news world

The King of Kowloon: my search for the cult graffiti prophet of Hong Kong | Hong Kong

The secret message only appeared when the wall was drenched with rain. For weeks, I had been scouring Hong Kong for these misshapen Chinese characters, but the way they materialised out of nowhere was a shock. It was an unremarkable yellow-grey stone wall in the middle of Central, Hong Kong’s political and economic heart. The words were only revealed when the wall had been soaked; in this case after a downpour in July 2015, which left the wall darkened and damp. Suddenly it was possible to see spots where the dove-grey paint had flaked off, revealing traces of Chinese calligraphy. The writing, in clumsy, off-balance characters about 20cm high, was instantly recognisable for its lack of grace, elegance or learning.

I can’t remember the first time I saw characters like these. They were everywhere when I was growing up in Hong Kong in the 1970s and 80s, a feature of our city just as much as the bottle-green snub-nosed Star Ferry and the noisy trams. Their author was a fixture of the landscape as well: a filthy, toothless, often shirtless, rubbish collector with mental health issues. He called himself the King of Kowloon. Hopping on his crutches, with plastic bags swinging from the handles, his crablike, bow-legged silhouette was so distinctive that, if people saw him in the distance, they would cross the road to avoid him. As he passed, parents would shield their kids’ eyes from him and mutter, “Chi-sin a!” Crazy! He even became a playground taunt – “You’re the King of Kowloon!” – levelled at the slow kids, the weird ones, the poor ones, the outcasts.

Get the Guardian’s award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning

His given name was Tsang Tsou-choi, and he had crossed the border to Hong Kong from mainland China at the age of 16. Tsang had since become convinced that Kowloon peninsula, the southernmost point of what is now mainland China, had belonged to his family and had been stolen from them by the British in the 19th century. He later extended his claims to the whole of Hong Kong.

It was in the 1950s that he started his graffiti protest against the loss of his land to the British. His denunciations took the form of tottering towers of crooked Chinese calligraphy in which he painstakingly wrote out his entire lineage, all 21 generations of it, pairing names with the places they had lost, and occasionally topping it all off with expletives like “Fuck the Queen!” He was careful in his choice of canvas, only writing on government property – walls, flyovers, electricity boxes, postboxes. His messages were almost always immediately washed away or painted over by an army of government cleaners with thin hand towels hanging from the backs of their hats for makeshift sunscreens. But overnight his words would be back again.

After Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Tsang’s messaging continued. That was the year the King’s elevation to a cult figure began. Since then, he has been exhibited by some of the world’s top curators, with the smartest auction houses selling his wonky calligraphy, daubed on paper or wooden boards and T-shirts – even on a scooter, which sold for HK$1.8m (£200,000). He became a fashion icon, inspiring a Hong Kong designer to create a series of collections celebrating his work. And in 2003, the King of Kowloon even became the first Hongkonger to represent the city at the Venice Biennale. To the people of Hong Kong, Tsang has become something of a folk hero. Through his assertions of kingliness, he came to embody a Hong Kong identity distinct from either its British or its Chinese rulers, while his relentless, subversive messaging took politics to the street, providing a blueprint that was emulated decades later by protest movements roiling the city.


My obsession with the King of Kowloon started small. My initial intention was simply to write an article about him. Eight years later, I have written a book about him, as well as a PhD, and a six-part podcast. At first, I simply wanted to find out whether he had any legitimate claim to the land – he asserted that he had seen ancestral documents stating his clan’s ownership of the peninsula. But my mission was complicated by the fact that Tsang had died in 2007, and his family had always refused to talk to the media.

The King was a slippery subject. The more I looked, the less I seemed to find. Everyone knew him but no one seemed to have any concrete information about him. I began by tracking down people who’d spent time with him. I trekked out to housing estates and sipped tea with gallerists, went to musicians’ studios in obscure industrial buildings and artists’ workshops in Victorian abattoirs. When I asked about his mental state, some told me that “the King” – for those I spoke to always called him by his self-appointed title – was delusional. He had schizophrenia. He had multiple personality disorder. Others said he was perfectly sane and played mahjong regularly with his neighbours. He remained bafflingly unknowable.

The day I saw the characters on the wall in 2015 unlocked emotions that I had not known were there: nostalgia and an almost physical sense of loss. The words were so familiar, they had become an integral part of our cityscape, and it was only when I saw them in the wild that I realised just how much I missed them.

Every so often, in the years that followed, I would read about another piece of calligraphy appearing. In 2019, around the time when 2 million people took to the streets in the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Hong Kong, Tsang’s off-balance calligraphy appeared on a flyover pillar near the Central Peak Tram terminus, where paint strips had peeled away, revealing the characters underneath.

Then just two months ago, a large patch of the writing materialised under a railway bridge in Kowloon. This time the appearance of the calligraphy was clearly deliberate and had nothing to do with the weather: the topmost layer of grey paint had been chipped away to reveal the hidden characters underneath. It was vintage, unmistakable King of Kowloon calligraphy; only he wrote in that hand, and he always wrote the same things: screeds of names, invoking his family genealogy and the places they had lost. Hongkongers flocked to snap photographs of the miraculous calligraphy; it invoked that same nostalgic longing in them as it had in me.

The mystery was why and how the words had reappeared so suddenly, so many years after their author’s death.


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.

Some of Tsang’s work at a Star Ferry pier in Hong Kong.
Some of Tsang’s work at a Star Ferry pier in Hong Kong. Photograph: South China Morning Post/Getty Images

The exhibition catalogue aimed to place the King’s work within the canon of classical calligraphy. But the establishment did not agree. “He’s psychotic,” one professor of fine arts fumed to the Washington Post as the exhibition opened, “I don’t see any artistic value.”

The show was a sensation, a circus, the most scandalous exhibition in living memory. Not a single piece of art sold, but Lau did not care. Decades later he remembered the show as a triumph. “The exhibition was controversial,” he told me, smiling. “That was something I like to do. I like controversy.”

Calligraphy by Tsang Tsou-Choi (left) next to Keith Haring’s Untitled, 1983 at the preview of an auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2015.
Calligraphy by Tsang Tsou-Choi (left) next to Keith Haring’s Untitled, 1983 at the preview of an auction at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2015. Photograph: South China Morning Post/Getty Images

Tsang’s newfound fame did not change the way he lived, and he continued leaving his apartment every morning at 7am to paint on the streets. Although he had a wife and children, they did not live with him. He lived in an apartment in a public housing estate, and those who visited him found the experience traumatically memorable: every inch of wall space was filled with calligraphy, there was almost no furniture and the floor was covered with balled-up paper and running with cockroaches. The King lived off disability benefits, awarded after his legs had been crushed in an accident at work. There was a steady stream of collectors and fans at his doorstep, and they often paid for his work in lunchboxes of roast pork with beancurd, and cans of ice-cold Coke. The King, who never saw himself as an artist, seemed content with those arrangements. “I don’t care about money and fame,” he told one interviewer, “They should just give me back my throne.”

The reputation of the King of Kowloon gathered momentum through the handover year, as Britain prepared to divest itself of its last remaining colony. For 1997 fashion week – the last under the British administration – designer William Tang Tat-chi made his whole show a homage to the King of Kowloon. The collection was cool and quirky, with each piece covered with the King’s characteristic calligraphy. The pièce de résistance was a concrete-coloured, graffiti-covered asymmetric one-shoulder gown with a 20-metre train – Tang said he had found the fabric so beautiful that he couldn’t bring himself to cut it.

At this historic moment, the show made a bold statement about Hong Kong’s distinct identity. Tsang’s hasty, crowded calligraphy echoed the energy and density of Hong Kong’s streets, and the face of the model striding down the runway was steely with determination. It was a defining moment, the launch of a Hong Kong aesthetic that conveyed the island’s sense of itself: modern, hybrid, streetwise, confident.

When I met Tang in 2019, he was dressed in black, tall and astonishingly boyish for 60. When I asked him to sum up the impact of the collection, he smiled. It was, he asserted, the most – really the only – memorable collection in Hong Kong’s fashion history.

For Hongkongers, the show had deep historical resonances. William Tang Tat-chi is a descendant of the powerful Tang clan, which settled in Hong Kong in AD973. They were the original landowners who had been dispossessed and who had, in 1899, led the Six-Day war opposing the British takeover of the New Territories. “My family – the Tangs – have been here for 1,000 years,” Tang told me. “We should be the Kings of Kowloon.”

When I asked Tang to explain the significance of the collection, he struggled to put it into words. “People were laughing about it,” he told me, shaking his head, “They said: ‘Is the idea that you are using the King of Kowloon to talk about your family?’ I said: ‘Don’t make it that complicated. I’m not that kind of person.’”

For the King himself, the crooked characters may have simply expressed a narrow personal quest, but Hongkongers found the constancy of his message reassuring at a time of intense change, as well as representing a treasured collective memory. For those in the know, his characters invoked themes that had traditionally remained unspoken: a history of mass dispossession, the stinging humiliation of a once-powerful clan and a message that none of this had been forgotten. His loss of land may have been imagined, but to a people handed from one sovereign power to another, its metaphorical power still resonated.

After the handover, the King’s star continued to rise. He starred in a humorous TV ad for a cleaning fluid, which rebranded him as a cuddly mascot. He made cameo appearances in films shot in Hong Kong. His work was included in a touring exhibition called Cities On the Move curated by artworld superstars Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanru, and in 1999, his work travelled to Taiwan and the US, alongside that of Mao Zedong, in a show organised by one of Hong Kong’s most famous curators, Johnson Chang Tsong-zung. In 2001, he became the first Hongkonger to show at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In 2004, a wooden board painted by the King sold for HK$55,000. A lifestyle brand covered its products with his writing, marketing King of Kowloon underwear, bedding and slippers. But the King’s life did not change. Even though he had become a celebrity and something of a commodity, he continued to paint on the streets.


From 2004, Tsang’s work began to disappear from the streets. He was still living in his stinking 18th-floor apartment in a Kwun Tong public housing estate, surrounded by empty ink bottles and dried brushes. But in 2004, at the age of 83, he accidentally set the apartment on fire. His family took the opportunity to move him into a nursing home.

At first, he was distraught, since the home banned him from painting, owing to the mess and smell of the sticky black traditional calligraphy ink. Unable to paint, the King could not sleep at night. But soon a solution was found, by a young advertising executive called Joel Chung Ying-chai, who had taken over some of the work formerly done by Lau. Chung brought the King markers and paper to write on. But the King’s ideograms were becoming misshapen and confused, the lines looping unpredictably around each other. Sometimes, he forgot how to write the familiar characters and had to ask Chung for help.

In 2007, he was hospitalised three times for complaints including pulmonary edema. Chung visited him in hospital, bringing some yellow canvases and a lemon-yellow model of a terracotta warrior for the King to sign, for a charity auction. The King seemed cheerful, but his characters were meandering and misaligned. As he painted, he commented, “Hey! I’m not the King any more! I’m not doing it. I’m not!”

Chung was confused. He asked: “You’re not the King?”

The answer was good-natured but firm. “I’m not doing it. I’m not the King! Let someone else do it!”

Afterward, Chung realised that Tsang had signed the back of the terracotta warrior not with his usual “King of Kowloon” but with a scrawled “Tsang Tsou-choi.”

On 15 July 2007, Tsang died of a heart attack. It took more than 10 days for the news to emerge – Chung was busy working on a book about the King and not visiting every day, and Tsang’s family were embarrassed about the attention he attracted – but when it did, the King’s death was reported in newspapers across the political spectrum, even the Communist-sympathising Wen Wei Po. He was compared to Van Gogh and Picasso, celebrated for the simplicity of his lifestyle and his work ethic. Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper that was shut down in 2021, printed a full-colour commemorative edition with a wraparound front page announcing “The King Is Dead!” This choice of language was deliberate, using a form of Chinese characters – 駕崩 – reserved for the death of a monarch. This lamentation echoed across the front pages. “The King is dead and everyone is missing him … The King is dead and his people are crying and wailing … The King is dead, his ink treasures were poetic masterpieces … The King is dead, who will succeed him?”

Tsang’s legacy at the time of his death was perhaps best summed up by his friend, the rap star MC Yan. (Tsang used to claim that the rapper, who wore his hair in a pigtail, was a time traveller from ancient China.) Yan told a reporter, “No matter if he’s a true or fake [king], he was very sure of his own identity, unlike Hong Kong people who don’t know if they’re from the east or the west.”

Tsang Tsou-choi at work in 2002.
Tsang Tsou-choi at work in 2002. Photograph: South China Morning Post/Getty Images

The King had only ever had one message – a consistent statement of his ancestry and sovereignty. It could be read as an assertion of identity and a repudiation of colonisation. For his admirers, this stood in contrast to the mealy-mouthed pronouncements of successive, unpopular China-appointed chief executives who, by their very job description, had been unable to speak either for themselves or for the people of Hong Kong. His supporters saw the King of Kowloon as the last free Hongkonger, with the autonomy to speak his mind.

Throughout his life, Tsang had never seen himself as an artist. But after his death, his work gained in value. Retrospectives were put on in Hong Kong, and a thick monograph about him was printed, in which Hans Ulrich Obrist called him a “poet whose page was the public space”.

But his importance was not so much as an artist as a pioneer of political graffiti. His messages of protest entered the city’s bloodstream. In 2014, when protesters filled the territory’s streets during the Umbrella Movement, they adopted the King’s methods.

That year, an estimated 1.2 million Hongkongers occupied three major thoroughfares for 79 days to demand more say in the choice of chief executive. Near the government headquarters in Admiralty, they feathered one wall with declarations scrawled on sorbet-coloured Post-it notes: “Fighting for Democracy!” “We love Hong Kong!” The King was an inspiration for the new generation of dissenters: he had taken politics to the street well before the Occupy movement appeared all over the world. “He was the original Occupier,” one young designer told me.

In 2019, China proposed an extradition law that would give Beijing the power to send suspected criminals to the mainland to be tried under the Chinese justice system. Hong Kong residents feared the proposed law would undermine the territory’s independent judicial system and took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands. This time the Post-it notes spread across overhead walkways and through underground tunnels, on shop windows and street signs, like a swarm released into the city. “Hong Kong is not China!” “We are Hong Kong!” “Home Kong!” These were not only walls of discontent, but also walls of community, walls of solidarity; over and over, the messages asserted a Hong Kong identity separate from China.

As the protests continued, the police responded with teargas and violence, arresting youngsters simply for wearing black, the colour of the movement. The protesters also stepped up their tactics, throwing stones and molotov cocktails at police. The protesters graduated from Post-it notes to graffiti sprayed directly on to roads, walls and tram shelters: “Fuck the police”, “Chinazi”, “If we burn, you burn with us”.

These slogans, like the King’s endless screeds, entered the same cycle of destruction and reclamation – though now, instead of one man and his paintbrush, it was happening at speed, and all across the territory at the same time. Hong Kong’s walls and pillars were now covered with newly painted grey squares hastily slapped over the protest slogans. As new graffiti kept appearing, these too were covered with a patchwork of white, black or dark grey rectangles. Sometimes, government contractors painted over the characters so carefully that they ended up emphasising each word. I saw the words “Hong Kong People!” looming from a tram stop so clearly, it seemed like the cleaners were joining the protest. It reminded me of the words of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat: “I cross out words so you will see them more.” It was a lesson Hong Kong’s authorities had failed to learn from the King.


In mid-2019, as I was covering the protest movement, I received a message from the King’s last helper, Joel Chung, inviting me to meet. I had wanted to see him after hearing peculiar accusations against him by Lau, the King’s first curator. The two men had a famously testy relationship. Lau had accused Chung of deliberately destroying pieces by the King. He also said Chung had spray-painted over a large piece of the King’s calligraphy with an image of skyscrapers and the words ART IS NOT EVERYTHING BUT WE NEED IT. Lau had been so disgusted that he’d lodged a police complaint.

Chung’s office was like a magical museum of childhood. Dangling from the ceiling were string bags full of red-and-white plastic balls, skipping ropes and old-fashioned wooden kite spools. Chung had established a Museum of Stationery, filled with cupboards of vintage fountain pens, novelty erasers, and wooden rulers inked with the names of generations of schoolchildren past.

Chung was an eccentric figure, with trademark thick black round spectacles. I carefully broached Lau’s accusations, asking if it was true that he’d destroyed some of the King’s calligraphy. In response, he cheerfully pulled up a video. The words “Seen; Disappeared” appeared on the screen, against a wall covered in the King’s faded calligraphy. As tense, haunting music played, tendrils of flame licked at a piece of paper covered with the King’s black characters. Feathery puffs of ash spiralled into the air as a second piece of calligraphy went up in flames. As I watched the video, my hands flew up to my head in horror. Chung seemed delighted by my reaction. He explained that he owned more than 500 pieces of the King’s work, and he’d decided he could sacrifice a couple of them to revive awareness of his legacy.

When I asked him if he’d destroyed the mural, Chung gleefully owned up to the crime. But that was only half the story, he told me. In fact, he’d taken measures to protect the King’s calligraphy by covering it with a layer of plastic wrap, and then painting on top of that. The “destruction” was a trompe l’oeil, he said with satisfaction. Lau was upset, he giggled, because hadn’t realised that the “destruction” was fake.

A partially revealed work of Tsang’s under a bridge in Hong Kong.
A partially revealed work of Tsang’s under a bridge in Hong Kong. Photograph: Keith Tsuji/Rex/Shutterstock

When I asked him about the magical appearance of the characters I had seen on the wet wall in Central, he let me into a secret. He had mixed special inks for the King which were unusually sticky, sometimes using a mixture of ink, acrylic and water, and sometimes turpentine and enamel paint. In Central, the King’s ink had been so sticky that the grey paint used by the authorities to cover it had stuck to the ink, and then somehow both layers had flaked off, leaving the outline of the characters underneath clearly visible.

As I took my leave, Chung walked me to the lift. It was an ancient cage-type elevator with horizontal double doors that joined in the middle, requiring someone to simultaneously pull them up and down to meet in the middle. “Are you in a hurry?” Chung asked, casually. “Have you got five minutes?” He jumped into the lift with me, and we descended. When we reached ground level, he picked up his pace. I was struggling to keep up as he cantered across a highway, dodging cars. When we reached the median strip, he clambered up a bank. In front of us, through some scrubby bushes, was the rounded pillar of a flyover.

I could hardly believe my eyes. The column was covered with the King’s words. Not the ghost words or the sun-damaged patches of writing I’d found in my searches, but thick black characters in excellent condition. The patch of writing was about one square metre – much larger than any other example of the King’s work in the wild. How on earth had it survived unnoticed?

This, it turned out, was part of Joel Chung’s secret mission. He explained that he’d accompanied the King when he was working. When the King first painted the pillar, Chung had noted its location on a spreadsheet. When the original work was covered up by a government contractor, he’d marked that down, too. Now he was methodically chipping away at the grey paint to expose the calligraphy underneath. It was slow and tedious work, and he’d already spent more than a week on this pillar. Once the whole work was visible, he’d cover it in a transparent oil to preserve it. Then, he’d paint over it with a fresh coat of grey paint, leaving no one any the wiser.

For a decade, working from his spreadsheet, Chung had been methodically uncovering the King’s hidden works one by one, restoring them, then painting over them again. He was creating a clandestine museum of the King’s work, known only to himself.

Three years later, some of these pieces are coming to light, as the uppermost layers flake off or are removed. At the same time, the King of Kowloon is having a revival. He was front and centre at the first exhibition held at Hong Kong’s new £620m M+ visual arts museum, which finally opened its doors in November 2021, four years behind schedule. He was also feted at the prestigious Art Basel in Hong Kong in May, where relics of the King such as his television and his kettle were exhibited alongside his artworks.

But the King’s work was not intended for rarefied art galleries; it was supposed to be out on the streets, where it could be seen by his people. Chung’s painstaking work is ensuring that this may still be possible for some time to come.


When I was young, people saw the King of Kowloon as a madman. But nowadays people whisper that maybe he was a shaman or a prophet whose words predicted a future of subjugation and loss. In 2020, after draconian national security legislation was imposed on Hong Kong, the very act of claiming the land or declaring sovereignty could be seen as an act of secession.

Since that legislation, the Hong Kong of old has been remade. Its legislature has been reshaped into a “patriots-only” body with election candidates requiring police vetting for patriotism, while dozens of democratic politicians are in jail on subversion charges. Its civil servants are forced to make oaths of allegiance. School curricula are being rewritten to emphasise “national security” rather than critical thinking. Civil society organisations have been disbanded, and marches outlawed, allegedly on Covid safety grounds.

Tsang Tsou-choi in 1996.
Tsang Tsou-choi in 1996. Photograph: David Clarke

The King of Kowloon’s preoccupations – sovereignty, territory, dispossession and loss – were prophetic. He was exploring these ideas at the same time as academics, philosophers, artists and musicians. After the national security legislation changed Hong Kong for ever, some of these artists and thinkers were imprisoned, some went into exile and some simply stopped talking. My pursuit of the King had led me to his courtiers, who turned out to be some of Hong Kong’s most influential minds, and so I became an archivist of disappearance.

One day, years before the protests, I visited a well-known Hong Kong artist who told me he considered Tsang his hero. I asked him what he’d learned from him. “Determination,” he replied, “as a person, not as an artist. Someone taking action for what he believes in, for years and years. I don’t see anyone that can compare with him.”

Another of the King’s followers told me what the King had taught him: “To be a Hong Kong person and tell the Hong Kong story to others.”

The questions that had been so central to me when I set out were no longer important. I still didn’t know if the King was mentally competent or not. I’d failed to confirm or deny the truth of his territorial claim. What mattered was not the substance of his claim, but how it gave a voice to sentiments we didn’t know until he voiced them for us.

Under the spell of his imagined sovereignty, he’d forced us to reckon with our own conflicted identity and measure ourselves against the self-governing entity that he presented. Today, our dreams have been outlawed, our anthems and slogans banned, our very thoughts choked off before they could form. Now we all are Kings of Kowloon, dispossessed of our ancestral lands, shorn of the very idea of ourselves, left with nothing but our loss.

Adapted from Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong by Louisa Lim, published by Text

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, listen to our podcasts here and sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button