In Pictures: Hong Kong’s Plumber King taps the local street art market

Everyone has seen the stickers on the walls in every part of Hong Kong: they advertise plumbing services and are color-blocked, mostly in black, white, red and blue for maximum visibility.

Photo: the.plumber.king via Instagram.

Most of them will have the word “king” (王 Wong4) these days, but make no mistake: there is only one plumber king, and some of those who are now plastering Hong Kong’s walls are just copycats.

The plumber king is Yim Chiu-tong, and after years of putting his business cards in mailboxes and taping them on the walls, he’s grown into a full-blown street performer – although if you ask him, whatever he does is aimed in return to promote its plumbing business. Art is a happy, somewhat unforeseen by-product.

Photo: the.plumber.king via Instagram.

And yet his characters are so innovative and striking that many are drawn to them simply because of their aesthetic qualities: So much so that the Wanchai art space The Stallery is hosting an exhibition of works by street artists – with The King together with DaddyBoy, Cynthia Omu, Son of Fire Month and Metal Day and Muschi. The show, titled SUB9TURE, runs from November 20th to February 13th.

Plumber king. Photo: Ilaria Maria Sala / HKFP.

Yim, 75, came to Hong Kong in 1960 from a village called Pengfu – now part of Shenzhen – after looking at the city through the border fence. A friend of his who had an aunt in Hong Kong decided they had to cross the border to try ice cream and they managed to sneak in.

Plumber king. Photo: Ilaria Maria Sala / HKFP.

Life in Hong Kong was exciting but expensive: the boys had to find shelter after their aunt’s hospitality waned and a way to earn a living. After working in dim sum restaurants for a few years and barely making ends meet, Yim trained as a plumber and started a new career.

He began working for a master plumber, then worked as a plumber for a housing estate in Aberdeen before eventually setting up on his own. He hasn’t looked back in more than 40 years.

His kingdom is in Yau Ma Tei, where he maintains an incredibly small office in a pantry under the stairs of the building where he lived for many years and where everyone knows him. He sits under a single lightbulb, takes care of his paint and plumbing tools, and his cell phone is still ringing – mostly calls from customers asking him to clear pipes or fix taps.

The Plumber King’s Vespa. Photo: Ilaria Maria Sala / HKFP.

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 characters that advertise that he cleans pipes without scaffolding and that he is, in fact, the plumber king. Next to it is a small graffiti advertising the king’s Instagram account and some information about his ability to clean kitchens, bathrooms and subdivided living units.

Plumber king. Photo: Ilaria Maria Sala / HKFP.

In these days of closer scrutiny of wall doodles, the king needs to be on his feet very quickly: check that a wall has the space you want, take out paint and brushes and write what he needs quickly, then crawl that fast as possible to avoid a fine. His 200cc gray Vespa has enough space for brushes and paint next to his feet, and his cell phone number and signature are painted on the handle.

Photo: the.plumber.king via Instagram.

His palette is limited but interesting: he uses lots of black and white, and often a powdery baby pink, to outline his characters, which are also often spelled out and highlighted by a thin line of contrasting color around the edges – although this kind of precision work of art takes time to function without being discovered and punished.

Photo: the.plumber.king via Instagram.

“Of course I’ve been fined a couple of times! It costs around HK $ 1,500 a fine, ”says the king with his signature smile – happy and slightly mischievous. The continuity between the boy who smuggled his way across the border to try ice cream and the plumber who is now invited to exhibit in art galleries is evident.

“That’s why I have to pay special attention to where I place my signs: they have to be visible enough to function as advertising, but also hidden in such a way that the police cannot immediately detect them and fined them or remove them too early! ” he laughs. While plumbing is still his passion, some additional income comes from printed t-shirts, hats, and paintings on his ads.

Photo: the.plumber.king via Instagram.

Formally, he has never studied calligraphy, which is clear from the characters he has drawn: He does not care much about the stroke order and has an innovative style that, for example, makes him draw the three drops of water radically with the middle line, almost coquettishly Inclined at the top or the horizontal lines for the figure “King” curved upwards, like an unusual architectural structure.

Photo: the.plumber.king via Instagram.

The complete freedom of this approach is what makes his self-taught calligraphy so seductive. His favorite canvas – the walls of Hong Kong – is reminiscent of another Hong Kong autodidactic calligrapher with a royal nickname, the late King of Kowloon, Tsang Tsou Choi (1921-2007). Tsang walked around Hong Kong on a crutch with his paint and brushes hung to write striking characters that recited his genealogy and territorial claims on Kowloon.

Tsang’s work is now so well known as part of the local vernacular that the recently opened M + Museum is showing two of his works at the entrance to the Hong Kong galleries.

“The King of Kowloon made a statement about the territory and its ancestry. I’m just promoting my business, ”says Yim. “We met. There has never been many people in Hong Kong with characters painted on the walls. But we always said hello to each other, we never really managed to chat a lot. “

Photo: the.plumber.king via Instagram.

No matter how unorthodox Yim’s characters are, his fame has spread quickly and some people have asked him to create calligraphy for their business. “A doctor asked me to paint his sign, so I did. Since then, a few more businesses have asked me, but actually I mainly work as a plumber, ”says Yim.

Plumber king. Photo: Ilaria Maria Sala / HKFP.

“As long as I’m healthy, I want to be a plumber. But I enjoy the interaction that draws attention to my calligraphy, ”he says, rejecting any suggestion that getting fully into the art world could be a more lucrative career. The only change to his habits is the Instagram account, which he has a lot of fun with: as soon as a new ad comes up, pictures are taken and the new piece posted.

In times like these, when it seems so difficult for most Hong Kongers to own the streets, the work of The Plumber King brings with it an air of freshness and disrespect that has been sorely lacking.

To see the SUB9TURE show, go to The Stallery at:

  • 82A Stone Nullah Lane, Wanchai.
  • Opening times: Wed-Sun, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
  • From November 20, 2021 to February 13, 2022.

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