Rats dart about a quiet alleyway and a viscid substance leaks from a heaving garbage sack. A pyramid of cigarette butts balances precariously atop an orange bin emanating faint wisps of smoke that draw the eye to something beautiful. On the alley wall is a simple message, carefully executed in white paint strokes and outlined in black:
通渠 92263203 免棚
The words bracketing the phone number offer two promises: “sewers cleared” (通渠 tung1 keoi4) and “no scaffolding” (免棚 min5 paang4). The idiosyncratic characters navigate the uneven topography of the wall, descending into canyons of chipped paint and concrete, proffering humble plumbing services and playfully transforming the grimy surface into a palimpsest classifieds page. The mysterious writer responsible for this vision leaves his familiar sobriquet before slipping away into the night. Keoi4 Wong4 (渠王) was here. The Plumber King.
We find the King, also known by his birth name, Yim Chiu-tong, reclined on the steps of the Yau Ma Tei Theatre. The septuagenarian luxuriates in gliding autumn light, fielding calls on a flip phone. Shielding his eyes against the setting sun he cheerfully springs to his feet and bids us follow as he strides ahead in his camo print high tops. Navigating back alleys he points out his ads, and makes minor touch ups with a paint marker.
Aside from bold strokes, the Plumber King’s writing bears no resemblance to the scripts most often associated with traditional Hong Kong signage: kai (gaai1 syu1 楷書) and beiwei (bak1 ngai6 北魏). They look nothing like any established calligraphic style. The unorthodox block characters with their roughly geometric shapes speak to an atavistic creative impulse as primal as cave painting.
“That writing form is his own invention. He writes however he feels looks best,” says Sunny Hong, who runs the Plumber King’s official Instagram account, @the.plumberking. Hong points out the Plumber King’s most distinctive characters. He says the keoi4 (渠, sewer) character is unusual because the middle stroke in his “three drops of water” radical (氵) ticks “whimsically upwards, filling negative space, creating a peculiarly delightful composition.” The wong4 (王, king) character features horizontal strokes that curve upwards like tines on a fork. “In Chinese calligraphy, you don’t often get the beginning and end of a stroke both going upwards,” says Hong. “His do. It has its own spirit.”
The Plumber King estimates that he has painted at least 8,000 signs – “if not ten.” He has been so prolific that many are surprised to learn just one man has been tagging the city since the 1970s. It started about a decade after Yim had smuggled himself into Hong Kong from a quiet village outside Shenzhen. “In 1961, the nation was suffering from a famine. It was very hard, we had nothing to eat!” he exclaims. “I had been going to school but Mao Zedong required people to labour in the fields.” After a day of toil, Yim and his friends would stay out in the cool evening breeze. On the horizon, the lights of Hong Kong winked seductively. “I really wished to steal into Hong Kong,” he says. “My friend, whose brother had been sending money from Hong Kong, said we should go to Shenzhen for ice cream. I had never even dreamt of ice cream, so I went.” The teenagers loitered till night fell. Then they wandered upriver and, on a whim, yanked up a section of border fence and crawled under.
Freshly arrived in the crown colony, Yim sold dim sum for HK$6 a day, some of which he sent home to his family. Casting about for ways to make more money, he apprenticed as a construction site plumber. “When you’ve been poor you’re always obsessed with making more money to help your family,” he says. “I thought, ‘Hong Kong has so many tall buildings, so many pipes. Fine when they’re new but sooner or later someone has to fix them. I could be that someone!’ So I decided to become a freelance plumber.”
In those days plumbers printed business cards. Yim shoved tens of thousands of cards into mailboxes all over Hong Kong – but nobody called. “I’d made my rounds for two hours one day and returning to where I’d started, I found all my cards strewn across the floor,” he says. His mind raced until he recalled something he’d seen. “In San Po Kong, there is a big nullah. Written on the nullah’s sloping walls was graffiti advertising Wong To Yick Wood Lock Ointment (黃道益 wong4 dou6 jik1). They’d used ink and paint. When I saw it in that nullah, I was inspired to write my advertisements all over Hong Kong!” Thus the Plumber King was crowned.
Yim’s ads are distinctive for the way they respond to context and environment. A discrete sign laid out on a Lai Chi Kok sidewalk neatly distributes characters across paving bricks; larger examples adorn retaining walls, and trace the angles of drainage structures. From Yau Ma Tei, where he keeps a tiny office in a utility cupboard under some stairs, the Plumber King ranges far and wide. Astride his trusty 200cc Vespa, Yim goes from job to job with his customised plumbing tools and a tote filled with paints and brushes. Using standard 4 or 6 inch wall brushes and occasionally a broom, he leaves his mark wherever there is “good foot traffic and lots of cars.”
Yim works quickly, completing a simple sign in 30 minutes on average; large ones take about an hour. Thinking about layout, Yim eyeballs the surface and considers its size. “Then I just put my brush to the wall and go for it. I don’t draft it out, that would take too long,” he says. Speed is important since Yim contends with security guards and the law. “You paint, then scram and hope you got away with it. Some security guards are really arrogant, they threaten to call the cops and bug you for ‘advertising fees.’ I always say, ‘Come on uncle, there’s no need for that! It’s hard to make a living!’ I don’t have an advertising fee for you but I’ll just clean it up if you want.’ I take care of it like that.” Still, Yim has been fined innumerable times. Starting at HK$1,500 the penalty gets heavier with each run in – but officials often turn a blind eye or call Yim back to clean up if they feel an ad is outrageously large or conspicuous.
With an intuitive graphic design sense, Yim deploys a simple palette comprising black, white and a distinctive powder pink. Contrast and legibility are his chief concerns. “I have to coordinate with the colour of the wall!” he says. “If the wall is white then I write in black. I always choose a colour that strongly contrasts. An eye catching colour. When the wall isn’t consistent then I mix red and white paint to make pink. To really make the words pop you use pink or white with a black outline. Make sure the words stand out. That’s the trick.”
The Plumber King deftly handles his personal brand like a marketing maven. “The most important is those two words – Plumber King. It’s my brand. It’s entered the public consciousness. ‘Who are you going to call? Call the Plumber King lah!’” Yim employs an innate understanding of visual hierarchy, always listing his basic plumbing service first, then assuring that he works with no scaffolding and therefore doesn’t overcharge. “If there’s nobody to bother me then I’ll write more services. If I have to evade the authorities then I can’t make it a big production or else it will be very maa4 faan4 (麻煩, troublesome)!”
When asked how he feels about his ads, the scrivener maintains that “it’s just to drum up business.” But his face cracks into a roguish grin as he glances aside playfully. “I sometimes think, ‘Oh yeah! That’s a pretty good one! I’d give it 80 or 90 out of 100!” Yim is bemused by how much people enjoy his ads. “I really don’t know! An artist? Me? Haha! I’m just minding my own business! Doing my thing. It makes me happy.” Yim is obliging whenever anyone commissions a sign and his work has been the subject of a gallery show, even appearing on the side of a tram for the Hong Kong Design Centre’s #ddHK project in 2019. Many have approached Yim with offers to co-opt his identity in the cause of selling t-shirts and pushing instagram ads but the Plumber King shows no interest unless it will lead to more plumbing jobs.
While Yim may be puzzled by the reaction to his work, the reasons for his mass appeal are obvious to Sunny Hong. “There is a collective appreciation. It is a product of Hong Kong’s environment and society,” he says. The rough yet beautiful signs speak to the never-say-die spirit of the Hong Konger. “He’s not doing this for the sake of art, he’s only doing it to make a living yet something beautiful comes from this ethos. He has been resourceful, consistent and disciplined for decades. This is the Hong Kong mentality – perseverance.”
All over Hong Kong, Yim’s ads get scrubbed away by authorities or defaced by haters but the King just bounces back. “What does this mean?” he asks, pointing at an indistinct scribble over one of his works. “Nothing? Why would someone ruin my ad for nothing? They’re not even advertising anything!” he exclaims with a laugh. Unfazed, the Plumber King just does it all again. Whether they are art or not, the Plumber King’s creations and tenacious spirit have captured the hearts of Hong Kongers. Not commodified luxuries produced for egotism, the signs have been painted with nothing more than a plucky underdog’s fervent wish to fix your toilet. Only by the purest of hearts can mundane advertisements for the clearance of muck and effluent be imbued with such beauty.