The King of Kowloon: The Art of Tsang Tsou-choi
Damiani, 225 pp., $50
In 1956, a garbage man living in the Kowloon neighborhood of Hong Kong, having reached the Dantean age of thirty-five, declared himself emperor. Tsang Tsou-choi grandly dismissed the powers that have made claims on Hong Kong—the Qing Dynasty in the nineteenth century, the British in the twentieth, Communist China in the twenty-first—and said (much to the alarm of his wife and children) that it had belonged by right to his ancestors and now belonged to him.Graffiti was the eccentric means by which he pressed this grandiose claim. In every spare moment, the so-called “King of Kowloon” painted his imperial title (accompanied by family trees, insults to the Queen of England, and accountings of his ancestors’ deeds) all across the city. Tsang’s brush turned utility boxes, lampposts, and retaining walls into the stele of an imagined empire.His proclamations, ignored by the civil authorities, in time garnered the attention of the international arts community. Photographic essays, gallery shows, and tributes from the fashion world followed, as the King of Kowloon was deemed Hong Kong’s great artist-activist—a creative genius opposed to any outside power impinging on the city.The tendency to view Tsang as artist-activist began with a 1997 exhibition of his “work” organized by the Hong Kong art critic Lau Kin-wai. It reaches its fullest expression in the recent publication of the first monograph on Tsang, King of Kowloon: The Art of Tsang Tsou-choi. This handsome coffee-table book offers the most comprehensive collection yet of images of his writing and includes several insightful essays (the appendix of reprinted news articles on Tsang is especially helpful in filling out the scant record of his life).Tsang was born in 1921 in a village of Guangdong, the southern Chinese province that flanks Hong Kong. At sixteen, he migrated to the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, along with hundreds of thousands of other Chinese seeking entrée to the middle class in the dynamic port city. He fell in love with, and then lost, a girl whom he would memorialize alongside the lists of his ancestors: Mourning Sin Bou-Jan. He met and married another woman, started a family, and found work as a trash collector.A car accident suffered during a visit to a monastery seemed to change him. It was around this time that he came upon a document purporting to show imperial land grants made to his family. He also started receiving messages from his ancestors. His erratic behavior embarrassed his family and drove them away, but even as he began his tireless campaign of painting, he still worked to support them. (Art critic Lau Kin-wai reported in 1997, “his full earnings are often handed over to his wife.”) For himself, he lived as a beggar, on the edge of vagrancy. He spent his spare moments painting. He painted letters in vertical compound constructions, such as one may see on lamps hanging at the Three Mountains Temple.Tsang’s proclamations often took the form of jiapu, the ancient Chinese records listing generations of ancestors in columns. Alongside these genealogies, Tsang would note his family’s marriages and lands, and the wars in which its members played heroic roles. (The vanquishing of Japan, after it had occupied Kowloon during World War II, was sometimes reported, as was the mythical defeat of Elizabeth II.)One of the earliest profiles of this claimant to a forgotten throne was printed in 1970, in the Ming Pao Evening News:
The territory occupied by the King … is a small hill across from the Walden Hotel on Tai Po Road in the New Territories. There he has built a small wooden shack he calls the “palace,” where he receives visitors, while his imperial sleeping chamber is a small cave located below. …On the hills outside of the palace are a few bamboo poles, and the cotton flags attached to them unfurl in the breeze. Under the flags there are two wooden notice boards. Some of the “notices” are incomprehensible, yet the four characters [the country is prosperous and the people live in safety] are written neatly.
Tsang was treated by the neighborhood with humane disinterestedness: “[T]he residents … see him coming and give him leftover food. Once he’s full, he returns to his sleeping chamber to rest. Over the years, he has never infringed upon others, nor does he speak to anyone.” In time, Tsang would move into a public housing apartment, which, if it lacked the fairy-tale charm of his shack, was no less consecrated to his cause: every surface displayed graffiti blazoning his imperial claim.Disinterest has now given way to the unseemly desire to make Tsang either into an exemplary artist or into a mascot for one or another protest movement. Yet Tsang was not, as some suggest, concerned with critiquing British power or Beijing’s encroachments. His mission—vindicating the claims of an imagined empire—was too specific, too impractical to resonate with any cause but his impossible own. Other Chinese peasants have claimed to be emperors in order to spark social movements (one, Zeng Yinglong, is currently sitting in a Chinese jail for declaring himself emperor and leading a revolt against China’s brutal one-child policy) but Tsang had no apparent interest in revolution and reform.Equally implausible attempts to present Tsang as an artist lean heavily on the connection between his graffiti and the traditions of classical Chinese calligraphy. The connection is a dubious one: Tsang’s variable and sometimes sloppy writing, denigrated by calligraphic experts, is done more with an eye to quickly covering a surface than with fulfilling an artistic ambition. It proclaims the emperor—not the auteur. As Tsang told Colors magazine: “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.”What, then, explains Tsang’s hold on the imaginations of so many? One hint can be found in the career of Don Quixote. Both Tsang and Quixote took up quests that separated them from their dependents. Both were suspected of mental illness. Both dedicated themselves to impossible causes that elevated their own lives and transfixed thousands. The beauty of their delusions, and the sincerity with which they lived by them, made their falseness irrelevant. As the Chinese writer and activist Ou Ning writes:
Among the forests of skyscrapers, heavy traffic and densely packed crowds of the city, Tsang Tsou-choi’s brush fought a tenacious battle to carve out space for his ancestral lists, his charms and spells, his visions of kingly power—like some ancient, homeless forbear who sighed, raged and wept his way through a modern world where things might be the same but the people had changed.
By dedicating himself to an impossible quest, by seeking to recall the names of dead ancestors and bring to life a forgotten world, Tsang testified to memory in a time of forgetting and particularity in an age of abstraction. It is this great mourning for a lost world that makes Tsang the emperor, not just of his own imagination, but also of ours. We all know friendships grown cold, childhood homes destroyed, loved ones lost. These are the things that Tsang spent his life recalling, and they—not the quality of his brushstroke or the character of his political opinions—are why we remember him still. For all of life, and not only for Sin Bou-jan, Tsang was a man who mourned.