Tsang Tsou-choi: King of Kowloon, crazy old man, Hong Kong street art pioneer
I met Tsang Tsou-choi, aka "The King of Kowloon," when I was a kid. I had no idea who he was.
Passing him on the street, all I saw was a dirty, crippled tramp defacing an electricity junction box.
Tsang, who died in 2007, went on to become Hong Kong's most recognized artist of the last two decades. His calligraphy was displayed at the Venice Biennale in 2003. The next year, one of his pieces was auctioned at Sotheby's for HK$55,000 and Tsang's work was named one of the top 10 most influential Hong Kong designs.
Many Hong Kongers still think of him as just an endearing but mad old man.
In his calligraphic messages scrawled across the streets of Hong Kong, Tsang claimed that his ancestors owned the Kowloon peninsula; he raged against the government, calling Donald Tsang an imposter and hurling obscenities at the Queen of England. His claims to Kowloon are unverified.
In 2005, Colors magazine interviewed Tsang for a cover story. He was quoted: "I am not an artist -- I am simply the King."
Joel Chung was a personal friend of the King of Kowloon. Chung is the co-founder of arts education organization Hong Kong Creates and is now co-presenting the exhibition "Memories of King Kowloon" with Swire Island East Hong Kong. He explains why discussing Tsang's madness is besides the point.
An artist's spirit
Chung is recognized by many as the disciple of Tsang Tsou-choi. Having known the graffiti artist for 20 years, Chung describes him as the embodiment an indomitable dedication to creativity common to all true artists.
"This exhibition is inspired by Choi Suk's ('Uncle Choi,' as Tsang is commonly known) creative spirit, not his actual calligraphy," says Chung. "I don't consider him an artist. Even if Sotheby's has auctioned off his work, his work is not art. But his behavior is artistic behavior.
"An artist should be very loyal to their task and Choi Suk is someone who only did what makes him happy. Granted, he is an extreme example. He let go of everything and everyone around him. He ignored it all and immersed himself in the creative process."
The exhibition is an extensive survey on Tsang's life, work and legacy. A section displays his personal possessions, which he gave away to Chung during the last years of his life.
All the objects are covered in the King's child-like scrawl. Even his identification papers.
The collection of mundane items manages to bring out the humanity of this "mad old man."
The bottles of ink with their peeling labels, and the tattered calligraphy brushes casually bundled together, look like they belong on any Chinese grandpa's desk. As well, the traditional medicinal oils that Tsang used to soothe his injured legs and the crushed Coca-Cola cans he left around his apartment after he guzzled his staple drink, all serve as reminders of the banality of his life outside of writing.
"If he really was crazy, then I have got to question whether I am also crazy," says Chung. "I had no problem communicating with him. He was a happy old man. He was also definitely an eccentric. He was totally focused on doing one thing and one thing only. But many professionals have worked with him successfully. Choi Suk has been featured in commercials, art, movies, and if he was really crazy then they would not have been able to cooperate with him."
"He was also very generous. His work was done in a public space so that he could share it with everyone. His writing eventually became a part of the Hong Kong landscape."
Hong Kong art pioneer
Tsang covered 80 locations in Hong Kong with his calligraphy. His work was never meant to be in a museum. The city was Tsang's art gallery and public space was his canvas.
The part of the exhibition that is dedicated to his work tries to capture the atmosphere of the streets by erecting walls covered by framed King of Kowloon calligraphy. On display is just a fraction of the estimated 55,845 pieces of work Tsang produced during his lifetime.
The calligraphy has been categorized according to their narrative. Apart from directing profanity towards Queen Elizabeth, much of Tsang's writing is about patriotic movements in Chinese history, glorifying martyrs, heroes, and rebels who defended China from invasion. But mostly, Tsang writes about his estranged wife and his children.
"Most people only see the form of his calligraphy," says Chung. "Few have the chance to see hundreds of his works at once up close. Few realise his work is very rich. It is a public diary of his life."
Chung observed that the King is "a traditional Chinese man" and his iconic calligraphic style is influenced by the typography used in materials related to Chinese ancestor worship. Specifically, Tsang's style for the Chinese characters for "king" resemble the ones found on lanterns hanging outside the Three Mountain Kings Temple in Kwun Tong, where Tsang once had a traffic accident.
Tsang's style of alternating small and large fonts in his phrases, and making important characters extra bold, is influenced by the layout of text in a traditional Chinese almanac as well as the writing on fortune sticks used in divination.
"Not only was he doing graffiti, a very Western activity, half a century ago, but he was also observing elements of the city, cultural idiosyncrasies, unique Chinese design characteristics, and putting it all into his work," says Chung. "Choi Suk is a pioneer."
The last section of the exhibit displays tribute works by contemporary Hong Kong artists. Many of the works play on the metaphor of ink calligraphy or of repetition. But what stood out most was the lack of recognizably King of Kowloon calligraphy.
"We have finally moved beyond simply immitating or playing on his form," says Chung. "In the past, artists have produced homages to Tsang that use his work in a literal sense.
"In this exhibition, rather than discuss 'is this art?', it is more important to ask 'what can I see through this work?' Tsoi's work makes me question what is public space, what is local culture, what is respect for an artist, what is generosity, and it makes me admire his faith in his own work and his perseverance. This is more important than the aesthetics of his work."
Photographer Thomas Lin is alone in prominently featuring Tsang-style writing in his tribute work. He produced a series of images titled "Tete-beche" in which Joel Chung imitates Tsang by painting calligraphy in Hong Kong's public spaces.
Except, Chung paints the Chinese characters upside-down. Lin then flips the images so that the characters are the right way up, but the environment becomes upside-down.
"It is like we are fighting gravity," says Lin. "Gravity rules everything. To fight it is like fighting the status quo."
It is a statement that the King of Kowloon would probably acknowledge and agree with, before painting calligraphy all over the photos.
"Memories of King Kowloon." Free admission. April 20 - May 31, 2011. 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. ArtisTree, 1/F Cornwall House, Taikoo Place, Island East, Quarry Bay, tel +852 2284 4877. www.islandeast.com.hk, www.facebook.com/SwireIslandEast.