By JOYCE HOR-CHUNG LAU
A toothless garbageman who once wandered Hong Kong’s streets with dingy bags of ink and brushes tied to his crutches is now the subject of a major retrospective. About 300 calligraphic works by the late Tsang Tsou-choi — who is best known by his self-dubbed title, the King of Kowloon — are showing at the ArtisTree art space in a high glass tower.
The show, “Memories of King Kowloon” (until May 31), in a spacious corporate-sponsored dimly lighted gallery, quiet as a library, would have been foreign territory for Mr. Tsang. He was most at home under the tropical sun and neon lights. An outsider artist, he spent half a century dodging security guards and police officers as he obsessively covered lampposts and mailboxes, slums and ferry piers, with his distinctive Chinese text.
Mr. Tsang, who died in 2007 at the age of 85, created an estimated 55,000 outdoor pieces, almost all of which have been washed away, painted over or torn down by the authorities and real estate developers. He was a rebel graffiti artist decades before it was fashionable, creating art brut in a city that has no time for outsiders.
Mr. Tsang arrived in Hong Kong as a teenage refugee from Guangdong, a southern province bordering Hong Kong, in the 1930s, and began his urban painting in the 1950s.
He toiled under the delusion that he was the rightful heir and ruler of the Kowloon Peninsula, dismissing all political factions that had controlled the area: the Qing Dynasty until 1898, the British until 1997 and China today. In his thick scrawl, he marked his territory with “royal decrees” and a “family tree,” using the names of his ancestors and eight children to build an imaginary web of princes and princesses.
Intentionally or not, he tapped into the unease of a populace tossed between two governments. He defaced, with equal joy, Queen Elizabeth II’s insignia on colonial-era post boxes and campaign posters for Hong Kong politicians.
His real-life wife and children shrank from attention when Mr. Tsang’s art became known, and even held a decoy funeral when he died to divert fans and the news media.
“The way society saw him, as an insane person, caused his family to feel ashamed,” said Joel Chung, a longtime friend of Mr. Tsang’s who lent hundreds of ink-on-paper works for the show. “He loved his family but, by figuring them so prominently in his work, he embarrassed them and, in their eyes, brought them down in society.”
Mr. Chung, an artist and curator who teaches at a creative arts high school in Kowloon, said that most of his students had been taught to shun Mr. Tsang for being mentally ill. “Generations of parents and grandparents have been pulling kids away from him on the street saying, ‘That man is dirty and crazy. Don’t go near him.’ ”
Mr. Chung recounted meeting Mr. Tsang in the 1980s. “He was working at a busy intersection and the crowd around him was so great that I didn’t even see him at first,” he said. “There was this shirtless old man, sitting on a trash can, painting. I stood there transfixed for an hour, but he didn’t notice me until he ran out of ink and started hollering for more. He never said please. He was the king, and kings don’t have to say ‘please’ to their subjects.”
For years, Mr. Chung and others in the art scene bought him food and introduced him to writers and visiting artists.
Mr. Tsang’s entry into the mainstream was a 1997 exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, followed by a show at the 2003 Venice Biennale. In 2009, two years after he died, one of his pieces sold at an auction at Sotheby’s.
Mr. Tsang, who began receiving disability and welfare payments when a falling garbage bin impaired both legs in 1987, never made a living from his art.
“It earned him some pocket money, but it made no difference to him,” Mr. Chung said. “He just handed the cash over to his wife. Except for eating, sleeping and bathing — well, he didn’t bathe often — he was painting.”
The colorful ink-on-paper pieces make up the best part of the ArtisTree retrospective. But there was little the organizers could do to replicate Mr. Tsang’s real legacy: his street art has been reduced to only four sites, including a single pillar now preserved at the old Star Ferry pier.
Mr. Tsang’s work is supplemented with photographs, a documentary film, installations and pieces by other artists said to be inspired by Mr. Tsang.
The presentation seems almost too slick for its subject. The space is dark and serious. Newspaper clippings and objects from Mr. Tsang’s apartment — a crushed Coke can, brushes, empty ink bottles — are displayed in light boxes, as if they were treasures. To show where Mr. Tsang’s works once existed, there is a glowing 3-D replica of Hong Kong’s skyline that looks like a property developer’s model.
Mr. Tsang’s scribbles were once part of a messy but wonderfully human cityscape, and nostalgia for him has grown as modern complexes have replaced wet markets, family shops and streetside stalls.
“Hong Kong has been tidied to the point that it no longer makes sense,” Mr. Chung said. “It’s only tall glass buildings, where people go straight from the home to the metro to the mall, all in air-conditioned interiors.”
Mr. Chung acknowledged the irony of having a King of Kowloon retrospective in a skyscraper.
“Ideally, his art would be anywhere and everywhere, but it’s too late for that now,” he said. “People in the art world would probably not go seek out some graffiti in Mongkok anyway, so it’s good that we have a show here.”
Swire Properties’ Island East complex, which is home to both ArtisTree and the offices of 300 multinationals, is a place of uniformed guards and immaculate lobbies, where nobody would dare litter, much less paint graffiti on a wall.
Babby Fung, a spokeswoman for Swire, called Tsang a “cultural icon.”
When asked how Swire would react to a modern-day King of Kowloon decorating its glass towers with ink, she replied, “We’re not focusing just on his graffiti. Instead, we’re seeing his as a part of Hong Kong history.”
Pressed further, she added, “We’d communicate with him first to ascertain if he was really an artist.”