In pictures: Hong Kong’s Plumber King operates the local street arts market
Everyone has seen the stickers on the walls, in every part of Hong Kong: they advertise plumbing services and are colored for maximum visibility, using mostly black, white, red and blue.
Most of them these days will have the word “king” (王 wong4) but make no mistake: there is only one king plumber, and some of those who plaster the walls of Hong Kong are nothing more than imitators.
The plumber king is Yim Chiu-tong, and after years of putting his business cards in letterboxes and sticking them on the walls, he has become a full-fledged street artist – although, if you ask him , he will tell you that everything he does is to advertise his plumbing business. Art is a happy, slightly unforeseen by-product.
And yet his characters are so innovative and striking that many are drawn to them just for their aesthetic qualities: so much so that the Wanchai The Stallery art space is hosting an exhibition of works by street artists – featuring The King with DaddyBoy, Cynthia Omu, Son of the Month of Fire and Metal Day, and Muschi. The show, titled SUB9TURE, will run from November 20 to February 13.
Yim, 75, arrived in Hong Kong in 1960 from a village called Pengfu – now part of Shenzhen – after gazing out over the city through the border fence. A friend of hers who had an aunt in Hong Kong decided they had to cross the border to try ice cream, and they managed to squeeze in.
Life in Hong Kong was exciting but expensive: the boys had to find accommodation after the aunt’s hospitality began to crumble, and a way to make a living. So Yim, after a few years working in dim sum restaurants and barely earning enough to make ends meet, took a plumbing course and started a new career.
He started working with a master plumber, then became a plumber for a subdivision in Aberdeen before eventually becoming self-employed. For over 40 years, he hasn’t looked back.
His kingdom is in Yau Ma Tei, where he keeps an incredible little desk in a cupboard under the stairs of the building where he has lived for many years, and where everyone knows him. He sits under a single light bulb, taking care of his paints and plumbing tools, with his cell phone always ringing – mostly calls from customers asking him to unclog pipes or fix faucets.
Not far from his base in the utility closet, however, is his latest graffiti: a cell phone number and a large white set of six figures announcing that he is cleaning pipes without the need for scaffolding and is, indeed, the plumber king. Next to it is a smaller graffiti, in which the King’s Instagram account is advertised, and some details about his ability to clean kitchens, bathrooms and subdivided units.
In these days of tighter wall scribble oversight, the King has to be really quick on his feet: checking that a wall has the space he wants, pulling out the paint and brushes, and quickly writing down what he needs, then s ‘run away as quickly as possible to avoid being fined. Its gray 200cc Vespa has ample space for brushes and paints at its feet, and its cell phone number and signature character are painted on the handle.
His palette is limited but interesting: he uses a lot of black and white, and often a powder pink to draw his figures, which are also often made more precise and prominent by a thin line of contrasting color around the edges – although this type Precision work of art takes time to function without being spotted and fined.
“I’ve been fined several times, of course! It’s about HK $ 1,500 per fine, ”said the king, with his signature smile – cheerful and slightly mischievous. The continuity between the boy who smuggled across the border to taste ice cream and the plumber who is now invited to exhibit in art galleries is evident.
“So I have to be particularly careful where I place my signs: they must be visible enough to function as advertisements, but also sufficiently hidden to prevent the police from spotting them immediately, and fining me. or have them withdrawn too soon! He laughs. Now, although plumbing remains his passion, additional income comes from the printed t-shirts, hats and paintings of his advertisements.
He never studied calligraphy in a formal way, which is pretty obvious from the characters he draws: he doesn’t care much about the order of the strokes, and has an innovative style that, for example, makes him draw the three radical water drops with the middle line slanted almost coquettishly upwards, or the horizontal lines for the figure “King” curved upwards, like an unusual architectural structure.
The complete freedom of this approach is part of what makes his self-taught calligraphy so appealing. His favorite canvas – the walls of Hong Kong – brings to mind another self-taught Hong Kong calligrapher with the royal nickname, the late King of Kowloon, Tsang Tsou Choi (1921-2007). Tsang used to walk around Hong Kong with a crutch, with his paint and brushes hanging down, to write striking characters that would recite his genealogy and land claims on Kowloon.
Tsang’s work is now so recognized as part of the local vernacular that the recently opened M + Museum displays two of his works at the entrance to Hong Kong Galleries.
“The King of Kowloon was making a declaration about the land and his ancestors. I’m just advertising my business, ”Yim says. ” We met. There have never been many people painting figures on the walls in Hong Kong. But we just said hello to each other, we never really managed to talk much.
No matter how unorthodox Yim’s characters are, his fame quickly spread and some people asked him to create calligraphy for their businesses. “A doctor asked me to paint his sign, so I did. A few other stores have since asked me, but in reality I mainly work as a plumber, ”Yim explains.
“As long as I’m healthy, I want to be a plumber. But I love the interaction that the attention to my calligraphy attracts, ”he says, dismissing any suggestion that entering the art world might be a more rewarding career. The only recent change in his habits was the Instagram account, which he had a lot of fun with: as soon as a new ad is posted, photos are taken and the new piece is posted.
At a time like this, when owning the streets seems so difficult for most Hong Kong people, The Plumber King’s work brings a breath of freshness and irreverence that was sorely lacking.
To watch SUB9TURE, visit The Stallery at:
- 82A Stone Nullah Lane, Wanchai.
- Opening hours: Wed-Sun, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- From November 20, 2021 to February 13, 2022.