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The King of Kowloon

Words:

Edd Norval
June 7, 2020

Some people do it for the fame, others because it’s just what their friends did - the older kids, the ones they idolised. Then, there are the others who have something to say, who must be heard. It’s pure compulsion, an almost spiritual act that is inexplicable to themselves, or anybody else. In the densely populated walled city of Kowloon, one unexpected artist is the king of the streets.

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Kowloon is unlike almost anywhere else on Earth. A densely populated megalopolis, akin to alo-fi dystopian vision of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, Kowloon is built to house people and little else. That’s why, in a place so utilitarian, the presence of art is like a rose growing through a crack in the concrete. It offers a momentary respite from the city’s overwhelming hustle and bustle.


The peninsula, used initially by the ruling British establishment for tiger-hunting expeditions, has retained this Wild West persona. Kowloon’s inhabitants carry the sort of street-savvy mentality it takes to get by in such an overcrowded environment. With over 2 million inhabitants, it's the most densely populated area of Hong Kong - it's also a place where eccentricity is stifled, yet prized.


Kowloon is a cog in a machine, a facilitator for the rat-race, but also a fertile and chaotic place for people to stand out. One personality, widely known in Kowloon, yet relatively obscure outside, is Tsang Tsou-Choi, the hobbling artist, propped up by crutches and often mistaken for a homeless man. The homeless man who would be king.

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Drawing on the traditional style of calligraphy, he daubs vast facades with elaborate rants about his ancient ancestral birthright to the ownership of the land there. To some, he’s just a madman painting from his ink-filled instant noodle container. Others see him as some kind of prophet with the raw visceral energy of Jean-Michel Basquiat.


Tsang, then, isn’t just the ‘king’ in the sense that so many street artists claim to be, but rather, his claim is directly related to his entitled aristocracy. His calligraphic writings are as much about his own sacred birthright as to profane articulations against the ruling power - which for 99 years from 1898 was the British and in Tsang’s lifetime, Queen Elizabeth - the subject of much of his scorn. After that 99 year lease went by, Tsang’s attention turned to the Chinese government - his land's latest owner.


Never kind to criticism, the Chinese government always seemed a step ahead of the artist, blasting his scrawlings off of the walls of the city, perpetuating an unchallenged homogenous view of their rule. Still, it was never enough to stop the King. Tsang was intent on having his story heard and responded by becoming even more prolific.

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Although his claim is to something mainstream - the ownership of a chunk of Hong Kong - his place in the art world has always been distinctly cult. That doesn’t mean his art has been limited to the street though. Tsang’s offbeat appeal and genuinely interesting art, has gained him access into several renowned exhibitions and events, his name appearing alongside some of the most prominent in contemporary street art.


In a peaceful country, Tsang’s story of hardship, stemming from the rejection by his family due to his unorthodox behaviour, has fuelled his combative rhetoric, rousing a controversial reaction from the local media and bestowed upon him a punk appeal. Somewhere between outsider and protest art, the rudimentary graffiti work of the Kowloon figurehead has become preserved after his passing in 2007.


Although anti-establishment in its nature, the artist’s works seem to have been given a free pass by the government - a little bit of leeway in light of acknowleding their efforts to erase his impact would be futile anyway, particularly given the recognition he received towards the end of his life. Tsang is now a part of Chinese artist folklore, having been painting on the streets since 1956.

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A relentless approach, such was his insistent claim as heir, Tsang transformed the drab grey pillars and electrical boxes of Kowloon into architectural scrolls which are still serve as a 'must see' point of interest for tourists. Although waved away as a former binman-come-raving madman, his earnest work held a poignancy for many who, regardless of the authenticity of his claim, admired his restless and compulsive urge to tell his story. 


There may never have been hope he’d get the island, but in Tsang’s continuous effort to speak against the powers that be, many others derived hope from the man whose flame couldn’t be extinguished, no matter the tsunamis it faced. After all this time, it still prevails and many still wait in vain to see if his prophesy will one day come true.

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