examples of his work still exist in a few public places, notably at the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui and near Kwun Tong police station.

The government has acted swiftly to assure the community that these will be preserved. Officials should be commended for being sensitive to public opinion. While different views on his work still exist, there are clearly strong feelings that the remaining examples should be retained. It makes little sense to remove them.

Precisely how this will be achieved, remains to be decided. But whatever steps are taken, his legacy will survive. It has already passed into popular culture and exhibitions and the works on display will keep his memory alive.