HONG KONG — Often shirtless in the summer, smelling of sweat and ink, the offended artist wrote incessantly and everywhere: on walls, underpasses, lampposts and control boxes for traffic lights.
He covered public spaces in Hong Kong with sprawling tangles of Chinese characters announcing his unwavering belief that much of the Kowloon Peninsula belonged rightfully to his family.
During his lifetime, the graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, was a ubiquitous figure, known for his eccentric campaign that stood out most as a quirky 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 widely seen but now largely gone from the streets – has found a new resonance in a city where much political expression has been wiped out by a sweeping campaign against dissent since 2020.
“In his life, especially in the beginning, people thought he was completely crazy,” said Louisa Lim, author of “Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong,” a new book that explores the legacy of Mr. Tsang investigates. “Even at the time of his death, no one was really interested in the content or the political message of his work. But actually he was talking about these preoccupations in Hong Kong long before other people were: territory, sovereignty, expropriation and loss.”
When a decades-old work surfaced earlier this year, it began to draw crowds to a setting that could hardly be more mundane: a concrete railway bridge built over a roadway and decorated with little but a license plate and a graffiti warning.
The bridge is near a bird market and sports stadium on Boundary Street, a road that marks the edge of the area ceded to the British by the Qing Dynasty in 1860 after the Second Opium War. It’s covered in gray paint, some of which has flaked off this spring—how exactly remains a mystery—to reveal a palimpsest of Mr. Tsang’s work from various eras of painting in one of his favorite spots.
Lam Siu-wing, a Hong Kong artist, said he was across the street from work in Boundary Street during an evening stroll in late March.
“I thought old Hong Kong said hello again,” he said.
News of the discovery began to spread with When In Doubt, an artist collective to which Mr. Lam belongs, describing his find as a rare treasure. The group noted that it is one of the earliest artistic creations that sparks discussion about an essential and ever-pressing question in Hong Kong: whose urban space does it belong to?
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While the legitimacy of his territorial claims is questionable, Mr. Tsang based on his reading of his own family tree a kind of popular sovereign in his own right; he is now widely known as the ‘King of Kowloon’. His death at the age of 85 received widespread coverage in the local media, with some newspapers covering their front pages with rarefied characters reserved for royalty.
Despite his fame, his works were often defaced by municipal workers charged with keeping graffiti at bay.
But even as his art faded, the questions associated with it became more relevant and penetrating, permeating the pro-democracy protests that swept Hong Kong in 2014 and 2019.
And while many of those protesters were too young to have ever known a city littered 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.
“Over the years, his ideas had seeped into the lifeblood of the city through calligraphy, over and over again, seeping into the veins,” writes Ms. Lim in her new book.
The 2019 protest graffiti has now been almost completely erased, although “Be Water” – a Bruce Lee mantra adopted by protesters – and other messages can sometimes still be seen faintly on walls and walkways.
Likewise, little remains of the thousands of works of Mr. Tsang that once plastered the city. A few, especially items he created on paper and other more portable media, have been sold at auction. Hong Kong’s new art museum, M+, has more than 20 of his works in its collection, including a pair of ink-painted wooden doors.
But there is much more hidden under paint in the city streets.
Mr. Tsang has had only a few years of formal training, and some experts have sniffed that his writing, almost all done with brush and ink he used by the gallon, was not calligraphy in the formal Chinese tradition. Still, his work was shown at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and pieces are selling for as much as $100,000.
Researchers say the style of his work, which is replete with lists of ancestors and names of places he claims, was likely inspired by both the writing tips he used as a child and the text-heavy ads that filled the city center. . 20th century.
Over the years, efforts to improve the work of Mr. Tsang to be preserved piece by piece failed, with some works destroyed by negligence. In 2017, a city contractor painted a work about an electrical control box near an art school, leaving it damaged beyond repair. Officials have said others have deteriorated too much to warrant protection.
The MTR Corporation, the Hong Kong public transport operator that owns the bridge at Boundary Street, said it is investigating how to maintain work on the site, with the Hong Kong government saying it will provide technical advice.
Two other Tsang pieces – a pillar at the Star Ferry terminal on the south side of the Kowloon Peninsula and a lamppost outside a public housing estate – were covered with clear plastic boxes more than a decade ago in response to growing public demand. that they have been preserved.
Willie Chung, a collector who met Mr. Tsang in the early 1990s and spent years documenting his work, helped organize a petition to protect the art. But he regrets that there are no memorial signs to tell passers-by about them. He has also documented dozens of other sites, but is cautious about publishing the locations, saying the official retention policy is still too inconsistent.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty,” he says.
For the time being, he visits them regularly to check them and apply protective coatings. After days of spring rains, he traveled to a handful of locations in eastern Kowloon. In one moment he pulled out a small piece of wire and removed layers of glue that had accumulated from advertisements stuck to a lamppost Mr. Tsang had painted years ago. His characters peeked out from under gray paint and declared him the owner of that place.
At another location, Mr. Chung crossed several lanes near a construction site. Stunned workers in yellow hardhats watched as he walked past thornbushes and plastic barriers to series of pillars. He scraped off the traces of dead vines with a putty knife and then a coat of paint.
Gradually the characters became clearer. “Tsang,” read one. Then above it, ‘China’. Once the grim characters had stretched around the pillar and others nearby. For now, they remain almost completely hidden.
“I hope one day,” Mr. Chung said, “when we can share this with everyone.”