Fan of famous street graffiti spoils it in protest Fan of famous street graffiti spoils it in radical protest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 December, 2009, 12:00am

More examples of the city's most famous street calligraphy have disappeared. One has been painted over and another removed. But this time it was not the government that did this to the graffiti of the late 'King of Kowloon'; it was one of his closest friends.

Joel Chung Yin-chai, an artist who knew the self-proclaimed king, Tsang Tsou-choi, and had since 1998 followed him as he graffitied the town until his last days in 2007, admitted to the South China Morning Post that he had painted over two of Tsang's works last weekend.

And yesterday he spoiled three more in Kwun Tong.

'I'm using my way to protect the works,' Chung said, explaining that he wanted to wake the public up and make the government recognise local public art. 'If they are to fade away one day, I'd rather they disappear with dignity, to die with a meaning.'

Chung, a designer, multimedia artist and toy collector, is one of the best known campaigners for the preservation of Tsang's work.

The two sites in Kennedy Town were among the few remaining in the city, as many of them have been painted over by the government over the years.

'I can't just sit there and let the government and the Highways Department destroy them,' said Chung, who provided Tsang with long-lasting magnetic paint.

'So who's been destroying the works? Is it me or the government?'

Chung painted on top of Tsang's calligraphy on Kennedy Town Abattoir on Cadogan Street, covering almost the entire bottom half of the wall. He painted lines resembling skyscrapers of the city, and 'art is not everything, but we need it', ironically on top of the widely appreciated calligraphy by Tsang.

The other in Kennedy Town was on the two pillars of an archway to the stairs leading to a Buddhist temple on Victoria Road. Now there is white paint.

The two were among some 15 more or less intact pieces remaining in the city.

Noticing the changes was Kennedy Town resident Bridget Steis, who complained to the Post about the destruction of the two sites. Steis said that she had been walking her dog every day along Cadogan Street and Victoria Road, noticing Tsang's calligraphy.

Steis said that when she walked her dog on Friday afternoon, the sites were still intact. But on Sunday, the calligraphy was gone, she said.

Staff at the Buddhist temple said they had no idea of what went on, and that they had not erased Tsang's calligraphy.

When asked about the destruction of the two Kennedy Town sites, Chung confessed that he had done it. He said he did it on Friday and Saturday, and he planned to destroy more of the remaining sites. 'The government has never thought of protecting Tsang's works, and respecting Tsang's works in a way that they deserve,' said Chung. 'Each time we lose one site, there'll be some small noise in the media but that is it.'

After Tsang died in 2007, the Home Affairs Bureau said it would strive to preserve Tsang's street works, but so far only a protective case has been installed for the pillar at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry pier and the bureau has attempted to preserve a piece on a lamp post in Kwun Tong Road. The bureau said that protection of other sites was not feasible.

'At least the government should put up a sign at those sites saying they should be protected. But now my action has proved that anyone can do anything to those sites,' Chung said.

After the site on Lei Yue Mun Road in Kwun Tong recently was painted over with grey paint typically used by the Highways Department, which denied responsibility, he could not just sit by and do nothing.

Chung insisted he did not aim to destroy sites that were still in excellent condition. He explained that the site on the wall of Kennedy Town Abattoir had been covered by the same grey paint as the Lei Yue Mun Road site, and calligraphy by Tsang could barely be seen. He said he only painted his own graffiti on it because of its poor condition.

As for the archway pillars, Chung said he peeled off the top three layers of the paint by applying plastic tape to the surface. He discovered three layers of paint with different calligraphy, showing that Tsang had painted there three different times. Chung took the peeled layers back to his studio in Tai Kok Tsui.

Chung said he was prepared for an angry public reaction, especially as he had published two books on Tsang's life and works - The Art of Treason shortly after his death, and Post No Bills this September. Chung said that he never intended to make money out of these, and showed receipts of a donation of about HK$10,000 of the proceeds of the first book to the Community Chest.

'Why should they be confused and angry?' he said. 'What I've done might not be right, but if this can make the government and the public understand the worth of these works, if this can provoke people to think if they should keep the works, then it's a meaningful act.' He said he hoped the public could think deeply about public art and its value in the city.

'If people think that these sites are worth keeping, then that means our city needs public art in public spaces, where people walk past every day. It should be part of our lives.'

Chung, who has kept hundreds of Tsang's works and had one sold by Sotheby's in October, insisted he never intended to make money out of Tsang's work. He said he was approached by Sotheby's and only auctioned the piece for a good cause.

The piece was sold for a record HK$500,000, and Chung said half of the money had gone to the Association of Contemporary Visual Arts, an institution dedicated to promoting public art in Hong Kong. The rest has been placed in a fund for his and other artists' public art projects. He said the fund now had about HK$180,000 in it.

Unauthorised graffiti is considered criminal damage, but Chung said that he was prepared to be fined.

Chung's controversial act has drawn severe criticism from Lau Kin-wai, another long-time friend of Tsang. 'He has no right to do this,' Lau said. 'He's acting as if killing a dying man is right. But no one can accept such logic. And this is completely against his campaign all these years to preserve Tsang's works.

'This is irreversible. But ultimately, it's the government's fault for not preserving Tsang's works. [Secretary for Home Affairs] Tsang Tak-sing and [undersecretary for home affairs] Florence Hui Hiu-fai are responsible for this.'

When asked if any action will be taken against Chung's action, the Home Affairs Bureau declined to reply.