The King is Dead; Long Live the King

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One of the King of Kowloon’s last remaining pieces.
Photo by Dustin Shum of the South China Morning Post

Tsang Tsou Choi, the King of Kowloon, died two weeks ago at the age of 86. I wrote about Tsang in March, outlining my first encounter with his graffiti and the strange and sometimes nonsensical messages it contains.

Hong Kongers will remember his denunciations of Queen Elizabeth II and his outlandish claim to be the rightful proprietor of most of Kowloon. But Tsang’s impact was less trivial than it might seem: in a society that for decades stressed material gain and social mobility above all else, the King of Kowloon was an oddball and an outsider. His unique visual style influenced a generation of creative young Hong Kongers and, in 2003, his work was featured in the Venice Biennial.

For most of his life, however, Tsang was not viewed with such high regard by the Hong Kong authorities, who doggedly erased his work as soon as he put it up. Only a few of his murals remain, the most prominent being located on a pillar at the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui. Now, pressure is mounting on Hong Kong’s leaders to preserve what is left of the King’s legacy. “Friends, exhibitors, members of the Antiquities Advisory Board and a legislator said Tsang’s work, some of which remains on walls in Kowloon, was part of the city’s collective memory and must be preserved,” reports the South China Morning Post.

Ever since its handover to China in 1997 and the economic recession that followed, the question of Hong Kong’s identity has weighed heavily on its citizens. Last year, the decision to destroy the Queen’s Pier and an historic Star Ferry terminal sparked widespread outrage, as did the eviction of hundreds of residents and businesses for “Wedding Card Street” to make way for a new real estate development. Issues of heritage and “collective memory” have become standard fodder for discussion.

For many Hong Kongers, then, the King of Kowloon represented a part of the territory’s local identity, a small part of the unique culture that sets it apart from the overbearing mainland. So far, government officials appear to be listening. The SCMP reports that they promised yesterday not to remove any of the King’s remaining work. “I don’t see any reason why they should be removed,” said Bernard Chan, a member of Hong Kong’s executive council.

The King might be dead, but his spirit lives on.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday July 29 2007at 02:07 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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