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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.

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?

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.

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. M+, Hong Kong’s new art museum, has more than 20 works of his in its collection, including a pair of ink-painted wooden doors.

But far more are hidden under paint on the streets of the city.

Mr. Tsang received just a few years of formal education, and some experts have sniffed that his writing, almost all done by brush and ink he used by the gallon, was not calligraphy in the formal Chinese tradition. Still, his work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2003, and pieces sell for as much as $100,000.

Researchers say the style of his work, which is filled with lists of ancestors and names of places he claims, was likely inspired both by the writing primers he used as a child and the text-heavy advertisements that filled the city in the middle of the 20th century.

Over the years, efforts to preserve Mr. Tsang’s work have been piecemeal, with some works destroyed through negligence. In 2017 a city contractor painted over a work on an electric switch box near an arts college, damaging it beyond repair. Officials have said others are too badly deteriorated to warrant protection.

The MTR Corporation, the Hong Kong mass transit operator that owns the bridge at Boundary Street, said it is investigating how to preserve the site’s work, with Hong Kong’s government saying it was offering technical advice.

Two other Tsang pieces — a pillar near the Star Ferry terminal at the southern end of the Kowloon Peninsula and a lamp post outside a public housing estate — were covered with clear plastic boxes more than a decade ago in response to growing public demands that they be 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 laments there is no commemorative signage to tell passers-by about them. He has documented dozens of other sites as well, but is cautious about publicizing the locations, saying official preservation policy is still too inconsistent.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

For now, he makes regular visits to check on them and add protective coatings. After days of spring rains, he traveled to a handful of sites in eastern Kowloon. At one he took out a small wire tool and removed layers of adhesive accumulated from advertisements slapped onto a lamppost that Mr. Tsang had painted years ago. His characters peeked out from under gray paint, declaring him owner of that spot.

At another location, Mr. Chung crossed several lanes of traffic near a construction site. Bemused workers in yellow hard hats watched as he walked past thorn bushes and plastic barriers to series of pillars. He scraped off the traces of dead vines with a putty knife, then a layer of paint.

Gradually, the characters became clearer. “Tsang,” read one. Then above it, “China.” Once, the stark characters had stretched around the pillar and others nearby. For now, they remain almost completely hidden.

“I hope there will be a day,” Mr. Chung said, “when we can share this with everyone.”

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