Chasing the King of Kowloon

One man symbolized Hong Kong’s multitudes better than any other.

A expressive ink painting of Tsang Tsou-choi
Adam Maida

The mood was one of eager anticipation when, four years behind schedule, Hong Kong finally unveiled its multimillion-dollar M+ art museum in November 2021. As the docents swung open the gallery’s entrance, they revealed the very first piece in the exhibition: a pair of wooden doors daubed with misshapen, messy Chinese calligraphy in black ink. The doors had been chosen, the museum’s curator, Tina Pang, says, because they represent Hong Kong’s visual culture. Yet the graffiti on the doors is the controversial work of a man once so far outside the mainstream that he was derided by the establishment as a psychopath. This elevation to the premium spot in Hong Kong’s newest art museum caps the unlikely rise of an improbable artist who spent a lifetime railing against Hong Kong’s overlords, whether they were colonial masters from London or, later, distant rulers in Beijing.

For years, I’d been obsessed with the man who had painted those wooden doors, who had become the unlikeliest of Hong Kong’s local icons. He was a mostly toothless, often shirtless, disabled trash collector with mental-health issues. His given name was Tsang Tsou-choi, but everyone called him the King of Kowloon. Over the years, Tsang had come to believe that the jutting prong of the Kowloon peninsula, adjoining mainland China and opposite the harbor from Hong Kong Island, had originally belonged to his family and had been stolen from them by the British in the 19th century. No one could say for sure why he believed this, but his conviction became a mania.

The cover of Louisa Lim's book
This article has been excerpted from Lim’s new book, Indelible City.

In the mid-1950s, the King began a furious graffiti campaign accusing the British of stealing his land. Using a wolf-hair brush, he painted directly on the walls and slopes that he believed he’d lost, marking his domain with the art of emperors: Chinese calligraphy. His denunciations took the form of tottering towers of crooked Chinese characters in which he painstakingly wrote out his entire lineage, all 21 generations of it, sometimes pairing names with the places they had lost and occasionally topping it all off with expletives like “Fuck the Queen!” When Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, he continued his graffiti war regardless.

He was exacting in his choice of canvas; he would paint on only Crown land, or, after the change in sovereignty, government land. He gravitated toward electricity boxes and pillars, walls, and flyover struts. His words played their own magic tricks before a captive audience of haggard commuters and weary retirees; they were there one day, gone the next, washed away or painted over by an army of government cleaners in rubber boots with thin hand towels hanging from the back of their hats to serve as makeshift sunscreens. But overnight his words were back again, as if they had never disappeared, in a game of textual whack-a-mole played across the entire territory for half a century.

The unbelievable thing was that the King’s stratagem worked, despite his execrable penmanship. Through his misshapen, childlike calligraphy, he became a household name, first reviled, then feted. He’d had only two years of formal schooling, and he advertised that educational deficit in every crooked character that he wrote. His writing laid bare all the flaws and idiosyncrasies a proper calligrapher would have tried to suppress, but that is what made it memorable. His words were a celebration of originality and human imperfection with a who-gives-a-fuckness about them that was genuinely inspiring. He broke all the rules. This too was a facet of Hong Kongness: The city was an in-between space, a site of transgression, a refuge where behavior not acceptable in mainland China was permitted and even celebrated.

The issue of belonging has always been a complicated one for me, as a half ​­English, half ­Chinese person who was born in England but brought up in Hong Kong. My family moved to Hong Kong when I was 5 so that my Singaporean father could take up a civil-service job. As far back as I can remember, Hong Kong has been my home. So though I am not a native Hong Konger, I was made by the city. I was shaped by Hong Kong values, in particular a respect for grinding hard work and stubborn determination. Hong Kongers called it “Lion Rock Spirit,” after a popular television series about a squatter colony living at the foot of a local landmark, a small mountain topped by a rocky formation resembling a Chinese lion crouching down, poised to leap. To me, Lion Rock Spirit translated into a willingness to fight to protect my values, no matter how powerful the opponent.

In this, the King was an exemplar. By the time he died from a heart attack, in 2007, he had made an estimated 55,845 works in public space. His blocky characters had written themselves onto our brains to become a collective memory that was as iconic a marker of Hong Kong identity as the city’s bottle-green Star Ferries or its spiky skyline. For so many, his words served as the first articulation of an uncomfortable instinct they couldn’t quite voice themselves. “It’s a little bit like our political situation,” one commentator told me. (I have withheld their name to avoid any repercussions from Hong Kong’s draconian national-security law.) “The land was owned by the British, [and is] now owned by China. It’s supposed to belong to China, but most Hong Kong people, they don’t identify with the Chinese government. In some way, they still think that Hong Kong is a colony, a colony of China. So what Tsang Tsou-choi did is something they want to do.” The King was speaking for his people.

When he died, Hong Kong’s newspapers erupted in a communal wail. “The King is dead, and everyone is missing him,” one announced. “The King is dead and, his people are crying and wailing,” said another. As his work disappeared from the streets, it appeared on the auction blocks of Sotheby’s, surging in price until it was the most valuable to come out of Hong Kong.

Some years ago, I was seized by the idea of writing a book about the King of Kowloon. It was a notion that I found hard to resist, even though it was obviously a fool’s errand: His family had always refused to talk with journalists, and there was almost no concrete information about him. But I stubbornly set off on my quest, trekking out to industrial buildings, public-housing estates, and far-flung villages nestled close to the Chinese border to find people who’d known the King. These were places I’d never visited in the four decades that I’d lived, on and off, in Hong Kong. Along the way, I discovered a multitude of Hong Kongs. The one I had grown up in had been a bubble within a bubble, and my pursuit of the King exploded that fiction.

As I worked my way through the eccentric cast of characters who had painted with the King, written about him, or simply known him, I found the story slipping away from me. At first my aim had simply been to find out whether his claims to the land had any truth to them. I’d assumed that I would be able to pin down exact details through my interviews. But everyone I spoke with disagreed vehemently about almost everything, even the slim handful of biographical data that existed, or about whether he was mentally competent. Worse than that, they spent endless hours sniping at one another. None of my normal journalistic approaches seemed to be working.

Still, my pursuit of the King took me deeper into Hong Kong’s story. To examine his claims to the land, I started looking at acts of possession and expropriation by the British colonizers. I soon realized that, in order to understand these acts, I needed to make sense of the complex saga of how Hong Kong had become British in the first place. I hadn’t intended to go any further back than that, but everyone who was interested in the King kept talking about the boy emperors of the Song dynasty who’d fled to Hong Kong in the 12th century. Eventually, my new interest in Hong Kong’s pre-colonial history led me all the way back to the middle Neolithic era, 6,000 years ago. The King had somehow taken me back to the beginning.

Along the way, I fell into other untold stories of Hong Kong, creation myths and legends, real and invented histories, tales of rebellion and courage that had been wiped from the record. They changed the way I viewed Hong Kong’s history, which I’d always assumed was an inventory of cut-and-dried facts. Instead, these hidden truths, in their kaleidoscopic, multicolor multitudes, pushed back against the idea of a singular, authoritative, state-imposed narrative. They put Hong Kongers at the front and center of the story, in particular reinserting them into the crucial negotiations over the transfer of sovereignty, a chapter in which the most important Hong Kong voices had never before been heard. These discoveries placed the insurrections of recent years in the context of a far longer narrative of defiance and dispossession.

But even as the focus of my interest shifted, I found that the King had burrowed into my consciousness as a prism through which Hong Kong’s story could be viewed. A prism bends and separates white light into a rainbow of colors; once prodemocracy protests filled Hong Kong’s streets in 2019, the King’s story refracted into variegated narrative stripes that illuminated the city in ways I had not anticipated. Like the story of the protest movement, his was a David-and-Goliath tale of a doomed rebellion against an overweening power. Like his story, the story of the protest movement has evolved into one about erasure, about who gets to tell Hong Kong’s story. Throughout their history, Hong Kongers have been minimized in, or even completely removed from, official accounts told by their successive rulers. Hong Kongers have never been able to tell their own story; none, that is, except the poor, sad old King—“the last free man in Hong Kong,” as he was called by the writer Fung Man-yee.

The King became, rather than my subject, my unlikely lodestar. Amid the scrolling whirligig of Hong Kong politics, I couldn’t help noticing a pattern emerging. When something big happened, I often already knew the main players through my pursuit of the King. When in 2016 a radical university lecturer named Chin Wan became the first academic to lose his job for his political views, I remembered that he’d written the first essay in a book about the King. When the legislator Tanya Chan was put on trial for her role in the Umbrella Movement, the 10-week-long street occupation in 2014 seeking greater democracy, I already knew her because of our shared interest in the King. In 2020, when Hong Kong’s top satirical TV show, Headliners, was canceled for its political content, I sent my condolences to its host, Tsang Chi-ho; we’d become friends after I interviewed him about a newspaper column he’d written on the King. Sometimes it seemed like the King was guiding me from beyond the grave, breadcrumbing my trail to Hong Kong’s most interesting thinkers.

This pattern was no coincidence. To think or write about the King is to consider his preoccupations: territory, sovereignty, and loss. He had publicly raised these issues at a time when no one else dared think about them. His very name held within it a rebuke to Hong Kong’s colonizers: He was the original sovereign, and Kowloon belonged to him.

Those preoccupations became intensely politically sensitive following Beijing’s imposition of national-security legislation on Hong Kong in June 2020. As that law views discussions of sovereignty or autonomy as potential secession, the King himself might nowadays be seen as a threat to national security. One solution has been a move to paint his work as decrying British colonial rule in a way that could be interpreted as pro-China, yet such a position strips the King of the throne he spent his lifetime claiming. Hong Kongers have instinctively understood his mission; in 2019, as they filled the streets, the poet Jennifer Wong wrote: “Your furious characters on the red postbox / kindle in us a flame we have always known.”

So who today are the kings of Kowloon? Are they the ancient clans in walled villages who were the traditional subsoil owners, the multinational corporations whose towering headquarters have transformed the cityscape, or the Communist Party leaders in Beijing who can impose their will on the people of Hong Kong by fiat and force? Or are they the ordinary people who occupy the streets of Kowloon with their bodies, reclaiming the space-time that is their own? As if seen through a prism, the answer depends on the angle of viewing.

This article has been excerpted from Lim’s new book, Indelible City.