Moments in Time with the King of Kowloon
Tsang Tsou-choi, born in Guangdong in 1921, moved to Hong Kong in 1937. After reportedly discovering ancestral documents in 1956, he became convinced that he was the rightful owner of the territory of Kowloon. From then on, he called himself the ‘King of Kowloon’, scrawling his claims to sovereignty over the territory’s postal boxes and lamp posts. Even with limited mobility, he persisted in writing his calligraphy on the streets, leaving traces of his ink across the city.
In the 1990s, Hong Kong curator and collector Willie Chung stumbled upon Tsang out writing on the street; it was only then that he realised the ubiquitous Chinese characters he’d seen across Hong Kong had come from the hands of this man. Chung and Tsang soon struck up a friendship, and until Tsang's death in 2007, Chung regularly visited him, delivered him food, and supplied him with writing tools. Below, Chung recounts some of his enduring memories from that period and explains why he's carrying on the legacy of the King of Kowloon.
In 1993, the band Beyond recorded a song titled ‘Destiny is Your Home’ for their album Roll n Roll. The lyrics go:
You were born a man with grit / Chill winds blow head on, but they can't blow out your fire / Never mind the sneers that endlessly attack you / You keep doing you without fear / All alone on the cold streets yet you still speak your truth / No compromising
Early on, fans thought the song was about the members of Beyond themselves. Only later did they realise the hero of the song was in fact a legendary Hongkonger known by generations of locals as the King of Kowloon: Tsang Tsou-choi. His original name was Tsang Choi, but to me, he has always been Uncle Choi.
I first encountered Uncle Choi on a hot summer afternoon in the early 1990s. I didn’t have any particular plans and was meandering aimlessly from Mong Kok to Yau Ma Tei. Mong Kok was bustling as usual, with people walking hastily along. But at the intersection of Nathan Road and Dundas Street, there was a crowd of people huddled together, watching something. I dug my way through the outer circle of the crowd and saw a shirtless old man sitting on an upturned rubbish bin, with a small household towel draped over his neck. He was painting something, stroke by stroke, on the grey traffic control box.
‘POST NO BILL’ was written on both sides of the box, yet there he was, painting away; the scene was most amusing. As my eyes focused on the black strokes covering the grey box, it slowly dawned on me that I had seen these characters in other places around Hong Kong—these were the trademark of Uncle Choi! Before I had seen him in person, I hadn't even thought about who might have written those characters, why someone had written them, or what they meant.
Without noticing, I stood there for a long while. Some people left and other faces joined, taking turns in maintaining our small group. At some point, I realised I had been there some forty minutes, watching him lost in his own calligraphy. When I again noticed time passing, it was because he had finally used up all his ink.
Not far from his feet was another bottle of ink, but he didn’t reach for it. He kept calling out, ‘Ink! Ink!’, yet no one obliged. So, I went up and helped pass him the bottle. He didn’t even glance at me, sustaining an air of gentle dominance as he continued sitting on the bin, painting. I remember hearing murmurs from the crowd, with people commenting that the man must think he is a king, barking for people to serve him. Later, I would find out he had mobility issues, which was why he did not fetch the ink himself.
My deepest impression was the moment he finished his last character—the smile of pure satisfaction beaming from his face. When the circle around Uncle Choi understood the performance was over, not a face in the crowd spared a second more there before they melted back into the crowds of Nathan Road.
Not long after that day, I left Hong Kong. When I returned a few years later, I suddenly thought of Uncle Choi one afternoon. I called him to let him know I would visit. From then on, I went to see him at least once a week, almost every week, for sixteen years.
From Writing Brush to Marker
When I first started joining Uncle Choi on the streets, I noticed that he used standard ink. Standard ink is quite difficult to paint onto certain surfaces, so I started preparing two other pigments for him: one was a mix of ink, acrylic and water; the other using turpentine and enamel paint.
In 2004, the shrine in Uncle Choi’s home caught fire while he was making an offering, so his family, worried about his safety, arranged for him to move into an elderly home. Even as he moved into the care home, his eight bags continued to hang off his crutches, carrying the basic writing tools such as paper, pens, and ink that would allow him to continue his writing.
But after a week, the care home manager suddenly called me, saying Uncle Choi would not go to bed at night and kept making a racket, bothering the other care home residents. I told her, ‘All these years, he has just been writing in the day and keeping quiet at night. I’ve never heard of him getting rowdy like this.’ She responded, ‘We’ve taken away his things and stopped him from writing. The ink smells so strong that it affects the other residents, and he’s dirtying things in the home too. Some residents complained, so we took his writing tools away.’
I thought to myself, no wonder Uncle Choi is having a fit; they won’t let him write. The next day, I bought a few markers, suggesting the care home staff let Uncle Choi write with markers to see if he calmed down. From that point onwards, Uncle Choi switched to markers in the care home, adding blue and red to his usual black palette. Later, Uncle Choi even started favouring the red marker, perhaps because his eyesight was declining. Around 2006 or 2007, the red marker had become a daily necessity.
As his physical condition worsened significantly in 2007, his hands became severely shaky. To help him overcome this, I brought him markers with thicker pen tips. But Uncle Choi didn’t have those thick markers in his final days at United Christian Hospital; the characters in his last few works were weaker and shakier.
The Final Chapter
Thinking back to the final six months of his life, I can’t explain why I started to visit him so often. Curiously, he started making me take something of his away after every visit. In the final three months, he became quite anxious, insisting that I take something of his with me, saying, ‘It’s for the exhibitions you’ll help me organise in the future.’ Just like that, I received most of his later works.
In June 2007, Uncle Choi was admitted to United Christian Hospital with pulmonary edema, and I went on visiting him regularly. At the time, there was a mall holding a terracotta warrior exhibition, which had commissioned fifty artists to recreate mini versions of the warriors for display and a charity sale.
So, in early July, I brought Uncle Choi a coloured warrior together with its container, so he could calligraph something on the surface. I’d never thought that would become our final collaboration, and our final meeting.
Uncle Choi looked well that day, with his signature smile beaming from his face. When he finished writing on the warrior, I noticed that he hadn’t written his usual character for ‘King’ on it. I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you write “King”?’ He joyfully replied, ‘I’m not going to be king anymore!’ I was taken aback: ‘You’re not king anymore?’ He laughed, saying, ‘Nah, it’s your turn!’ In that moment, I felt happy for him, because he’d finally laid down that burden.
The King Is Dead
At the end of July 2007, I received a call from a reporter asking if Uncle Choi had died. I was shocked to hear the question; I had been so busy preparing to publish a book about Uncle Choi for the book fair, I had not visited him in a few weeks. Right away, I called his son to ask. He didn't give any direct confirmation, but I understood what he meant, so I relayed this information back to the reporter. In the following few days, almost all the local papers, whether English or Chinese, ran news headlines about Uncle Choi’s passing.
6 August 2007 was the day of Uncle Choi’s funeral. That morning, a dozen or so reporters were waiting at the Universal Funeral Home in Hung Hom, along with a few of Uncle Choi’s friends, in hopes of catching a final glimpse of him and to offer his family condolences. We waited till the afternoon, yet no family showed up. I called his son, only to find out they had picked up his body from the hospital in the morning and directly went up the hill to the crematorium. Everyone was shocked—they had employed the old ‘empty fort strategy’ to keep it low key!
I had never imagined that the death of Uncle Choi would reverberate so loudly in the media. Though just a week on, the news cooled down; Hong Kong people returned to their rapid pace of life, and he was replaced with some other trendy topic in everyone’s conversations.
Carrying on a Legacy
In the decade or so after Uncle Choi’s passing, I had been wanting to do something for him, to make sure the younger generation also learned about his legendary character. I published a few books, held a few exhibitions, organised some public art workshops at schools, built him a Facebook page, and created some artworks.
In my personal visual diary, there are some scribbles from Uncle Choi. Since the late 1990s, I have been keeping this diary, which I take everywhere with me. This simple habit ended up giving me the gift of a few precious characters and allowed me to extend his creative journey. That, to me, is a truly special gift.
I have put Uncle Choi’s works on display in different places across Hong Kong, through different means and on different scales. The audiences have had a range of reactions: most show up with a sense of curiosity, though some still hold the negative views common among the previous generation. For me, however, the point of these exhibitions has been to reach more people, so I can take the opportunity to share the meaning behind the works.
Over the years, reception of Uncle Choi’s works have gone from labels of vandalism and scorn to collectibles in the art world, reflecting a change in society’s acceptance of diversity. Yet, no matter what comments he received during his lifetime, Uncle Choi simply laughed it off, because, to him, his calligraphy was an act of expression, pure and simple. This is why I hope to help more people get to know the real meaning behind his actions, through organising his materials and uncovering his actions and works. In this way—I hope—I am able to preserve and carry forward Uncle Choi’s actions, his works, and his story.
Early on, I noticed that what remained of Uncle Choi’s drawings in public would quickly be washed away by the varying government departments, or even painted over with the same grey paint the Highways Department uses on its traffic control boxes. Therefore, since 2000, I have begun experimenting with different means to try and preserve Uncle Choi’s works. I painted translucent protective layers over his works on bridges, retaining walls and traffic control boxes, as though I were a pirate trying to protect treasure. Then, from 2009, I started revealing one public work at a time on special occasions, a project I have titled ‘Manifestation’.
All photos courtesy of Willie Chung (unless otherwise indicated).
Willie Chung is a Hong Kong curator and collector. He is founder and chief curator of the non-profit Hong Kong Creates as well as founder of the Bank of Stationery. He is passionate about organising exhibitions and learning activities to promote knowledge of and interest in local culture. He primarily collects and preserves locally made toys, textbooks, comics, and children's literature, including design, photo studio works, and works by the King of Kowloon. His recent publications include: Tales of Textbooks: A Study of Times We Used to Have (2021), Tales of Stationary: History Written on the Desk of Time (2017), Tales (A Study in Photographs—Photo Studio Anthology Vol. 1) (2015), King of Kowloon: The Art of Tsang Tsou-choi (2012), Kowloon King (2011), The Art of Treason II: Post No Bill (2009), and The Art of Treason (2007).