Thursday, July 26, 2007

The King of Kowloon is Dead at 85

Hong Kong artists loved this guy's ranting calligraphy which decorated traffic signal boxes, support posts at ferry concourses, temporary walls, and walkways. Now he's gone, leaving behind a few remainders of his unique work.

Hong Kong was not usually subjected to graffiti, and Tsang Tsou Choi's work stood out. He often chose gray surfaces, as I recall. He really did beautify the duller parts of Hong Kong, and to this uncomprehending English speaker, his calligraphy was every bit as decorative as a stone stele in a Chinese temple.

I remember noticing the writings in about 1990, as I was struggling to learn a few Chinese characters. I knew gwok, one of the words usually written out in a size larger than the rest of his wallpaper-ish spreads of writing. I have never really learned exactly what he wrote until today, as I took in the obituary report on Star News Asia, as I was eating a pile of pasta.

Every now and again a Hong Kong artist would honor Tsang's work. Lau Gin-Wai, an art critic turned restaurateur had Tsang decorate a few walls at his restaurant The Yellow Door. Someone else had Tsang write all over glass bottles. And, time and again, his work would make its way into art photography and even the odd fashion spread.

In place where ancestors are worshiped, but where calling attention to yourself is a faux pas, Tsang was tolerated as a kind of oddball. Even on government property (like the General Post Office and the Star Ferry concourse), his work stayed for years, unmolested. I think it's because his graffiti actually looked pretty good. It was Hong Kong's greatest public art.

Here's a snapshot of the man's work, with an admirer taking pause to enjoy it.

His handwriting was consistent and unmistakable, a kind of crude version of Han era calligraphy. And the content perhaps spoke to the everyman who would like to assert his place in an overcrowded city, under a waffling government, within a tiny appendage to the massive state of China.

This is site specific work at its purest.

Tsang shone as heroic, a man who shunned intrusions into his life and spoke out in text only. In this way, he was a writer's writer. Farewell, old man.

Portrait of the artist from Frank Chan's site:

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