Everyone has seen the stickers on the walls, in every part of Hong Kong: they advertise plumbing services and are colour-blocked for maximum visibility, using mostly all-black, all-white, all-red and all-blue.
Most of them, these days, will have the word “king” (王 wong4) but make no mistake: there is only one Plumber King, and some of those plastering Hong Kong’s walls now are just imitators.
The Plumber King is Yim Chiu-tong, and after years of putting his business cards into mailboxes and sticking them on walls, he has evolved into a full-blown street artist – although, if you ask him, he will reply that everything he does is aimed at advertising his plumbing business. The 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 art space The Stallery is running an exhibition of the works of street artists – featuring The King together with DaddyBoy, Cynthia Omu, Son of Fire Month and Metal Day, and Muschi. The show, entitled SUB9TURE, will run from November 20 until February 13.
Yim, 75, came to Hong Kong in 1960 from a village called Pengfu – now part of Shenzhen – after gazing at the city through the border fence. A friend of his who had an aunt in Hong Kong decided they must cross the border to try ice-cream, and they managed to sneak in.
Life in Hong Kong was exciting but expensive: the boys had to find a place to stay after the aunt’s hospitality started to wear thin, and a way of making a living . Which is how Yim, after a few years working in dim sum restaurants and hardly 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 housing estate in Aberdeen before finally becoming self-employed. For more than 40 years, he hasn’t looked back.
His kingdom is in Yau Ma Tei, where he keeps an incredible small office in a utility cupboard under the staircase of the building where he used to live for many years, and where everybody knows him. He sits under a single light bulb, taking care of his paints and his plumbing tools, with his mobile phone still ringing – mostly calls from customers asking him to unblock pipes or fix taps.
Not far from his base in the utility cupboard, though, is his latest graffiti: a mobile number and a large white set of six characters advertising the fact that he cleans pipes without the need for scaffolding and that he is, indeed, The Plumber King. Next to it is a smaller graffiti, in which the King’s Instagram account is advertised and a few specifics on his ability to clean kitchens, bathrooms and subdivided units.
In these days of stricter supervision of wall scribblings, The King must be very fast on his feet: check that a wall has the desired space, take out paint and brushes, and quickly write what he needs to, then scramble away as fast as possible to avoid being fined. His 200cc grey Vespa has enough space for brushes and paints by his feet, and his mobile number and signature character painted on the handle.
His palette is limited but interesting: he uses a lot of black and white, and often a powdery baby pink to outline his characters, which are also often made more precise and prominent by a thin line in a contrasting colour around the edges – although this kind of precision artwork requires time to operate without being spotted and fined.
“I have been fined a few times, of course! It is about HK$1,500 per fine”, says the King, with his signature smile – happy and slightly mischievous. The continuity between the boy who smuggled himself across the border to taste ice cream and the plumber who is now invited to exhibit in art galleries is plain to see.
“So I need to pay particular attention to where I put my signs: they have to be visible enough to work as advertisements, but also be hidden enough to avoid the police spotting them straight away, and fining me or having them removed too soon!” he laughs. Now, even though plumbing remains his passion, some extra income is coming in from printed T-shirts, hats, and paintings of his advertisements.
He never studied calligraphy in a formal way, which is quite evident from the characters he draws: he doesn’t care much about stroke order, and has an innovative style that, for example, makes him draw the three-drops-of-water radical with the middle stroke nearly coquettishly inclined upward, or the horizontal lines for the character “King”curved upwards, like an unusual architectural structure.
The complete freedom of this approach is part of what makes his self-taught calligraphy so alluring. His favourite canvas – the walls of Hong Kong – brings to mind another Hong Kong self-taught calligrapher with a royal sobriquet, the late King of Kowloon, Tsang Tsou Choi (1921-2007). Tsang used to walk around Hong Kong on a crutch, with his paint and brushes hanging from it, to write striking characters that would recite his genealogy and his territorial claims on Kowloon.
Tsang’s work has now become so recognised as part of the local vernacular that the recently opened M+ museum features two of his works at the entrance to the Hong Kong galleries.
“The King of Kowloon was making a statement about the territory and about his ancestry. I am just advertising my business”, says Yim. “We did meet. There have never been many people painting characters on the walls in Hong Kong. But we only used to say hello to each other, we never really managed to chat much.”
No matter how unorthodox Yim’s characters are, his fame has been spreading rapidly, and some people have asked him to create calligraphy for their businesses. “A doctor asked me to paint his sign, so I did. A few more shops have been asking me since, but really, I mostly work as a plumber,” says Yim.
“For as long as I am healthy, I want to be a plumber. But I do enjoy the interaction that the attention to my calligraphy is attracting,” he says, dismissing any suggestion that entering the art world in full might be a more remunerative career. The only recent change to his habits has been the Instagram account, with which he has been having a lot of fun: as soon as a new advertisement goes up, photos are taken and the new piece gets posted.
In days like these, when owning the streets seems to be so hard for most Hong Kong people, the work of The Plumber King brings a breath of freshness and irreverence that has been sorely lacking.
To see the show SUB9TURE go to, The Stallery at:
- 82A Stone Nullah Lane, Wanchai.
- Opening hours: Wed-Sun, 11 am to 7 pm.
- From November 20, 2021 till February 13, 2022.
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