Royalties overdue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am

Almost four years after his death, one of Hong Kong's most famous artists is about to receive an honour that many believe is long overdue: a large-scale exhibition of his works.

But Tsang Tsou-choi was no ordinary artist. Better known as the 'King of Kowloon', Tsang spent decades covering the city with stark black calligraphy staking his claim to the Kowloon peninsula, continually returning to the same locations whenever government officers painted over his works.

When Tsang died at the age of 86 in 2007, there were 25 complete works scattered throughout the city, but only four remain today. And even though the authorities have tried to erase Tsang's legacy from the city's streets, the upcoming exhibition of 300 Tsang works spread over Swire Properties' 20,000-sq-ft ArtisTree space in Quarry Bay will play an important role in keeping his memory alive.

'We think that Choi Suk [Uncle Choi] is part of Hong Kong's history and we want to present a comprehensive record so that visitors can think about his life as well as the meaning of art and creativity,' says Babby Fung Siu-ling, head of Swire Properties' office marketing.

Fung was part of the team that co-organised the exhibition, titled Memories of King Kowloon, with Tsang's long-time artist friend, Joel Chung Yin-chai. Chung has actively campaigned for the preservation of Tsang's legacy in the city and owns one of the largest collections of Tsang's calligraphic works.

But putting together the exhibition has been a democratic process. 'Our vision is somewhat along the same lines - neither I nor Swire want to make a judgment on Tsang's works,' says Chung, who has loaned part of his collection of Tsang's works, including calligraphy on various objects from paper and wooden boards to T-shirts and even a vinyl bear figurine.

Apart from original works by Tsang, some of his personal belongings and a map highlighting the locations of his street work, the exhibition will also feature works inspired by Tsang by 11 overseas and local artists. Students from five schools also created works after learning about Tsang.

'The show is about a Hong Kong cultural legend and the relationship between creativity and local culture. We hope it will inspire others,' says Chung, who had been following Tsang since 1998 and has published three books on the cultural icon.

Most long-term residents of Hong Kong will be familiar with Tsang and his street calligraphy. The Guangdong native came to Hong Kong at the age of 16. He was married at 35 and had eight children, but three of them later died. Once he took up his paintbrushes, his wife and surviving children left him, and he then spent more than 50 years painting the town black, proclaiming himself the 'King of Kowloon' and protesting against the government which he believes had stolen Kowloon from his clan.

Tsang's chaotic calligraphy eventually caught the attention of influential figures such as art critic and restaurateur Lau Kin-wai, who in 1992 started writing in local newspapers about the odd Chinese characters he was seeing painted on lamp posts, random walls and post boxes.

Interest in Tsang and his works soared as Hong Kong searched for an identity ahead of the handover and then, in 1997, his graffiti was displayed at the Arts Centre. Tsang gained an international stage in 2003 when his calligraphy was displayed at the Venice Biennale's 50th International Art Exhibition alongside works by world-renowned visual artists.

But in Hong Kong, there was never any official recognition for Tsang. His works were continually erased by government officers, but a public outcry after his death prompted the government to pledge to preserve his paintings. Then in 2009, it was discovered one of the few remaining pieces of works in Kwun Tong had been painted over. Now, only four works are left intact: a pillar at Tsim Sha Tsui's Star Ferry pier, a lamp post at Ping Shek Estate, a wall near Baptist University's Academy of Visual Arts, and an iron gate in Yue Man Fong, Kwun Tong.

But finally, Tsang's calligraphy has found a comfortable home - albeit a temporary one - at the air-conditioned ArtisTree.

Chung says the exhibition cannot replicate the street settings which most people identify with Tsang's graffiti, but the experience of working with students ranging from form three to university level helped spread the word about the King. 'Some had seen the calligraphy on the street, but most of the students had only vague memories about Choi Suk,' says Chung.

'I told them stories about Choi Suk and then they created works of their own. I'm glad that their pieces were not merely replicas of Choi Suk's works, and that they posed questions about our culture. I feel that we have achieved something truly creative.'

Fung says the idea to work with Chung came about after reading extensive reports on the disappearance of Tsang's works in the South China Morning Post in 2009. She says Memories of King Kowloon, which will showcase a total of 500 exhibits, is the largest exhibition ArtisTree has staged since its opening show, the Victoria & Albert Museum's retrospective on British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

It is also ArtisTree's largest exhibition on local culture, and represents Swire's most 'significant investment' in the venue since the Westwood show.

The government has given the cold shoulder to both exhibitions. In 2005, the South China Morning Post reported that the Westwood exhibition had been deemed inappropriate for local tastes by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the operator of the city's top museums.

The authorities appear to have never understood Tsang's cultural significance, and measures to preserve his works have only been taken in response to public anger. At the moment, just two sites are protected: the pillar at Tsim Sha Tsui's Star Ferry pier and the lamp post in Ping Shek Estate. The rest are left exposed.

It is also hoped that Tsang's iconic brushstrokes will be seen outside of Hong Kong soon. Chung says exhibition organisers from Britain and Switzerland have approached him about holding an overseas exhibition, while Fung hopes that as the show coincides with ArtHK at the end of May, more overseas journalists will visit and spread the word about Tsang.

It's unclear how the public will react to the show, but it is likely to boost the value of Tsang's works. At the moment, Chung and Lau are believed to own the largest collections of Tsang's works in town, and both have auctioned pieces in the past.

In 2009, Chung sold a calligraphy piece on canvas through Sotheby's autumn auction. It fetched HK$500,000, exceeding the presale estimate of HK$70,000. Chung said at the time that proceeds from the sale would fund public art projects and the Association of Contemporary Visual Arts. And since Chung owns hundreds of Tsang's works, it's apparent that this exhibition will boost the value of his own collection.

'Auction houses have been approaching me [about Tsang's works], but I'm not selling his works any more. So whether this exhibition affects the market for Choi Suk's pieces has nothing to do with me. However, perhaps the players in the art market should thank me for doing this show,' he says.

After the exhibition ends on May 31, the push to keep Tsang's spirit alive will continue.

One of Chung's ongoing projects is restoring Tsang's works that have been covered by government officers. Last year, he started his first attempt at a site near the entrance to Mongkok Stadium, but in November - eight months after he started - the site was painted over again. And there will be more street actions planned.

'I haven't decided what to do yet, but the audience's reaction at the exhibition will give me an idea. I also want to know if the government will ever take Choi Suk seriously and live up to its promises to protect his street calligraphy after the exhibition,' says Chung.

Memories of King Kowloon, ArtisTree, 1/F Cornwall House, Taikoo Place, Island East, Quarry Bay (student exhibition, Linkbridge, Lincoln House, Taikoo Place, Island East, Quarry Bay), April 20-May 31, 10am-8pm daily, free. Inquiries: 2284 4877

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