Portrait of GAYLORD CHAN in front of Half Yellow Moon, 1989, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 122 cm. Courtesy Josephine Chow and Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Gaylord Chan, 1925–2020

Also available in:  Chinese

I think Gaylord would have liked to be missed, but not mourned. It is not easy to think about him except in the most vivid present tense. Gaylord himself would surely complain in Hades if we relinquished thoughts of him to the past. 

It has never been easy to pull wool over Gaylord’s eyes. He always saw through the polite facade of life. With Gaylord lying in his hospital bed, his family thought religion would ease his passage. I disagreed, whereupon Gaylord, muted by intubation, immediately gave me a thumbs-up. In 2001, after a major surgery, he told his friends his plan for a “soul experiment”: if the soul existed, the moment he took his last breath he would bid us farewell from above. We were to pull out a compass and check if the tip of the needle quivered—if it did, we would know that the soul had substance, and if it didn’t, we would have proven the premise false. I was on my way to his hospital when I received the fated phone call, and immediately thought of the compass. Unfortunately, the iPhone compass app is digital, and does not respond to magnetic fields. 

Gaylord saw through the farce of common society and yet embraced life with all its defects. His engineering and management career at Cable & Wireless won him the MBE, an award of the Order of the British Empire. Upon retirement, he plunged immediately into the art world, eventually finding his personal voice in painting and poetry. He treasured both his careers: from his hospital ward, he instructed fellow artist friends to help him make bronze plaques of his MBE title and his award from China-Hong Kong Telecom, in preparation for eventual display in retrospectives as testimonies to his life. Gaylord recognized that worldly achievements are no less noble than art, and he wouldn’t put one above the other. As an artist he never succumbed to the dictates of the market. On a shelf of my gallery library is a photo that Gaylord gifted me, in which we stand before a Taiwanese photographic artwork of a landlocked dragon-boat with a crew of staged rowers. On the photo he wrote, “Where’s the Water?” (“water” being the Cantonese slang for “cash”). In the interstices between earthly success and artistic satisfaction, Gaylord proved himself a master. 

My earliest collaboration with Gaylord was in 1988, at a group exhibition of Hong Kong artists held at Hanart TZ Gallery at Braga Circuit of Kadoorie Avenue. The exhibition featured Luis Chan, Wucius Wong, Irene Chou, Hon Chi Fun, and Chu Hing Wah, among others, each unique in their personal styles. I was charmed by Gaylord’s paintings from the beginning. Among the layers of silky, translucent acrylics, veils of color float into each other to become forms. These unstable shapes are both abstract and suggestive of familiar reality, bringing to mind Daoist and Buddhist prayer flags swaying in the wind. In other works, with his uninhibited puns and totemic celebrations of sexual energy, he converged the spiritual and primal realms lightheartedly. Then at the age of 63, having already received several art awards from the Hong Kong Regional Council, and having won the heart of his wife, Josephine Chow Suk-fan, Gaylord was preparing to become a full-time artist. We began to work in close partnership, holding his first individual exhibition in late 1989. His 70-year, 80-year, and 90-year celebratory exhibitions followed, and all flew by in the blink of an eye. 

The parade of flags he created for the West Kowloon Cultural District in 2012 (later presented again at Tai Kwun in Central) caressed the open sky, celebrating life and humanity in a manner befitting of Gaylord’s spirit. That same year, I also brought a set of flags to the annual OPEN International Exhibition of Sculptures and Installations in Venice. They were so popular, several were stolen before the show’s end.

I can especially empathize with Gaylord’s affinity for the computer program MS Paint, which produces dynamic, jagged lines not unlike those on heartbeat monitors. After Gaylord’s complete transition to MS Paint in 2010, I noticed a diversity and structural maturity in his new works, and his volume of art production steadily rose. After all his major surgeries (12 in total), he told me his irregular sleep schedule would lead him to artistic thoughts in the middle of the night. His ruminations on life, affection for people who mattered over the years, and inspired sentiments all rushed forth and were captured in painting and poetry. These moments now form the legacy through which Gaylord stays with us. His spiritual transmission upon his exit from his body might have run into technical issues, but one doesn’t have to go far to find him—he’s not in heaven or hell. Without the protection of any deity, Gaylord had counted on his friends and family, and his poetry and paintings, to preserve his place in the living world. You just need to flip through his books of poetry or peruse his art, and you’ll find him there, saying, “Please add me as a Friend, let’s skip off to Karaoke, or perhaps Skype sometime.”

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