Arts & Culture

1921 - 2007

King of Kowloon: The Life and Art of Tsang Tsou-choi

Outsider. Graffiti Artist. Urban Poet. Meet one of Hong Kong's most celebrated and misunderstood cultural icons.

Tsang Tsou-choi (1921-2007)
Tsang Tsou Choi (aka. King of Kowloon), was an artist who wrote Chinese calligraphy throughout the streets of Hong Kong, beginning in 1956. Convinced of his royal lineage, Tsang adopted the namesake “King of Kowloon” and for nearly 60 years railed against the British and Hong Kong governments who he believed had robbed him of his kingdom.

One of the world's earliest graffiti artists, Tsang’s work can also be seen through the lens of outsider art, protest art, contemporary Chinese calligraphy, and even performance due to the public nature of his writing.

Personal History
Born November 12, 1921 in Guangdong, China, Tsang Tsou-choi moved to Hong Kong in 1937. It was on a trip to his clan village in Yuen Long that Tsang reportedly discovered important ancestral documents that stated the land of Kowloon once belonged to his family and was annexed without compensation by the British government. Some time later in the mid-1950’s, Tsang was reportedly involved in a serious car accident. Shortly afterwards in 1956, he began writing calligraphy in public spaces claiming to be the King of Kowloon.
Tools and Technique
Chinese calligraphy or Shūfǎ 書法 is an ancient practice dating back to 4,000 BC. It is a rigorous literary discipline as well as a highly sophisticated art form. As Tsang Tsou-choi was only educated for 2 years at the age of 9, he likely taught himself to write later in life.

As opposed to the "Four Treasures" (brush, inkstone, paper, and inkstone) required in traditional Chinese calligraphy, Tsang preferred a common brush cheap bottled ink, and any available surface that would hold the sticky penetrating ink.

Tsang's calligraphy on the back of signage at the Star Ferry dock.

Remaining Tsang Tsou-choi calligraphy at Tsim Sha Tsui. The column is now protected from damage.

Tsang also wrote extensively in marker on long rolls of cheap paper. He wrote constantly, almost automatically, often replacing exhausted markers mid-text. After moving into the elderly home in 2004, Tsang's nurses forbade him from using the pungent Chinese ink and Tsang was limited to writing exclusively in marker.

While Tsang is best remembered for covering Hong Kong’s ubiquitous grey electrical boxes with characters, he would literally write on every surface and material he could find. Walls, bridges, lampposts, signs, posters, lamps, t-shirts, tea kettles, paper, wood panel and more, all formed a never-ending three-dimensional canvas for Tsang’s relentless brush.

Remaining King of Kowloon calligraphy at Choi Hung, Prince Edward Road East.

Described as an “urban poet” by curator Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Tsang writing includes dates, locations, family’s ancestry, curses, and most often, his claim as the King of Kowloon. The language is fragmented, omits punctuation, and typically repeats the same themes and phrases across writings.

Following literary form, Tsang's text flows from top to bottom but not always from right to left as it should. He played with character scale and composition, varying sizes and even laid large characters across the top of multiple small ones, demonstrating a keen sense of graphical wordplay.

Mischievously, Tsang often swapped Chinese numerals with Romanized ones in the same text. This linguistic mash-up resonates acutely within the East/West identity of Britain's prized former colony.

In this writing, Tsang wrote a sequence of Chinese numbers from 1 to 11, for each family generation. The three horizontal lines is a Chinese "3", and continues in Chinese through "6". Tsang then substituted the Arabic (commonly thought of as Western) numerals for "7" and "8" before returning to Chinese for 9-11.

In 1997, writer Lau Kin-wai curated the first solo exhibition of Tsang's writings at Goethe-Institut in Hong Kong. The exhibition raised questions about whether Tsang should be considered an artist and whether his work belonged in a gallery. Nevertheless, later in the year Tsang was included in the landmark 'Cities on the Move' exhibition curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru. The show traveled from P.S.1 in New York, to Hayward Gallery in London, Louisiana Museum in Denmark among others. Later exhibitions included Johnson Chang's 1999 'Power of the Word' traveling exhibition, and the 2003 Venice Biennale curated by Hou Hanru.

Beyond the white cube, Tsang Tsou-choi made cameo appearances in several films and television ads, inspired fashion designers, and has been the subject of numerous articles from Ming Pao Weekly to the New York Times. His presence and influence lasted generations, though recently has faded as all but a handful of his writings have been destroyed or covered over.

On July 15, 2007 at the age of 85, Tsang Tsou-choi suffered a fatal heart attack at the elderly home.

Nearly sixty years after his first writing, the King of Kowloon remains one of Hong Kong’s most widely known and internationally exhibited visual artists, and is a part of the collective memory of Hong Kong.

Art Research Institute, Hong Kong
Credits: Exhibit

Written by Jehan Chu, Vermillion Art Collections

Photograph credits:
Lau Kin-wai
Joel Chung

Credits: All media
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