Peeling paint in Hong Kong reveals the work of the new hot ‘king’

HONG KONG. In the summer, often without a shirt, smelling of sweat and ink, the offended artist wrote incessantly and everywhere: on walls, in underground passages, on lampposts and in traffic light control boxes.

He covered public spaces in Hong Kong with a huge array of Chinese characters that testified to his unwavering belief that much of the Kowloon Peninsula rightfully belonged to his family.

During his lifetime, graffiti artist Tsang Tsou-choi was a ubiquitous figure, well known for his eccentric campaigning, which struck more than anything else with its idiosyncratic personal mission rather than a political slogan.

But Hong Kong has become a very different place since Mr. Tsang died in 2007, and his work, once widely known but now all but vanishing from city streets, has found new resonance in a city where many political expressions have been suppressed. a massive campaign against dissent from 2020.

“During his life, especially in the beginning, people thought he was completely crazy,” said Louise Lim, author of The Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, a new book that examines the life of Mr New York. Tsang’s legacy. “Even at the time he died, no one was particularly interested in the content or political message of his work. But in fact, he talked about these Hong Kong concerns long before other people talked about territory, sovereignty, dispossession and losses.

When the decade-old work surfaced earlier this year, it began drawing crowds to a setting that could hardly be more mundane: a concrete railroad bridge built over a roadway and adorned with little other than a registration number and a graffiti warning.

The bridge is located next to the bird market and sports stadium on Boundary Street, the road that marks the edge of the territory ceded by the Qing dynasty to the British in 1860 after the Second Opium War. It’s covered in gray paint, some of which peeled off this spring – how exactly – remains a mystery – to reveal Mr. Wilson’s palimpsest. Works by Tsang from several eras of painting on one of his favorite sites.

Lam Siu-Wing, a Hong Kong artist, said he accidentally crossed a work on Boundary Street in late March while walking in the evening.

“I thought old Hong Kong was saying hello again,” he said.

News of the opening began to spread along with the When In Doubt art collective that Mr. belongs to Lam, describing his find as a rare treasure. The group noted that it was one of the first works of fiction to encourage discussion of an important and increasingly relevant issue in Hong Kong: who owns urban space?

Although the legitimacy of his territorial claims is doubtful, judging by his own family tree, Mr. Tsang has become a sort of popular ruler in his own right; he is now commonly known as the “King of Kowloon”. His death at the age of 85 was widely reported in the local media, with some newspapers covering their front pages with rare characters reserved for members of the royal family.

Despite his fame, his work was often painted by municipal workers who were tasked with curbing graffiti.

But even as his art faded, the issues it raised became more relevant and poignant, infiltrating the pro-democracy protests sweeping Hong Kong. 2014 as well as 2019.

And although many of these protesters were too young to have ever known the city inhabited by Mr. Wilson. Tsang, they also covered public places with their slogans and painted over the symbols of Chinese power in the Legislative Council and other government buildings.

“Time and time again over the years, his ideas seeped into the blood of the city through calligraphy, seeping into its veins,” Ms. said. Lim writes in his new book.

The graffiti of the 2019 protest has now been almost completely erased, although “Be water” – Bruce Lee’s mantra adopted by demonstrators – and other messages can sometimes still be seen on walls and walkways.

Likewise, little remains of the thousands of works by Mr. Tsang, who once plastered the city. Some of them, especially the items he made on paper and other portable media, were auctioned off. M+, Hong Kong New Art Museumhas more than 20 of his works in his collection, including a pair of ink-painted wooden doors.

But much more is hidden under the paint on the streets of the city.

mr. Cang received only a few years of formal education, and some experts have observed that his writing, done almost entirely in brush and ink, which he used by the gallons, was not calligraphy in the formal Chinese tradition. However, his work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2003. sell for $100,000.

The style of his work, filled with ancestral lists and place names he claims, was likely inspired by both the writing primers he used as a child and the text-based advertisements that filled the city center, the researchers say. 20th century.

Over the years, efforts to preserve Mr. Tsang’s work was scattered, with some of the works being carelessly destroyed. In 2017, a city contractor painted over an electrical panel near an art college, damaging it beyond repair. Officials have said that others are too worn out to require protection.

MTR Corporation, the Hong Kong public transport operator that owns the Boundary Street Bridge, said it was looking into how to keep the facility open, and the Hong Kong government said it was offering technical advice.

Two other parts of Tsang – a pillar near the Star Ferry terminal on the southern tip of the Kowloon peninsula and a lamppost near a government housing estate – were covered in clear plastic boxes more than a decade ago in response to growing public demands that they be closed. saved.

Willie Chang, a collector who met Mr. Tsang in the early 1990s and spent years documenting his work, helped organize a petition to defend the art. But he complains that there are no commemorative signs to tell passers-by about them. He has also documented dozens of other sites, but is wary of making these sites public, saying the official conservation policy is still too inconsistent.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

At the moment, he visits them regularly to check them and add protective coatings. After several days of spring rains, he visited several places in eastern Kowloon. In one of them, he took out a small wire tool and peeled off the layers of adhesive that had accumulated from the advertisement stuck to the lamppost that Mr. Wilson was holding in his hands. Tsang painted many years ago. His characters peeked out from under the gray paint, declaring him the owner of this place.

Elsewhere, Chang crossed several traffic lanes near a construction site. Stunned workers in yellow helmets watched him walk past thorny bushes and plastic barriers to a row of poles. I scraped off the traces of dead vines with a spatula, then a layer of paint.

Gradually, the characters became clearer. “Tsang,” one said. Then “China” above it. One day, the stern characters sprawled around a pole and others nearby. For now, they remain almost completely hidden.

“I hope the day will come,” Chang said, “when we can share this with everyone.”