Free Spirit

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Hospitality pro, artist, amateur historian… DEBBIE BAILEY is reshaping and remembering Hong Kong in her own third culture way. Elizabeth Kerr reports

PHOTOS BY Richard Gordon – & COURTESY OF Debbie Bailey

Debbie Bailey has a lot on her mind. It’s not that she’s particularly troubled or incensed by anything specifically – though there’s plenty going around for both – but as an astute observer of human nature, with an artistic streak and a career in teaching others how to relate to people, she’s got plenty to say.

Sitting in the 61st floor Tung Chung flat she shares with her pilot husband and 13-yearold daughter, and looking out over the unsettlingly still airport in the distance, Debbie is comfortable talking about art, trade unions, gender dynamics, the beauty of wet markets, Sicily, challenging hotel guests, the future of travel, the future of work and, a subject near and dear to her heart, documenting the quickly vanishing heritage that makes Hong Kong what it is. She’s got the best kind of snarky streak, the kind that points out nonsense and, being a textbook third culture kid, you get the impression she could throw down some epic trash talk – in three languages.

A resident of Lantau since 2002, Hong Kong native Debbie has watched the Tung Chung area grow from sleepy suburb, when a seat on the MTR was guaranteed, to the city’s Next Big Thing. “Before all this was built, there was only Tung Chung Crescent. This was all being developed,” she recalls, gesturing at the landfill now dotted with hotels. “The mall you came through, there was a KFC and Park n Shop. That was it. It was really quiet and I loved it,” she adds with a chuckle. Still, it’s relatively peaceful and open; her parents live in a nearby tower, her grandfather is across the road, and an aunt is downstairs.

After dropping out of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (“I was a bit of a rebel. I was having too much fun.”), Debbie went to work in the hotel industry at 18 and found her career, working until recently with a multinational hospitality consultant across Asia-Pacific. Last year she struck out with her own business, Hospitality Impact, helping companies in service culture and leadership training.

But there’s more to it than that. Debbie also signed up to study emotional intelligence with Six Seconds and EQ World and she’s thrown her weight behind the COVID-devastated hospitality and airline industries.

“I loved my job, and the company, but I just thought there’s got to be more to giving back to this industry than telling them how to manage revenue and make more money.” Convincing cabin crews that have had their worlds suddenly upended they have transferable skills has kept Debbie busy, as has preparing the hospitality industry for a new world travel order.
“Anyone can give you great service, but hospitality is not something you can ‘give,’” she says. “Hospitality is providing positive emotional responses during a service.”

Though Debbie questions the link, EQ is baked into the DNA of her current side projects (fulltime jobs for most of us). First is the ongoing #messageinashellhk (find it on Facebook and Instagram), which stemmed from her efforts to comfort her mother in the wake of her artist post boxes on Tung Street, in the fabric sellers in Western Market, in the traditional Chinese slipper maker in North Point, and the chop maker who, it turns out, once designed a note for Standard Chartered. That’s what Debbie’s trying to capture in the book. “This isn’t about making money,” she says. “I just want to share it.”

Debbie’s shells and the book are ultimately a way to give back to a world that is in desperate need of some giving. This despite how resistant many of us are to simple courtesies. Remembering an elderly lady she gave a painted shell to, Debbie describes her kindness as met with suspicion. “She made me wonder why we’re not receptive to kindness. Society has created barriers that create a tit-for-tat mentality. If I do this for you, what do I get? That’s not how it should work.”

More often than not, Debbie’s determination to make time for people and spread a little happiness is appreciated, and she’s certainly not giving up her shells – dozens of which are tucked in cupboards, cabinets and on the balcony. She’s confident the EQ of it all will catch on, pointing out how a shell she placed on Lantau wound up in Sai Kung. Word gets around.
“[Kindness] doesn’t cost me anything except the intention,” Debbie concludes. “The shells cost me nothing to paint. It’s paying it forward in a way. And the result is a great experience.” brother Derek’s death in 2017. She picked up a shell on the beach, painted it and gifted it. The project kicked into gear in January last year, when Debbie decided to start leaving painted shells, complete with uplifting messages, across Hong Kong for people to find. Dropped around the city, they were a surprise hit. She posts shell locations on social media, and if you are lucky enough to find one, you can keep it or leave it for someone else.

The scallop shells are donated by Tung Chung seafood vendors, and while Debbie has personally painted and placed over 150, she’s been joined by a network of likeminded friends. “I’ve expanded to include local artists, and this gives them a platform to show their work. They use the shells as canvasses, and also leave a message on the back,” Debbie says. She’s so far featured 22 artists, eight of whom are from Lantau.

“These artists are from different cultures, different age groups and genders,” Debbie explains, “and the idea was to consider, ‘If you wanted to send a message out into the world, what would it be?’ “I like talking to people, and I carry shells with me, so when I’m in, say, Sham Shui Po, I ask what they would say. I want to include Gurkhas, the Nepalese community, the Indian community. They get the gift of a shell and they share their message with me. That’s how the book kind of happened. These stories are what make Hong Kong what it is.”

That book, Debbie’s second labour of love, will be a chronicle of the city’s hidden artisans and purveyors of traditional culture. As an explanation, she tells a story about life on now tony High Street (in Sai Ying Pun), where she spent time as a kid with her Chinese grandmother. The doors were always open, and there was a community philosophy that’s getting harder and harder to find.

“I call it heung gong yahn ching mei, the ‘Hong Kong spirit,’ which is something I grew up with,” she says. “I didn’t start speaking English until about seven and that spirit was always there. We were lucky enough to have a TV and neighbours used to come by with their stools around 7.30pm and watch the news.”

That spirit is also found in 95-year-old Mr Lai, who’s still pounding out classic Hong Kong-style


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