Fighting for the legacy of the King of Kowloon, Hong Kong’s graffiti pioneer

Campaign under way to preserve diminishing works of Tsang Tsou-choi

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 4:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 4:51pm

His graffiti once plastered Hong Kong, dense black ink calligraphy applied with a brush to any public surface, telling the outlandish story of why he believed the territory belonged to him.

The self-declared “King of Kowloon”, Tsang Tsou-choi, lived in poverty but became a local hero and internationally renowned artist, creating around 55,000 outdoor works over five decades on everything from post boxes to flyovers.

But six years since his death in 2007, aged 85, only four pieces of his distinctive Hong Kong street art remain in situ, the rest swept away by an unstoppable wave of redevelopment or painted over by the authorities.

Hong Kong’s arts community is now fighting to preserve the vestiges of his public work.

“The King’s work belongs to the street, but most of it has already vanished or been cleaned up,” says photographer Simon Go, who was a friend of Tsang’s and runs Hong Kong heritage organisation Hulu Culture.

“Preserving these remaining works where they are is our last chance to save his true legacy. But the authorities want a clean city, where every community looks the same.”

Heritage regularly falls victim to construction in Hong Kong and the government is often criticised for doing too little to preserve cultural history.

Lau Kin Wai, art critic and friend of the King of Kowloon, says that he has tried to convince the authorities to safeguard Tsang’s works, without success.

“It makes me angry,” he told AFP. “The LCSD (Leisure and Cultural Services Department) does not have a sense of culture. He is one of the earliest modern graffiti artists, but they say it is arguable whether his work is art.”

Tsang came to Hong Kong as a teenager from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and started his prolific graffiti career in the 1950s.

Believing his ancestors once ruled the city’s Kowloon district, his street art promoted his claim to be the rightful monarch, depicting his family tree and raging against colonial powers in bold columns of Chinese characters.

Tsang worked as a rubbish collector until he broke both legs in his 60s, after which he painted on crutches.