HK mourns graffiti king and his vanishing art

HONG KONG, July 26 (Reuters Life!) - A poor and crippled Hong Kong man who became a cultural icon for his unique Chinese-style street graffiti has died at the age of 86, sparking nostalgic calls to preserve his vanishing legacy.

Tsang Tsou-choi shows off his writings at the construction site of the Hong Kong Central Library in this August 15, 1999 file photo. Tsang died on July 15, 2007 due to sickness in a hospital at the age of 86, his fashion designer friend William Tang told reporters on July 25, 2007. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files

Tsang Tsou-choi, dubbed “The King of Kowloon” after the district he lived in -- was a Hong Kong original, who never saw himself as an artist but was hailed internationally as one.

A grubby man who looked like a tramp and who many thought barking mad, Tsang spent five decades roaming the metropolis -- often shirtless and on crutches -- scrawling his idiosyncratic calligraphy on lamp-posts, walls, phone boxes, pedestrian underpasses and electrical boxes.

“To some extent he’s quite cuckoo,” said leading Hong Kong fashion designer William Tang, a longtime admirer of Tsang who used the graffiti as a motif for several clothing ranges.

“I started to look at the calligraphy carefully and found it’s not just a joke. It has some kind of power, which is very raw, very original,” Tang added.


Some say Tsang’s Chinese-style calligraphy, peppered with obscenities and abuse toward Britain’s Queen Elizabeth -- is naive and an eyesore. But its quintessential Hong Kong symbolism has inspired other artists, including local film-maker Fruit Chan, and has drawn international acclaim.

In 2003, Tsang’s graffiti graced the renowned Venice Biennale art exhibition and in 2004, Sotheby’s auctioned some of his work.

Tsang’s admirers say his unique art slowly permeated the local consciousness and became a part of the city’s collective memory.

“The most important thing is it’s so consistent. It has become an icon and people recognize it -- and that imprints in people’s minds,” said legislator Patrick Lau.


But Tsang’s acts of vandalism antagonized both Hong Kong’s British colonial rulers as well as the territory’s leaders after the 1997 handover to China.

The police pitted themselves against the graffiti artist in a cat and mouse game for years, effacing his work wherever they found it and detaining him several times.

Tsang stubbornly kept at his task -- even on crutches in his 80s -- but was forced to retire when his legs finally gave way.

His works are now in danger of vanishing completely. Only a few examples of his art remain, including a pillar at the Star Ferry Pier, sparking calls by legislators, art critics and preservation experts to save these vestiges.

“I don’t see any reason why they should be removed,” said Bernard Chan, a member of the Executive Council -- Hong Kong’s top policy advisory body and the Antiquities Advisory Board.

Lau Kin-wai, an art critic and friend of Tsang’s for many years, called on the Hong Kong Art Museum to mount an exhibition to pay full tribute to Tsang’s legacy.

“He has already become a cultural icon and part of the collective memory of Hong Kong. (His work) is important for our future and past,” Lau said.