....... Divertimento: The King of Kowloon 九龍皇帝 (2)

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The King of Kowloon 九龍皇帝 (2)

Calligraphy or Graffiti?

Most Hong Kong residents have either seen or heard of the Tsang Tsou-choi 曾灶財, the self proclaimed King of Kowloon and his writings on the walls (refer blog post of 25 May 2011). He travelled extensively across Hong Kong , adding his decrees to many a wall and lamppost. Aesthetics was not his aim; instead he needed an outlet to express his outrage at being deprived of his rightful inheritance. So, was it art or an act of anarchy?

Ironically for him, no one took his claim seriously despite a 51 year long crusade. Instead, his graffiti was elevated to the status of art. He first started writing on walls in 1956 yet it was not until 1995 when he was prosecuted for the first time by police. He was fined $50 for writing graffiti in a car park of a building. Often, his writings were painted over but he would return and re-write his messages as soon as the paint dried. In general though, he was left to roam the streets with his black ink and brushes. His scribblings have even been called “mural pieces……….Hong Kong’s unique treasure of art .(1)” In fact in 2003, Tsang was the first Hong Kong artist to have been invited to the Venice Biennale. On 23 September of that year, Tsang’s calligraphy was nominated by Hong Kong’s English language daily the South China Morning Post as one of the “Top 25 Reasons to Love Hong Kong”.

Tsang’s reputation as an artist was cemented when Sotheby's auctioned a board painted by him for $55,000. After his death, an acrylic on canvas calligraphy by Tsang went under the hammer at Sotheby’s for $500,000 in 2009.

Tsang enjoyed an iconic status. In addition to the various art exhibitions he also made guest appearances in two local films – Queen of Kowloon and Lavender. Tsang’s work even inspired a TV commercial. In the commercial for a household cleaner, Swipe, he cleans away his permanent ink graffiti with Swipe. He also attracted the attention of the likes of Hong Kong lifestyle brand G.O.D (t-shirt using Tsang’s art), toy manufacturer Dragon Models Limited (Hong Kong Brand used Tsang’s calligraphy as its logo) and Converse (shoe design based on his writing style).

There is struggle to preserve Tsang’s writing as they are on public installations. After his death, many people took photographs of his writings. Many worried that the government would “clean up” his writings. His graffiti is now on the official list of “Hong Kong identity symbols to be protected.” For example, one at the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier has been sprayed over with a clear protective layer.

So, is Tsang Tsou-choi an artist? Evidently, many think so. In an interview with Colors, Tsang had this to say “I don’t care about money and fame. They should just give me back the throne. I am not an artist - I am simply the King”. He also said “Emperors in China have always been calligraphers.”

(1) Catalogue – Memories of King Kowloon exhibition by Artistree

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