....... Divertimento: The King of Kowloon 九龍皇帝

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The King of Kowloon 九龍皇帝

King or lunatic?

This is one of the questions you face when you consider the life of Hong Kong citizen Tsang Tsou-choi 曾灶財. Originally named Tsang Choi, he was born in Liantang village, Guangdong province on 12 November 1921. He came to Hong Kong at 16, lived with his uncle Sin Bak in Yuen Long and made a living as a peasant. He had also worked as a pipe-cleaner, coolie and garbage collector. He married Leung Fuk-choi who was 15 years his junior and they had 4 daughters and 4 sons.

Tsang started his street calligraphy in 1956, at the age of 35. Tsang had only 2 years of schooling, so in terms of calligraphy, his script was idiosyncratic perhaps even crude. He was definitely prolific – his writings could be seen on building walls, lampposts, utility boxes and other public property around Hong Kong. Over a period of 51 years until his death in 2007, it is estimated that he produced 55,845 pieces of work at 80 locations over Hong Kong. He’d even written on the walls and curtains of his home. Even the clock and his huxiang zheng "home return permit” were covered with his writings. So what drove this man to such passion and why was he allowed to continue?

Looking at his writings, one certainly gains a sense of rage and injustice. This was a man with an obsession. Tsang was convinced that most of the land of Kowloon belonged to his ancestors. One version was that his great grandfather Tsang Gwong-jing, was a prime minister in the Zhou Dynasty and owned a lot land in Hong Kong. As Hong Kong had become a British colony, he complained that his ancestor’s land had been appropriated by the British. Thus began his gripe against the authorities. His writings usually included his name, his title九龍皇帝 “King of Kowloon”, his family tree and the statement “Down with the Queen of England”.

Tsang was arrested several times for his graffiti but remarkably, he was usually only given a warning or a small fine. For example, on 18 August 2001, Tsang wrote his ancestral record on a stone pillar at the Star Ferry Pier. He was taken away for questioning and later released unconditionally. On 22 September 2002, Tsang was prosecuted and fined $500 for painting in the vicinity of Jardine House in Central. This was the last prosecution on record.

His two eldest daughters had emigrated to Britain and Holland. Tsang was proud of their settling abroad. His Majesty proclaimed “At least she can meet Queen Elizabeth and settle the dispute with me one day, and talk her into returning to me the Kowloon illegally occupied by Britain.”

Next - Calligraphy or graffiti? Art or defacement?

From now till 31 May 2011, you need not travel around Hong Kong to view the King of Kowloon’s “art”. There is an exhibition at ArtisTree, 1/F Cornwall House, Taikoo Place, Island East (free admission).

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