ink on cotton cloth
Ever since Tsang Tsou Choi, self-professed "Kowloon Emperor," passed away in 2007, the corpus of works and stories he has left behind has spawned a host of reactions and a spectrum of implications within the Hong Kong community. In a postmortem surge of popularity, Tsang has been touted an icon of cultural preservation and the embodiment of the city's collective memory. Two years ago, a pillar at the Tsim Sha Tsui
Star Ferry Terminal covered by his graffiti was vehemently protected
by a horde of activists—it wasn't only the writing they were trying to safeguard, but also the monument as a piece of colonial history. Though no longer a colony, Hong Kong—unable or unwilling—has yet to coalesce with the Chinese motherland. The Kowloon Emperor becomes an allegorical figure for a Hong Kong identity and a sense of belonging; he is a local haven for all those who are caught in the state of postcolonialism. Is it relevant to ascertain whether or not Tsang Tsou Choi's graffiti is "art" anymore? Was he painting with an "artistic" intention? Yes or no, the Kowloon Emperor is a piece of Hong Kong history.
In contribution to the longevity of Chinese traditional arts, Tsang Tsou Choi has wielded his ink brush all over the city. His textual graffiti has been seen on much of Hong Kong's "public furniture," the content reading of his own thoughts on the colonial government. Tsang first began covering bridges, electrical contractors, postboxes and others with his calligraphy when he was 35. Relentless in his endeavour, undeterred by multiple warnings, he persisted in laying down his family
genealogy in all its entirety as well as his personal history as an emperor on exile. He was brought to the police station. He was sent to psychiatric institutions. However, nothing stopped him from writing, recording, expressing. The recalcitrant nature of his Chinese graffiti became an oblique representation of Hong Kong's desperate yearning for a cultural identity under colonization. His claim as being the emperor in exile blatantly challenged the authority of The Queen and unabashedly defied English colonial rule.
For 50 years, Tsang, Tsou Choi roamed the streets of Hong Kong and was deemed a lunatic by many. In 1997, Hong Kong Arts Center and Goethe-Institut collaborated in a historical exhibition "The Street Calligraphy Of Kowloon Emperor" in hopes of instigating a re-evaluation of the artistic value behind the Kowloon Emperor's work. The earnest effort reached its pinnacle in 2003 when Tsang, the very first Hong Kong artist to have been bestowed with the honour, was invited to participate
in the 50th Venice Biennale. Subsequent to his passing away in 2007, much of Tsang Tsou Choi's calligraphy has been eradicated save a single pillar at the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier. In the Ullens Collection, we find three of his creations, rare in their sizes and formats and thus
unmatched in historical value. Calligraphy on Utility Box No. 1 (Lot 141) and Calligraphy on Utility Box No. 2 (Lot 142) are loyal re-enactments of
his life's work. Much like the electrical contractors on which Tsang used to paint, these utility boxes provide the same three dimensional surface and "public" quality, rendering the two works classic specimens of his art. Untitled Calligraphy (Lot 143) is a large, important work on cloth and was included in a solo exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1997.
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