On the occasion of Buddha’s birthday, Zolima CityMag presents a special essay by journalist and editor Aidyn Fitzpatrick.
There was a period when I badly wanted to inhabit the life of Derek Bailey — the Hong Kong sculptor, painter, Buddhist, and a family friend — who died on December 21, 2017 at the age of 49.
That time would have been around 2000 or 2001, when he was staying on Caine Road. I can picture him now at one of his parties: ponytailed, beckoning me across the patio, outdoing everyone in his skinniness and cool. A dark-haired girl listens tenderly as he rambles to her in Buddhist parables before drawling at me in the obscene, Eurasian patois of our shared Kowloon Tong upbringing. He is fey and fine featured, passing a bottle of wine with hands that have created some of the most remarkable Buddhist statuary seen anywhere.
Naturally, he comes with his own juicy myth. There’s a curse supposed to befall any sculptor who dares to depict the six realms of Samsara, the cyclic nature of existence. Apparently they all go mad before they can achieve it, but Derek doesn’t give a damn and has declared that he is embarking on the project. This story is often repeated when his name is mentioned, cloaking him in the valence of fateful defiance.
In short, he was the undisputed rock star of our circle. But what I didn’t know as I envied him on those winter nights in Mid-Levels was that, like an actual, workaday rock star, his best years were already behind him at 32. He was also suffering terribly from an addiction to benzodiazepines that would destroy his mind in an improbable fulfillment of the hex. As he would say, years later, to his sister Stephanie, “You wouldn’t want my life.”
Ringed by flyovers, the Chi Lin Nunnery in North Kowloon is a peculiarly Hong Kong place of worship. The reproduction Tang Dynasty buildings are vaguely reminiscent of a film set – rather appropriately for a temple complex situated beside a mall called Hollywood Plaza. The petty injunctions of security staff — “No drinks! No photos!” — only add to the feeling that you’re an interloper on a studio lot.
By contrast, the statuary is sublime. There are 16 pieces altogether, the largest 10 meters tall, depicting the Shakyamuni Buddha, the Maitreya bodhisattva, the Avalokitesvara bodhisattva (in Chinese, Kwun Yum or the Goddess of Mercy) and others. Derek made these — his masterpieces — between 1993 and 1998, and in their plump sensuality, subtly Westernised features and vivid details they are at the very edge of orthodoxy.
“What I love about the Chi Lin sculptures is that they are so Eurasian looking,” says Stephanie.
“If you look at the Kwun Yum,” adds Simon Willson, the Hong Kong DJ and Derek’s best friend, “he’s got it just to the right point where you can see her feminine aspect, but he just stops short. It’s phenomenal.”
And in the main hall? “It’s Derek,” says his sister Debbie, gesturing at the enormous golden face of the Shakyamuni Buddha. “That’s the expression Derek used to have when he was meditating.”
The thousands of devotees who worship at the feet of these statues each year would presumably be astonished to learn that their creator was self-taught, save a 12-month stint in Beijing, where he learned casting and how to scale up his tabletop prototypes to pieces that would fill a hall. Or that he made these sacred figures in a workshop filled with hangers-on and the profane sounds of trance music, while occasionally drawing on a blunt. But then Derek was no ordinary Buddhist or sculptor.
We were both born in the 1960s, each of us the eldest child of a Cantonese mother and white colonial police officer. We grew up on the same street. We were both expelled from King George V School – and Derek again from a Catholic school in the UK, where, he wrote in one of his journals, “I wasn’t accepted, being half-Chinese.” But where I was able to find work in the dance parties and poetry readings of the emerging Hong Kong subculture of the late 1980s, Derek was frustrated by family expectations. After returning to Hong Kong, he got a job as a landscaper – “making fake rocks,” as coworker and lifelong friend Jude Sequeira puts it. Then his parents used their connections and landed him a position as an analyst at a securities brokerage. Their insistence that he take a finance job was well-meaning but also baffling given their son’s extravagant bohemianism and talent for art.
From the earliest age, Derek had coped with unhappiness by making things. By his account, his childhood was doleful. “I used to get beaten and spent much of my childhood in fear,” he wrote. “When my parents were fighting, I used to box myself away in my room and create my own toys.”
He could paint too. Debbie remembers that “he did this one painting when he was seven, and it was so good Mum kept it in a safety deposit box.”
As a teen with a mohawk, he got by “smoking pot and snorting speed” but also painting elaborate Buddhist mandalas. He would daub lavish designs on clothes – his own and other people’s. Jude remembers first seeing Derek in 1985. “There was this guy in McDonald’s in TST and he had this black leather jacket painted with Iron Maiden’s [mascot] Eddie on the back. It was done with Typex but it was immaculate.”
An occasional potter, Jude once gave his friend a lump of clay. Derek had no experience of sculpting at the time, but brought it back the next morning as the exquisitely formed head of an alien. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,’” says Jude. “The fact that he’d never actually sculpted before was weird.”
His parents’ divorce, and tedium at work, where he was responsible for publishing economic reports and stock picks, made things unbearable for Derek, who “was kicked out of the house,” says Debbie. He quit the brokerage and went to Tai Long Wan, where he camped on the beach for months, meditating and living off clams that he dug up himself. Entirely self-sufficient, he made his own boards and took up surfing. It was a formative time. Toward the end of his life, when drugs left him unable to sculpt, he produced a stunning blue painting of rolling waves and whitecaps. “It’s Tai Long Wan,” says Debbie, poignantly. “He never said it, but I know it is.”
Everything changed for Derek in 1988. That year, a maternal aunt who was a practicing Buddhist, and who knew of his talent for drawing, took him to meet the senior clerics responsible for the construction of the Tian Tan Buddha (better known as the Big Buddha) on Lantau. They were looking for an artist to create the bodhisattva images that would be displayed around the interior column of the 34-metre statue. Derek was a long shot. The enormous task involved using a technique known as pyrography to burn images into panels of ash wood 2.5 metres high and almost half a metre wide, and there were 88 panels to complete. But Derek made samples that were so impressive he actually got the job – a dramatic win for the sometime fake rock maker whose only public art to date had been the artificial boulders at Ocean Park’s shark aquarium and the shotcrete grottos of Hong Kong Park.
He spent four years on the panels, signing them with his English name instead of his Chinese one, Pak Tak-wai (白德偉). His sisters say it was because he wanted people to know a Eurasian did the work. It was a fastidious undertaking. “To do it well, you have to be so in the moment,” he once told me. “You need to apply a lot of pressure on hard grain, but if you get a patch of soft grain, and you’re applying the same amount of pressure, the whole thing burns through and you’re left with a patch of black, ruining a panel you might have worked on for weeks.”
The success of the project led straight to the invitation to create the 16 statues at Chi Lin, a colossal commission that required him to live and work onsite, and another coup — surely unprecedented for an untrained, untried sculptor in Hong Kong, China, or anywhere. Two other works followed: a 12-metre Kwun Yum at a monastery in Singapore, and, much later, the 76-metre statue of Kwun Yum, funded by Li Ka-shing, at the Tsz Shan Monastery in Tai Po.
There should have been many more, but jobs were not forthcoming because what Derek mostly did after Chi Lin was drugs. Hanna Liv Leanderdal, who had a two-year relationship with him in the early 1990s, recalls that when they were together he “smoked a joint once in a while.” But after they broke up he “started to go to raves and take E,” she says, referring to the methamphetamine also known as MDMA.
“He’d always been quite extreme and he liked drugs,” Jude remembers. “We did mushrooms together in Thailand, and I was quite happy with however many we got, but the next day he was doing more, and more, and more. They weren’t really affecting him. He would take five or six E’s, one after the other, and you’re going, ‘Oh god, this can’t be good.’”
Says Stephanie: “You guys from that generation of Eurasians — you were like the Lost Boys.”
She’s right. But if we were endlessly partying free spirits from the pages of J.M. Barrie, it’s because we were the first Eurasian generation to have any swagger.
In Hong Kong’s earliest days, almost all Eurasians were the disowned children of male British colonists and their female Chinese paramours. Legitimate unions, such as the 1851 wedding of Daniel Caldwell and Mary Ayow — the city’s first recorded interracial marriage — were exceedingly rare and forbidden by many colonial employers. The commonly proffered reason was a concern that young, impressionable British men would find themselves honey-trapped by resourceful Cantonese women, who would demand that their new husbands start supporting sprawling families of freeloading in-laws. But, of course, such attitudes were often a cover for plain racism. They also persisted as late as the 1970s. When a white neighbour of ours allowed his Chinese in-laws to share his lavish apartment — a considerate and decent gesture — our little block of expatriate civil servant families gossiped about him quite horribly.
In 1869, when the Diocesan Home and Orphanage was set up, 18 of the 23 residents were Eurasian. In 1881, another Eurasian orphanage was set up in West Point to cope with the growing population of abandoned, mixed-race children. From 1887, the YWCA began running classes specifically for Eurasian females. The hope was that vocational education would protect them from trafficking, to which they were extremely vulnerable given the high prices paid in brothels for English-speaking girls. (For this reason, the Diocesan Home eventually stopped teaching English to Eurasians.)
Although some Eurasians flourished — and indeed became, like Sir Robert Ho Tung and his descendants, grandees of local society — most struggled in low-paying jobs, and were socially shunned by both whites and Chinese. As Ryan Kilpatrick shows in his research into Eurasian lighthouse keepers, some found it easier to live as remotely as they possibly could. The historian Susanna Hoe described Eurasians as “excluded and anomalous.” In the 1930s, when a group of Eurasians got together to form a mutual aid society, the stigma associated with being Eurasian was such that they didn’t even dare put “Eurasian” in the name. In forelock-tugging style, it was simply called the Welfare League. Eurasians and charity had become synonymous.
Wartime experiences only underscored the ambiguity of Eurasian identity. Some Eurasians were interned with other British residents at Stanley, but others were left at liberty by the Japanese occupiers and treated as neutrals. Two Eurasians, Robert Kotewall and Lo Man-kam, collaborated with the Japanese by serving on the so-called Rehabilitation Advisory Committee, albeit with many qualms.
And then, in 1952, this striking, defiant passage appeared in a best-selling English-language novel:
Look at us, the Eurasians! Just Look. How beautiful we are, more beautiful than either race alone. More clever, more hardy. The meeting of both cultures, the fusion of all that can become a world civilization. Look at us, and envy us, you poor, one-world people, riveted to your limitations. We are the future of the world.
The author was the Belgian-Chinese Elizabeth Chow, writing as Han Su-yin, and the passage was from her interracial Hong Kong romance, A Many-Splendoured Thing (later adapted into a 1955 film starring William Holden and Jennifer Jones). In matters of identity, she was hardly consistent. In fact, she most frequently self-identified as Chinese, not Eurasian, breezily ignoring the fact that most Chinese did not accept her. She went so far as to take on the name of China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han, as her pen name — as silly and insecure as a mixed-race British author calling himself “Jack Brittania.” Even so, she could truthfully write “Only I had the courage … to scream against the general contempt for Eurasians.”
By the time I was born, social attitudes were changing thanks to outliers like Chow, and interracial unions had become common enough for Eurasians to make up around a third of the students at the colonial schools I attended. It was as if a critical mass had been reached. Unlike previous generations of Eurasians, who felt excluded from Hong Kong, or who perhaps excluded themselves from it, we all of a sudden felt as if the city was ours. This conviction only strengthened during the 1980s, when anxiety grew over Hong Kong’s future under Communist Chinese sovereignty and both the Hong Kong Chinese and the colonial whites began making their exits.
The feeling of a city on borrowed time gave a fin de siècle edge to the Lost Boys. We were arrogant and degenerate – but also in love with Hong Kong and our place in it. We took our cue from the most dissolute and complex figure in Hong Kong nightlife at the time, the Eurasian club owner Gordon Huthart, famed for the lavishness of his parties and for giving interviews to the press about his homosexuality at a time when being gay in Hong Kong was illegal. The Lost Boys loved his defiance. Huthart was the closest thing to a role model we had.
By the time he was in his late twenties, Derek had settled on benzodiazepines — especially Valium — and other hypnotics, such as Imovane, as his drugs of choice. He consumed them in horrifying quantities. In his journal, he writes about leaving one of the several stints in rehab that his agonised family arranged for him. “I decided to go back to my place,” he says, “and found a bottle of tablets. I took them to Debbie’s place and when I went to sleep I thought I’d just try five tablets to see how it would feel. Woke up the next morning feeling really groggy and checked the bottle and all 50 tablets had gone. I don’t remember taking them.”
And this: “Took a major dose of sleeping pills, didn’t feel anything, so I took 100 Imovane tablets, did this three nights in a row and started bleeding internally.”
Like many substance abusers, Derek was desperate not to be found out, hiding his benzo addiction from as many people as possible. “I didn’t want to blow my cover,” he wrote. “It wouldn’t look good if it got out that a supposedly spiritual person was sculpting Buddhas hooked on drugs.”
And yet there was nothing supposed about his spirituality. Drug users and religious seekers are both psychonauts in their way, and Derek fell right in the middle of the Venn diagram of the two. “He was born in the Year of the Monkey and in many respects he was like the Monkey King,” says Simon. “He doesn’t quite belong in the heavens because he’s a little bit raucous but if you put him down with the demons he’s going to be smashing the place up.”
An attempt to reinvent Derek as a commercial artist, the kind who would turn out canvases and busts for May Road apartments, led to nothing more than the magazine profile meant to launch his new career. Mentally, he was simply not up to the job. “He always took more than the next guy. He was really pushing it,” says Jude. “But with some things, there’s no coming back.”
Then the decline began in earnest. While capable of long periods of lucidity, Derek also exhibited symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and was institutionalised twice, in 2010 and 2012, emerging bloated and unrecognisable from the medication. He started posting excruciating videos on Facebook, full of bizarre conspiracy theories. “He thought somebody was going to his house, he thought the army was after him, he thought Lantau should become independent,” says Debbie. “He declared the state of Bauhinia and covered his passports, Bible, Buddhist scriptures, and his birth certificate with the emblem of his own state.”
In his last years, Derek began painting again. His hands would tremble, so sculpting was out of the question, but he could turn out large abstracts in great quantity. Not all of the work is good, but some pieces are extraordinary and cosmic, and if they have a hint of madness about them – well, they were cathartic for the artist. “Over the past few months I have painted more than 12 abstract paintings and noticed I started to heal both physically and mentally,” he wrote in one of his last journal entries. “Most important of all, I am beginning to feel balanced! Something I have been longing for my whole life.”
The journal itself tells a different story. The handwriting gets messier, the text becomes broken up with doodles and is repetitive. Words are scribbled out. There are quotes from Thomas Merton (“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”) and Vincent van Gogh (“Nothing is more truly artistic than to love people”). But much of it makes no sense: “Regularly practicing whatever it is you are doing, increases awareness of the things that are happening.” Saddest of all are the two or three pages of cod financial analysis, as though the trauma of having worked for a securities brokerage had never left him: “Recommendation – blue chip stocks safer than second- and third-tier in a volatile market.”
There was an exhibition of his canvases, Spirituality, at a Sheung Wan gallery last September. But photos from the vernissage depict him looking desperately unwell. He was suffering from diabetes and liver disease by this time, and had tried but never managed to quit drugs. “It’s hard to get off [benzodiazepines] completely as it potentially results in seizures,” says Debbie.
Derek was dead not three months later. Hong Kong had lost the greatest sculptor it never knew it had, and those who loved him were left trying to make sense of his passing.
For Simon, the only consolation lies in Derek’s legacy. “I’m gutted he’s gone so early,” he says. “But if a tidal wave hits Hong Kong, the Buddhas will be the only things left standing. It’s such beautiful artwork and yet it is unsigned, and there’s a lesson in there for us all.”
I find it hard to be as philosophical. To me, Derek should have been the preeminent Buddhist sculptor of his era, bestowing his gift over a decades-long career at temples from Colombo to Chiang Rai, his work the subject of worshipful retrospectives and large-format books. There’s a Waterboys song from 1985 that was a big hit with our crowd of Lost Boys. We thought the lyrics terribly romantic and deep:
With a torch in your pocket
And the wind at your heels
You climbed on the ladder
And you know how it feels
To get too high, too far, too soon.
You saw the whole of the moon.
Now, in 2018, with Derek gone, they couldn’t sound bleaker.
Aidyn Fitzpatrick was born in Hong Kong of Irish and Chinese parentage.
A contemporary of Derek Bailey, he works as an editor and journalist.