Write Words

I was in New York this past summer when the King of Kowloon
passed away. He was in his 80s, lived in an old folks home, and his
health had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t walk around and
practice his life’s passion: se jih.
Write words. I have loved his work since the moment I first saw a mural
he painted on the wall of my friend Lau Kin Wai’s restaurant, the
Yellow Door. Mr. Lau, who writes a column for Seun Bo, used his connections to get the King into the “real” art world–he helped get Gau Lung Wong’s works included with Hong Kong’s contributions to the Venice Biennale.

mural at Mr. Lau’s restaurant was unusual, for the King of Kowloon
preferred to paint on Hong Kong’s public spaces–walls, pillars,
underpasses. This I dug a lot, because I lived in New York City during
the Graffitti Years, which spawned two of the great visual artists of
the 1980s, Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat. I can remember
walking in the New York subway in the late 1970s,
searching like a treasure hunter for Haring’s and Basquiat’s
characteristic icons–the stick figure man, and the little crown with
the words SAMO–sketched
in white chalk on empty black advertising billboards. There were a lot
of these unsold billboard spaces at the time, because New York back
then had just declared bankruptcy, and the city was broke. All cities
go through these phases, booms and bust times. Hong Kong is the same.
The late 70s in New York had the empty, desolate feel of the spring and
summer of 2003 in Hong Kong, SARS time.

The King of Kowloon was,
by most reports, a bit of a madman. He really thought he had a claim to
Kowloon, and his calligraphy was his way of making a public protest. If
you translate his work, you’ll come up with an obsessive repetition of
his name(s), and those of his ancestors. (He also enjoyed dissing the Queen of England.) The King was “tagging” his turf,
just like the new York graffiti artists of the 70s and 80s. Was there
anything to the King’s proclamations? Who knows–but the important
thing is he shouted out over and over again, in bold, aggressive,
modern brushstrokes full of soul and personality, anywhere he could
find an empty space or a sympathetic person to give him a platform
(like Mr. Lau, or more famously, Fruit Chan in his movie Hong Kong Hollywood.
Fruit had the King do his thing on the body of a pig. As an expression
of Cantonese protest culture, I can’t think of a more perfect vehicle.)


Just about every day, when I’m walking around Hong Kong or anywhere else in China for that matter, I think about the King of Kowloon. I see his traces in the crude but lively hand-lettered signs posted on pedestrian gates by the second-hand electronics dealers, in the quickly scrawled but personality-filled daily menus tacked to the walls of a cha chaan teng.

In Chinese, the written word carries a greater weight, relative to the rest of the culture, than in English. A Chinese character has serious gong fu. It can be, at once, art, literature, history, performance and protest. As a writer who works in the English language, I get a little jealous when I contemplate the awesome power of the Jung Man jih. It wraps meaning, symbol, history, personality, passion, dance
movement and aesthetics into a single act.
We English-language writers console ourselves with the old saying “The pen is mightier than the sword.” But in Chinese language, the pen really is the sword.

In Mainland China, the art and practice of se jih has suffered two heavy blows since the Communist revolution of 1949. The first was the forced introduction of simplified characters in the early 1950s–a messy and hastily conceived affair that had good intentions (the less-complex characters were supposed to make it easier for more Chinese to learn to write), but a couple of really bad side-effects (the new system messed up the character radicals, the building blocks of meaning in Chinese writing. The new character set is also an aesthetic nightmare that turned beautiful, balanced and meaningful iconography into chicken scratch–it is the Chinese equivalent of Gregg shorthand. Okay I’ll stop ranting now.).

The second blow, no surprise, was the Cultural Revolution. “It totally disrupted the education of my generation,” my 43 year old friend from Wenzhou lamented to me over the summer. “We missed elementary school and never learned to write characters properly. I can tell the age of anyone in mainland China by their handwriting.”

Or by their lack of it. Computers have finished off what the politicians and bureaucrats started. Ask anyone under-30 in China to write a “complicated”, less-used character on paper, and they may not be able to do it. (The flip side of this is all the computer illiterate 50-somethings who can only write by hand. Long Hair writes his dozens of newspaper articles in pencil on exercise sheets with little blue-lined blocks that mark off the space for every character. When he’s finished, he faxes the pages to his editor, who then gives it to someone to enter into a computer. Many, many of Hong Kong’s daily columnists do their jobs the same, painstaking, low-tech way.)

Anyway, my sadness at the steady erosion of the world’s most beautiful handwritten language is why, walking through a public park early one morning in Shanghai the other week, my heart suddenly stopped when I saw this:

He’s doing calligraphy on the pavement, using traditional characters…and, in place of ink, water. I’d never seen this before, but friends in Shanghai told me they see it a lot these days. Like early-morning tai chi, it’s considered a form of exercise and relaxation to se jih in the park.

I watched this guy for a long time, gracefully executing each bold stroke, each waak. In the dry morning air, his water-characters quickly evaporated. One minute there was poetry, the next minute only empty pavement. Beauty, swallowed by time, transformed into memory.

Like I said, it touched my heart. But it also made me restless and yearning for the noisy, yit lau streets of Hong Kong, for the freestyle glossolalia of its written signs and placards, for the shouts of the hundreds of political banners hand-lettered every day in this city of (still, mercifully) free public assembly and speech. And for the exuberant, inimitable calligraphy of the great King of Kowloon. May his strong and immortal waaks dance defiantly on Hong Kong’s pillars, walls, and highway dividers, long after his passing.


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