For years Tsang Tsou-choi daubed his eccentric demands around Hong Kong, and the authorities raced to cover them up. But as the city’s protest movements bloomed, his words mysteriously reappeared:
The King of Kowloon’s transformation – from local crank to icon – began in the fervid months leading up to Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. The atmosphere was a mixture of nostalgia and nervous hope, as Hongkongers began to explore their unique identity. Against that backdrop, the King of Kowloon – a subversive, individualistic, rebellious character – began to be seen as a personification of Hong Kong’s particular traits.
During this period, he was often accompanied by a well-known art curator, Lau Kin-wai, a bon vivant with a taste for showmanship. He brought Tsang Tsou-choi brushes and ink, and went out on his calligraphy expeditions with him to photograph his work. Lau, a celebrated figure in the art world, delivered lunch boxes to Tsang’s fetid flat, and even went so far as to strap his sandals on to his unwashed feet.
In April 1997, Lau organised a solo exhibition of work by the King of Kowloon. Since it was impossible to move Tsang’s normal canvas – the city itself – into a gallery, Lau gave Tsang smaller, more saleable objects to paint, such as paper lanterns, glass bottles, a copper and – prophetically – an umbrella. Tsang, delighted with the attention his work was getting, covered these pieces in his distinctive poor man’s characters. At the opening, the King clearly enjoyed the limelight, beaming as he was surrounded by reporters. As journalists called out questions about his art, and whether he expected to regain his family holdings, he shouted, “Fuck off!” and proclaimed himself owner of everything within eyeshot.