March 24th, 2007

The King of Kowloon

king03.jpg

Before we left for our trip to Hong Kong, my girlfriend told me about the world’s oldest graffiti artist. “He’s eighty-five years old and he calls himself the King of Kowloon,” she explained. I had trouble reconciling the image of a frail old man with that of a typical paint-wielding street artist, especially after seeing a photo of some of the King’s work, which consisted of densely-packed, obssesive Chinese script arranged in neat lines and scrawled over the side of a pedestrian overpass.

About two weeks after I arrived in Hong Kong, I was walking from our apartment in leafy Yau Yat Chuen to go explore the more downscale Sham Shui Po. It had been raining that morning; the humid midday heat was so intense that I felt I was walking through water. As sweat poured down my back, I wished I hadn’t worn a thin pink shirt. Eventually, I emerged onto the inhospitable Boundary Road, walking towards the intersection with Tai Hang Tung Road. As I began crossing the street, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a grey utility boxed covered with Chinese script.

I knew it at once: I had finally crossed paths with the King of Kowloon.

I snapped a photo of the graffiti, but didn’t have the presence of mind to photograph the whole utility box, which was covered in unusually-drawn characters from front to back and top to bottom. Alas, when I showed my girlfriend’s family the picture later that day, nobody could make much sense of the script I had photographed, except that it had something to do with “the government of Hong Kong.” Later, an article in Colors magazine gave me an idea of what had been written: “The contents of [the King of Kowloon's] calligraphy usually contain some or all of the following: his name, his title (King or Emperor of China, Kowloon or Hong Kong, depending); a list of 20 or so ancestors, with new additions from time to time; the names of some famous Chinese emperors and phrases such as, ‘Down with the Queen of England.’” Apparently, the King of Kowloon actually believes he is the king of Kowloon.

King of Kowloon

Tsang Tsou Choi was thirty-five when he started covering Kowloon with assertions that he was its rightful owner. That was in 1955. Now, Tsang is an octegenarian who hobbles around with a cane, claiming that Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tseng is an “imposter” and that he himself should have been elected to lead Hong Kong. Tsang says that, as a young man, he stumbled across a set of documents that indicated that most of Kowloon was owned by his ancestors, before it was ceded to the British in 1860, after the end of the Second Opium War. Of course, none of these documents have ever been proven to exist. That has never deterred Tsang, whose obsession with proving himself as the King of Kowloon drove away his wife and family and earned him a few brief stints in jail.

In a city that until recently was devoted almost entirely to the individual pursuit of wealth, the King’s persistent eccentricity drew attention. He was relentless in his work: if any of his graffiti was painted over, as it frequently was, Tsang would return as soon as the paint dried to scrawl something anew. In the 1990s, a new generation of creative-minded Hong Kongers embraced the King as an “outsider artist” whose minimal literacy and lack of self-consciousness gave him the freedom to reinterpret Chinese writing. AsiaWeek reports that his unique calligraphy has inspired “fashion designers, interior designers and CD cover artists.” In 2003, Tsang was featured in the 50th Venice Biennial. In 2004, a piece of wood he painted fetched US$1,100 at an action.

The King of Kowloon now lives in a nursing home. He scrawls his mad rants on towels and bedsheets. Slowly, his work is disappearing from the streets. What will Kowloon do without its king?

King of Kowloon

Some of the King’s work. Photo from Colors.


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4 comments

  1. Boris says:

    amazing!
    i was born in Hong Kong and have lived in Yau Yat Chuen for a long while. And every little bit of your article reminds me everything back home!

    March 29th, 2007 at 3:08 am

  2. sim-family.net » Graffiti and The “King of Kowloon” 九龙皇帝 says:

    [...]  http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2007/03/24/the-king-of-kowloon [...]

    July 29th, 2007 at 10:41 am

  3. lacrew says:

    o muy bueno

    August 4th, 2007 at 12:45 pm

  4. The Last King of Kowloon and The World’s Oldest Graffiti Artist, The Late Tsang Tsou Choi - Hoovaloo.com says:

    [...] more of a writeup on the last King of Kowloon @ URBANPHOTO. Here are more photos of Tsang on the streets @ Universes in Universe. Here are more photos of [...]

    October 21st, 2007 at 6:00 pm

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