For decades, Tsang Tsou Choi — shirtless, a towel around his neck, supported by crutches — roamed the streets of Hong Kong armed with bottles of black ink and a calligraphy brush. From the 1950s to the 2000s, he turned everything from lampposts to phoneboxes into rippling vistas of Chinese characters. His scuzzy, calligraphic graffiti had a hit-and-run quality; as soon as they were painted over by the city’s sanitation department, he would return to rewrite them. What did Tsang’s messages, filled with outlandish stories of a lost emperor and being celebrated at Art Basel Hong Kong later this month, mean?

Tsang was born in 1921 in Liantang village, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. At the age of 16, with little formal education, he arrived in Hong Kong. For much of his life, Tsang worked in manual labour and rubbish removal (in 1987, he seriously injured his legs after a waste container fell on him). He lived out of a small, dilapidated apartment.

A shirtless older man paints Chinese writing in black ink onto a bus stop
Tsang Tsou Choi, the self-declared ‘King of Kowloon’, painting on a bus stop in Hong Kong © Alamy Stock Photo
A metal box in a public street has been covered in Chinese writing
The artist’s writings appear in various public spaces around Hong Kong

One of his mysterious claims was that his ancestors had once owned the territory of Kowloon, the peninsula north of Hong Kong Island. Tsang said that had seen a family tree which connected him to an important courtier of the bygone Zhou dynasty. His graffiti was filled with staccato-like references to this lineage, accompanied by a rebellious attitude towards the British authorities who had apparently stolen his lands. A typical piece might include the exhortation “Down with the Queen of England” and “Fight with Britain”, alongside his self-styled title, the King of Kowloon. Sometimes he embellished his right even further, laying claim to the imperial throne of China itself.

Tsang’s script crawled up walls, pillars, even cars. He was drawn to symbols of British power, making his mark around the city’s Victoria Park or on Hong Kong’s colonial postboxes (apparently the royal insignia proved irresistible). Whether or not you viewed his graffiti as a disturbing outburst or the writings of a doomed dreamer, his lacerating poetry seemed to be everywhere — a feature of the cityscape itself. Tsang became such a cultural icon that he once starred in a commercial for the household cleaning brand Swipe, in which he used the detergent to wipe away his writing. (His passion proved too much for his wife, who left him.)

The art world seems to have decided Tsang, who died of a heart attack in 2007, is more genius than madman. The Art Basel presentation by Lucie Chang Fine Arts will show ink-on-paper works, including an inscription on a map of Kowloon, alongside ephemera such as brushes and markers. (The works come via the collector and curator Willie Chung, a close friend of Tsang.) The gallery will also be staging a solo Tsang exhibition in its main space, displaying objects he drew on alongside his TV, kettle and newspaper collection.

An old map of Hong Kong covered in Chinese writing
‘Marker on Original Old Hong Kong Map (Victoria Harbour)’ (2004-06) © Courtesy Lucie Chang Fine Arts

The institutional recognition dates to 1997 — the year in which Hong Kong’s sovereignty was passed to China — when Tsang was included in Cities on the Move, the influential touring exhibition focused on East Asian urbanism and art. In 2003, his work could even be seen at the Venice Biennale. In 2013, a Vespa adorned with Tsang’s graffiti fetched HK$1.84mn at a Sotheby’s auction.

For his part, Tsang seemed to display little enthusiasm for commerce. “I don’t care about money and fame,” he told an interviewer a few years before his death. “They should just give me back the throne.”

What explains the King of Kowloon phenomenon? You can link Tsang back to an older tradition, says the scholar Nancy P Lin, who studies Chinese art and urban space. His writings on electrical boxes almost recall premodern monumental inscriptions, she says, the “stone steles which carried the authority of the state”. Or you might consider his work within the standards of classical calligraphy, suggests Nixi Cura, a specialist in Chinese painting, with his dark, dense tonalities, applied with a thick brush. Look closer and you can even spot his use of feibai, or “flying white”, Cura says — an age-old calligraphic technique in which the inked brush is allowed to dry out, the hairs splayed to produce streaked strokes.

Chinese writing in black ink covers a large sheet of drawing paper
‘Graffiti Calligraphy’ (1999-2003) by Tsang Tsou Choi

And yet, Cura says, is it even appropriate to apply these art-historical terms to a graffiti artist? In many ways, his pieces bear little resemblance to recognised schools of calligraphy. Often, Tsang’s script appears to follow his own obsessions. The lettering is frequently askew, rickety and out of proportion; phrases move in all directions, randomly incorporating Roman numerals.

From the perspective of today, Tsang’s graffiti also feels prophetic. It’s hard not to see his disobedient salvos as a forerunner of the freewheeling art of Hong Kong’s protest movement, which flared up in the city in 2014 and 2019. They seem to prophesy especially the shimmering, rainbow-like “Lennon Walls” of the Umbrella Movement, where urban spaces were plastered with hundreds of colourful sticky notes filled with messages of resistance.

In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to preserve the handful of Tsang’s works that remain. A defaced pillar at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier is now protected by a transparent plastic shield. Several of his pieces reside in the collection of Hong Kong’s newly opened M+ museum, including a pair of tagged wooden doors, commissioned by a local photography studio.

Pedestrians walk past a plastic casing set up around a graffiti made by late artist Tsang Tsou Choi
Plastic casing has been set-up around some of the late artist’s works in Hong Kong © Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

Such efforts speak to how Tsang’s story continues to haunt the public imagination: a cipher for Hong Kong’s own threatened sense of identity as it shifted from British authority to its new Chinese overlords. Since 2020, the territory has experienced an accelerated erosion of civil liberties, especially with the passing of the national security law, which has stifled the pro-democracy movement. It is in this context, Cura says, that Tsang’s screeds have become “a perfect metaphor for this sense of something lost”.

If, as Picasso declared, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth,” then the same paradox is at work within Tsang’s world of make-believe. His art that grew out of delusion, words slipping between sense and nonsense, has offered Hong Kong’s citizens a sense of poignancy: the memory of an older defiance. And perhaps the hope that some things — including audacity in the face of authority — will never truly leave.

To July 2022, luciechangfinearts.com

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