King of Kowloon - would he have known?
Travelling, work and the beginning of the new semester at HKU has been keeping me from updating this blog. It's me being bad. No excuse. So let's start with something new.
Last Saturday night at Sotheby's Hong Kong evening sale of Ullens Collection, a piece of work by Tsang Tsoi-choi - Calligraphy on Utility Box No. 2 - was sold for a record HK$800,000, breaking the previous record HK$500,000 set in 2009. The piece went under hammer at HK$650,000 but the final aggregate was HK$800,000 after adding buyer's premium on top. The night also saw the sale of Box No.1 and a cloth, both had the King of Kowloon's calligraphy.
The piece, as you can see from the picture (Sorry I don't know which box is No.1 and which box is No.2), is King of Kowloon's signature calligraphy painted on a metal locker, striving to resemble the street calligraphy painted on electricity junction boxes that once existed all over Hong Kong. But years after years, the calligraphy works were painted over - by the government or management of those public facilities.
I was there witnessing the sale at Convention and Exhibition Centre. When I saw the number kept going up on the screen as the auctioneer taking down the bids, I had mixed feeling. On one hand, the number and the dollar sign crowned those pieces of works the value in a language that most people can understand. The King of Kowloon's works, once being seen as subversive and pollution to public facilities by the government, finally earned their recognition in the market.
On the other hand, however, I couldn't help but wonder if the old man would've imagined his works would've become so valued in today's art work. If he or his family did, would he or his family have kept some of the pieces and save them for future auctions? If he did, did he ask whoever gave him objects to paint on to pay him an exorbitant artist fee? If he knew, would he end up in an old people's home and die alone?
The other sad thing is now that most of "his Majesty's" street calligraphy has been painted over, what once belonged to the people of Hong Kong in the street can no longer be seen in public. The works, through sales at auctions, fall into the hands of a handful of private collectors. We will not have a chance to see them, except at auction exhibitions, or thematic exhibitions like the one at Artistree earlier. What is worse is that King of Kowloon still earns no recognition from the authorities. But if there was such a recognition, I can't help but wonder if those who own the works of Tsang will take the advantage to sell what they have to museums at an exorbitant price.
Art or not is no longer the question. The point is, King of Kowloon already takes up a chapter in Hong Kong's collective memory. Once we had this crazy old man walking around town, carrying his ink and his brush to tell his world about his tales - he truly lived the spirit of a free society.