This year marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Tsang Tsou-choi, better known as the King of Kowloon. The below piece was previously published in the much-missed Galleri magazine, produced by our good friends at ChinaStylus and Red Dog Studios
“Is my art worth that much? Now I want to get an electronic wheelchair.”
Tsang Tsou-choi’s response after a piece of his calligraphy was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2004 for $55,000 highlighted the sense of vindication he felt after a lifetime spent being called a vandal, an embarrassment to his family, an eccentric nutter, a troublemaker, a hot-headed neighbour and more recently the world’s oldest graffiti artist.
But all along, Tsang had just called himself the Emperor of The Kingdom of New China, Canton and Kowloon. Or as the world now knows him, the King of Kowloon, who died on July 15, 2007, at the age of 86 after failing to ascend to the throne that he truly believed was his birthright.
Whatever Tsang really was, he was most certainly a royal pain in the ass to Hong Kong’s Urban Services Department workers who for years were tasked with cleaning up the striking black calligraphy Tsang had scrawled over the city asserting his claim to the congested Kowloon peninsula ceded by China to Britain in 1860.
Consisting mostly of the names of his ancestors and put-downs aimed at the queen of England – quite a rebellious act for an old guy during the colonial era in which he was most prolific – Tsang’s scrawlings became a part of life for many Hongkongers, and could be found over almost any surface including post boxes, flyovers and telephone poles.
A typical piece started with the names of the first generation of the Tsang family, whom he said arrived in what is now Sau Mau Ping 1,700 years ago. Also included were places his forebears allegedly owned. The artist often signed off, “Emperor of The Kingdom of New China, Canton and Kowloon Tsang Tsou-choi”.
Tsang was a fixture on the streets of Hong Kong, clutching brushes and tins of black house paint as he hobbled about on crutches – a rubbish container once fell on him, injuring his legs permanently. He gave up his outdoor artistry in mid-2003 when his knees could no longer support him, but continued to write down his claims at home using acrylic on canvas and even in hospital before his death was frenetically scrawling on paper using red, black and blue marker pens.
Tsang had been arrested regularly for vandalism, but his only known extended stint of incarceration was in the 1960s, when he smashed the window of a Choi Hung post office with a rock and was locked away in Castle Peak Hospital for 18 months. Questions about his sanity will probably never be answered, but what makes a man believe he could have been the king of Kowloon? And is it possible that he actually was?
The king was born in 1921 in Liantang village, Guangdong. He moved to Hong Kong at 16 and became a farmer in Choi Hung and Lok Fu. He also worked as a steward in a weaving factory, a labourer transporting water pipes and a caretaker in a rubbish collection station.
However, Tsang’s transformation from a coolie into a king came after he married at the age of 35. In line with Chinese custom, he went to his clan’s village in Yuen Long to add his wife’s details to the Tsang ancestral documents and allegedly found paperwork that showed much of the land in Kowloon belonged to his family – and the British government had annexed it without compensation. After failing to get official recognition of his claims, he decided to publicise them on the walls of the New Territories, Kowloon and later Hong Kong. And he never stopped until he died 51 years later.
Joel Chung, a young image consultant who befriended Tsang in his later years and is now in possession of more than 500 of the artist’s pieces, said nobody else ever saw these documents, but Tsang had an absolute belief in his convictions.
“In the past, I didn’t intend to find out whether there was any truth in the papers, and I had no interest in it. But now I want to prove it, which I am currently working on. The reason is I want to know how he felt when he found the papers, why the papers changed his life. On top of everything else, these papers changed an ordinary old man into a world-famous artist.
“It does not really matter whether I believed him or not. The thing was his self-belief - he believed in himself. He didn’t need any identification from any third party, and that was one reason why he was able to stick to his beliefs. I respect his persistence, but I do not think he was an emperor. If he was an emperor, he wouldn’t have lived his life like he did.”
How Tsang lived his life was a source of frustration and embarrassment for his family, who moved out to live separately from him a few decades ago. A sign he painted outside his home in his Kwun Tong estate announced to visitors that they were entering “the emperor’s palace”, but it’s safe to say that even lowly servants in the Forbidden City would have had more palatial living quarters. Empty paint tins littered the floor, dried-up paint brushes were scattered everywhere, and a pile of flattened cardboard boxes served as his bed. One foreign journalist once lasted all of two minutes before fleeing from the emperor’s palace.
It was therefore quite ironic when Tsang was chosen to plug Swipe, one of several companies to exploit the king when he achieved fame in his later years. A voiceover in the commercial said: “Mr Tsang is cleaning his ‘home’ – Kowloon – with Swipe. He used it to clean the streets such as in Kowloon City, Choi Hung Estate, Saul Mau Ping, etc. Then he narrowed down the focus from streets to a home. Which means you can use Swipe to clean the kitchen, washroom, etc. Lastly, his main theme was that no matter how big your house is, you can still clean it with Swipe. Because he was thinking your house won’t be any bigger than his.”
Artist and food critic Lau Kin-wai, who organised the king’s first exhibition in 1997, said Swipe had agreed to pay Tsang $7,000 to appear in the commercial. But when this was reported in a local newspaper, the government sent officers to harass Tsang as he was on welfare. Local lifestyle store G.O.D. and fashion designer William Tang also incorporated Tsang’s calligraphy into their products, but the king reportedly never saw a cent in royalties.
Lau says that while Tsang was not conscious of his creative or artistic abilities, his calligraphy excelled in its plainness, simplicity and absence of contrivance. “His work betrays no influence of any past masters of calligraphy, and with no training at all he developed a style that captivates through its simplicity and lack of pretension. His style resembles the calligraphy from the Han dynasty and Six Kingdoms period that while combining large and small characters maintains cohesion as a piece of work.
“Some pieces look composed and calm, some vigorous and in motion, some warm and subtle. The possibility of endless variation and freedom in creativity are ideals that many artists merely dream of achieving.”
But was Tsang an artist? Chung says Tsang did not even know what an artist was. “He never thought of himself as an artist. But a true artist never thinks of themselves as an artist. He was a simple man – naive and unaffected. He was motiveless, he never thought of money, he did not care what people thought of him, he insisted on his beliefs strongly and was willing to forgive everything. He had the characteristics of a genuine artist.”
A woman who lived near Tsang for 12 years recalled him as a troublemaker. “His home was full of his writings. He always picked up cardboard boxes and took them home to use as a bed,” said the woman. Another neighbour described Tsang as hot-tempered. “I talked with him sometimes but he would lose his head easily. He always muttered to himself.”
While the local media liked to portray Tsang as nothing more than a weirdo (one news magazine once named him as one of the city’s 10 least-influential people), a different picture is drawn by those who were close to him – he was a happy man who liked eating chicken rice and drinking Coca-Cola, who did not drink or smoke, who always got up around 7am and happily went out with his paint and brushes to do his thing, and after having painted enough would come home to either watch ATV or play mahjong with his neighbours, usually losing.
Lau says Tsang was a sentimental, caring and considerate person who would only lose his cool when someone interrupted him while he was painting. Even though he lived apart from his wife and children, Lau says Tsang would express his love for them by including their names in his calligraphy.
“By writing the names of his ancestors, wife and children, Tsang was expressing a fond remembrance of the old Chinese social order based on the clan system. And perhaps that as a lonely figure with no family living on the fringe of society, Tsang was also trying to establish a measure of self-respect.”
“He was like a child,” says Chung. “He was simple and direct. He would always speak very directly to people, which not everybody can do. But he was a happy man and would only get angry when people cheated him - he always remembered these things clearly. The only thing that mattered was his approach to hygiene. Not everybody could accept his hygiene habits.”
It was these habits that apparently drove his wife and children away, and this separation was a terrible source of sadness for Tsang. Tears would well in his eyes when he discussed his family, but most of the time Tsang remained cheerful. In his later years, the police stopped harassing the old graffiti artist as he went about his business and the world started paying attention to this most unique of Hong Kong characters.
“Some people said I was mad but the police are now giving face to the King of Kowloon,” he once told a reporter, chuckling.
True HK character and legend. I grew up in East Kowloon and his stuff used to be all over when I was a child.
A growing body of psychology research shows that incompetence deprives people of the ability to recognize their own incompetence. To put it bluntly, dumb people are too dumb to know it. Similarly, unfunny people don’t have a good enough sense of humor to tell.
This disconnect may be responsible for many of society’s problems.
With more than a decade’s worth of research, David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, has demonstrated that humans find it “intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we don’t know.” Whether an individual lacks competence in logical reasoning, emotional intelligence, humor or even chess abilities, the person still tends to rate his or her skills in that area as being above average.
Dunning and his colleague, Justin Kruger, formerly of Cornell and now at New York University, “have done a number of studies where we will give people a test of some area of knowledge like logical reasoning, knowledge about STDs and how to avoid them, emotional intelligence, etcetera. Then we determine their scores, and basically just ask them how well they think they’ve done,” Dunning said. “We ask, ‘what percentile will your performance fall in?’”
The results are uniform across all the knowledge domains: People who actually did well on the test tend to feel more confident about their performance than people who didn’t do well, but only slightly. Almost everyone thinks they did better than average. “For people at the bottom who are really doing badly — those in the bottom 10th or 15th percentile — they think their work falls in the 60th or 55th percentile, so, above average,” Dunning told Life’s Little Mysteries. The same pattern emerges in tests of people’s ability to rate the funniness of jokes, the correctness of grammar, or even their own performance in a game of chess. “People at the bottom still think they’re outperforming other people.” [Graph]
It’s not merely optimism, but rather that their total lack of expertise renders them unable to recognize their deficiency. Even when Dunning and his colleagues offer study participants a $100 reward if they can rate themselves accurately, they cannot. “They’re really trying to be honest and impartial,” he said.
If only we knew ourselves better. Dunning believes people’s inability to assess their own knowledge is the cause of many of society’s ills, including climate change denialism. “Many people don’t have training in science, and so they may very well misunderstand the science. But because they don’t have the knowledge to evaluate it, they don’t realize how off their evaluations might be,” he said.
Moreover, even if a person has come to a very logical conclusion about whether climate change is real or not based on their evaluation of the science, “they’re really not in a position to evaluate the science.”
Along the same lines, people who aren’t talented in a given area tend not to be able to recognize the talents or good ideas of others, from co-workers to politicians. This may impede the democratic process, which relies on citizens having the capacity to identify and support the best candidate or policy.
The ultimate takeaway of the research is the reminder that you really may not be as great as you think you are. And you might not be right about the things you believe you’re right about. And if you try to joke about all this, you might not come off as funny as you think.
(Editor’s note: “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” -Donald Rumsfeld)
This might be a good time to say: I hope it’s okay, but I’ve named a character I’ve written after you. She’s like a female Han Solo with red lipstick and more sass, and only your name was awesome enough. She’s in a graphic novel.
Of course it’s OK! I’m honoured :D This Lok is how I’d want my Lok to be! It’s too awesome that you write graphic novels. I look forward to hearing more about it. And reading it!!
- S: i'm watching a documentary about the tube
- S: cos i'm cool
- L: IS IT VOICED BY JULIAN BARRATT
- L: or NARRATED
- L: rather
- S: no
- S: pe
- L: i just saw something online
- L: about how he narrated something about people on the tube working to help drunk people or something?
- S: like
- S: christians?
- S: this is a bbc doc
- S: OH MY GOD
- S: IT IS
- S: IT IS JULIAN BARRATT
- L: he is EVERYWHERE
- L: making random girls fall in love with his beard