The Betrayal of the King
at 2:10pm on 18th March 2014
During the 1990s, as Hong Kong was embroiled in a heated negotiation between the British and the Chinese governments over the city’s return to China, a graffiti maker Tsang Tsou Choi (1921-2007) was making his claim of ownership of the Kowloon district of Hong Kong with his calligraphic street graffiti. An old man living with a mental health condition, Tsang, commonly known as the King of Kowloon, was a charismatic character who suddenly emerged as a third party claiming ownership of part of Hong Kong. Tsang claimed that he had discovered an imperial document from the Ching Dynasty granting his family the ownership of Kowloon.
His calligraphic graffiti, similar to works made by children when practicing traditional Chinese calligraphy, was all over the streets of Kowloon. They were a public declaration reclaiming Tsang’s ownership. The graffiti drew much attention among the arts community. It added in a touch of humor and cynicism at a time of serious political negotiation in which people of Hong Kong were denied the rights to be involved. The Hong Kong Arts Centre (where I was the Exhibition Director at that time) originally planned an exhibition of Tsang’s work but later on gave up the idea as the curatorial team felt that his work would lose all its meaning by being displayed within a gallery space.
The turning point came in 1997 when art critic Lau Kin Wai ‘assisted’ Tsang to produce his work on paper and on the surface of three-dimensional objects such as bottles and pots. These ‘art works’ were then formally exhibited at the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong. Some critics denounced the relocation of Tsang’s work from the street to a white cube gallery. At the opening night, critic Long Tin brought in a gong and hit it loudly, calling for attention to the exploitation and manipulation of Tsang and his art because of his mental health condition. Lau, who requested the opening reception not to be disturbed, quickly suppressed the protest.
Attempting to legitimize the artistic merit of Tsang’s work even when it is dislocated from the street, Lau has persistently linked Tsang’s calligraphy with the grand tradition of Chinese calligraphy, and at the same time, reinforced Tsang’s contemporary value within the context of international exhibitions featuring his work. A frequent used authoritative proof of artistic value was the inclusion of Tsang’s work in the 2003 Venice Biennale. Among the ten exhibitions at the Biennale, one was curated by Hou Honru and included Tsang’s work. The exhibition was an extension of the Universes in Universe previously co-curated by Hou, and examined the Asian urban landscape. In this case, it was legitimate to include Tsang’s work within in such a curatorial context.
The reality is that the artistic quality of the calligraphic graffiti of the ‘King’ is similar to the playful calligraphic work of a child, which is pleasant, fun but not unusual. Its value returns to the level of children’s calligraphy once it is moved out of the streets. Unconscious as it might be, Tsang illegal act of graffiti becomes ironically political during the transitional period of the pre-1997 era, but only within the urban landscape of the city.
In 2004, a work by Tsang was auctioned at Sotheby for HK$55,000 (USD$7,050). Half of the income went to Tsang, while the other half went to cover the expenses of the previous exhibition. After Tsang passed away in 2007, most of his collectable works stay within the collection of Lau and an independent curator Chung Yin Chai. Since then, Tsang’s works have been put into auction regularly, from works on paper, canvas to three-dimensional objects. Prices range from over a million Hong Kong dollars to a few thousands, mainly by private collectors. Over the years, Lau has been critical of the indifference of the government run museums toward Tsang’s work and pushed for more active collection of Tsang’s works at public museums.
In 2009, Chung Yin Chai, another major collector of Tsang’s work, curated a large scale exhibition entitled “Memories of King Kowloon” at ArtisTree, a private art space at the Taikoo Place. Chai hoped to renew interest on the King after his works suffered diminished contextual relevance after 1997. Extensive education programmes were organized to promote Tsang as an iconic figure of Hong Kong culture.
The manipulation of the cultural significance of Tsang’s work by speculator/curator for personal financial profit had a devastating impact on the understanding of Tsang. The significance of Tsang’s work is not only that it is connected to the street, but also that it is linked closely with a time when there was a struggle in claiming the ownership of Hong Kong. After 1997, when ownership was confirmed and Tsang became an ‘artist’, his work gradually lost its meaning, except as reminder of a historical moment. Today Tsang’s works have become objects for speculation, to be kept in private home as objects of curiosity, or at best, objects of aesthetic pleasure. The king has been betrayed, and he did not even know.
The story of Tsang Tsou Choi, King of Kowloon, is a classic story of how critic and curator can also play the role as speculator, a phenomenon common in Asia. Unless there is determination within the profession and personal upholding of professional integrity, the lack of ethical codes remains a devastating barrier to healthy growth in the Asian art scene.
A version of this essay was published in ArtLink Magazine, March Issue, 2014.