Tsang Tsou-choi: Art King of Kowloon
Tsang Tsou-choi isn't comparable to Vivian Maier, I suppose, but I have a soft spot in my heart of hearts for noble failures, and since Tsang considered himself the King of Kowloon, he's even more than noble -- he's monarch! Or was, for he died in 2007 at age 85. He was just a teenager when he first arrived in Hong Kong in the 1930s, but he only began 'littering' the urban landscape of his city with graffiti some 20 years later:
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.For this entirely reasonable private activity -- though, admittedly, carried out in the public eye -- he was unjustifiably considered insane, even by his family!
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.I wonder if they've altered their views now that society -- or at least high society -- has changed its view of the man. You can read about the attention that he's now receiving by clicking onto a New York Times article by Joyce Hor-Chung Lau, "King of Kowloon Finally Gets Respect" (May 4, 2011), from which the quotes above derive.
"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."
I first read this article in the International Herald Tribune, which offers more images of the King's art, though only in black and white. The New York Times usually provides a gallery, but not this time. Perhaps that's just as well, for the graffiti, while appealing to the eye, doesn't really differ much from one work of art to the next (unless they're telling different stories). Yet, that very unvarying quality makes his artwork instantly recognizable, which is part of its charm, I suspect. There's also some irony here, for Tsang's work is on display in the Artis Tree, a Hong Kong art space housed in a high glass tower known as Swire Properties' Island East complex, "a place of uniformed guards and immaculate lobbies, where nobody would dare litter, much less paint graffiti on a wall," prompting Lau to inquire what Swire thinks of Tsang:
Babby Fung, a spokeswoman for Swire, called Tsang a "cultural icon."Right. And if they instead discovered that the would-be artist were merely an insane pretender to the King of Kowloon's throne, they'd judge him no artist at all and consign him to oblivion . . . until he's safely interred and the 'evil' that he's done is called "good" and sold to make somebody else some money . . .
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 [work] 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."