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Graffiti by the King of Kowloon | © Sarah Joy/Flickr
Graffiti by the King of Kowloon | © Sarah Joy/Flickr
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King of Kowloon: The Underground Street Calligrapher

Picture of Sally Gao
Updated: 30 March 2017
Tsang Chou-choi (1921-2007), commonly known as the “King of Kowloon,” was a graffiti artist and Hong Kong cultural icon. He is known for his eccentric Chinese calligraphy, which he graffitied on public walls, lamp posts, phone boxes and construction sites across the Kowloon district. Although his work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale and auctioned at Sotheby’s, he was far from a traditional artist.

The King of Kowloon was born in Guangdong province, and moved to Hong Kong when he was a teenager. He began to graffiti the city in the 1950s and continued to do so for the next four decades, even when an accident in the 80s left him lame, forcing him to use crutches.

His trademark childish scrawl is distinctive for its alternating large and small characters, which serves to emphasize important words or phrases. His calligraphy inspired a generation of Hong Kong artists, including filmmaker Fruit Chan, fashion designer William Tang, artist Oscar Ho, photographer Thomas Lin, and more. As he began to gain recognition later in his life, he was even featured in commercials and invited to collaborate with many Hong Kong designers and artists.

The King of Kowloon did not consider himself an artist. He used to roam the streets with his ink and bamboo calligraphy brush on crutches, shirtless and looking like a tramp. As a child, he received little formal schooling, and as an adult he was poor enough to live in government public housing estates. He believed that his ancestors had once owned the Kowloon peninsula, and that the land had been stolen from his family by the British following the Opium War.

In his graffiti, he wrote about a wide range of subjects, though they were often riddled with obscenities. Topics ranged from demands that the government pay him land taxes, to insulting the Queen of England, to Chinese history, his estranged wife and children, and his prowess in swimming. He always signed his work with his title, the King of Kowloon.

The fashion designer William Tang called him “quite cuckoo,” but said that his calligraphy was “very raw, very original.”

Although the King of Kowloon became widely known and gained a large following during his life, not everybody was a fan. Some members of the public viewed him as a nuisance, while others considered his presence something to be tolerated, not celebrated. Once, when he was barred from painting the walls of Sham Shan Kwok Wong Temple, he threw a fit until temple officials finally permitted him to stick photocopies of his calligraphy on the walls. The photocopies have since become collectors’ items.

Hong Kong’s authorities frequently erased his work, and on several occasions, he was arrested and fined for vandalism. Today, most of his public graffiti has been scrubbed away and only a few examples remain, most notably a preserved pillar at the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui. In addition, some of his work is at the M+ museum in West Kowloon. There is also an online exhibit dedicated to the King of Kowloon, which was curated and organized by the Google Cultural Institute and Art Research Institute.