Peeling Paint in Hong Kong Reveals Work of Newly Relevant ‘King’

HONG KONG — Often shirtless in summer, smelling of sweat and ink, the aggrieved artist wrote incessantly, and everywhere: on walls, underpasses, lamp posts and traffic light control boxes.

He covered public spaces in Hong Kong with expansive jumbles of Chinese characters that announced his unshakable belief that much of the Kowloon Peninsula rightfully belonged to his family.

During his lifetime, the graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, was a ubiquitous figure, well-known for his eccentric campaign that struck most as a peculiar personal mission, not a political rallying cry.

But Hong Kong has become a very different place since Mr. Tsang died in 2007, and his work — once commonly spotted, but now largely vanished from the streetscape — has taken on a new resonance in a city where much political expression has been stamped out by a sweeping campaign against dissent since 2020.

“In his lifetime, particularly early on, people thought he was completely crazy,” said Louisa Lim, author of “Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong,” a new book that examines Mr. Tsang’s legacy. “Even at the time that he died no one was really interested in the content or the political message of his work. But actually, he was talking about these Hong Kong preoccupations long before other people were — territory, sovereignty, dispossession and loss.”

When a decades-old work surfaced earlier this year, it started drawing a crowd to a setting that could hardly be more mundane: a concrete railway bridge, built over a roadway and adorned with little besides a registration number and a warning against graffiti.

The bridge sits near a bird market and a sports stadium on Boundary Street, a road that marks the edge of the territory ceded by the Qing dynasty to the British in 1860 after the Second Opium War. It is covered in gray paint, some of which flaked away this spring — exactly how remains a mystery — to reveal a palimpsest of Mr. Tsang’s work from several eras of painting at one of his favorite sites.

Taking a photo of the newly discovered work. “There are very few King of Kowloon works left in Hong Kong, and now, those that are before our eyes are precious,” When In Doubt, an artist collective, wrote in celebration of the discovery. Credit…Anthony Kwan for The New York Times

Lam Siu-wing, a Hong Kong artist, said he happened across the Boundary Street work while out for an evening walk in late March.

“I thought the old Hong Kong was saying hello again,” he said.

News of the discovery began to spread, with When In Doubt, an artist collective that Mr. Lam belongs to, describing his find as a rare treasure. The group noted that it’s one of the earliest artistic creations to prod discussion of an essential and increasingly pressing question in Hong Kong: Who does urban space belong to?

The Latest on China: Key Things to Know

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China’s economy stumbles. Hurt by lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of Covid, China’s economic engine has shuddered in recent months, as housing sales sagged, shops and restaurants shuttered and youth unemployment climbed. The slowdown has kindled doubts about the viability of the country’s stringent strategy of eliminating virtually all Covid-19 infections.

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Demographic trends. With China’s birthrate at a historical low, officials have been doling out tax and housing credits, benefits and cash incentives to encourage women to have more children. But the perks are available only to married couples, a prerequisite that is increasingly unappealing to women who would prefer to parent alone.

Hot property market cools. A year ago, China’s real estate sector was humming. Now, recent turmoil has touched off a plunge in new home sales and depressed real estate prices for the first time in years, jeopardizing the prospects of an already fragile economy.

Forced labor. Mining companies in China’s western Xinjiang region are assuming a larger role in the supply chain behind the batteries that power electric vehicles and store renewable energy. But their ties to forced labor practices could portend trouble for industries that depend on materials from China.

While the legitimacy of his territorial claims is questionable, based on his reading of his own family tree, Mr. Tsang became a sort of popular sovereign in his own right; he is now widely known as the “King of Kowloon.” His death at 85 was given blanket coverage in the local media, with some newspapers covering their front pages with rarefied characters reserved for royalty.

A few of his now very rare works are protected inside clear boxes.Credit…Anthony Kwan for The New York Times

Despite his fame, his works were often daubed over by municipal workers tasked with keeping graffiti at bay.

But even as his art disappeared, the questions it touched on became more relevant and wrenching, permeating the pro-democracy protests that engulfed Hong Kong in 2014 and 2019.

And while many of those protesters were too young to have ever known a city slathered with Mr. Tsang’s work, they also covered public places with their own slogans and painted over symbols of Chinese authority in the Legislative Council and other government buildings.

“Again and again over the years, his ideas had trickled into the lifeblood of the city through the medium of calligraphy, percolating into its veins,” Ms. Lim writes in her new book.

The protest graffiti from 2019 has now been almost entirely erased, although “Be Water” — a Bruce Lee mantra adopted by demonstrators — and other messages can sometimes still be seen faintly on walls and walkways.

Likewise, little remains of the thousands of works by Mr. Tsang that once plastered the city. A few, particularly items he did on paper and other more portable mediums, have sold at auction.

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