Future Shapers: Sophia Hotung, ‘accidental’ artist promoting accessible creativity

Hong Kong-born Eurasian writer and illustrator Sophia Hotung chats about inspiration in our city’s history, normalising arts careers, and fighting in favour of a digital medium

Sophia Hotung interview Future Shapers
Photograph: Calvin Sit
Sophia Hotung interview Future Shapers
Photograph: Calvin Sit
Catharina Cheung

Stepping into Sophia Hotung’s Wong Chuk Hang studio, the first thing we saw was a large black suitcase propped up near the door. She had gotten off a flight from San Francisco mere hours before we showed up, temporarily back in her hometown while splitting her time between Hong Kong and the United States. The studio space is immediately inviting – spacious, bright, and filled with art, trinkets, books, and furniture in a mish-mash that doesn’t feel deliberate but works cohesively in a way that speaks to a good eye for curation. Hotung’s petite frame flutters between offering us drinks, pushing aside small piles of belongings, and changing into a fresh set of clothes for our photoshoot. She’s a little flustered but otherwise chipper and, more importantly, feeling well enough to carry on with the day despite her early start.

Our concern for her condition is wholly warranted, as Hotung lives with chronic illnesses that manifest in symptoms like cramps, pain in the joints and muscles, and fatigue. And yet, despite having to work around her disability, the 29-year-old has managed to transition from a well-paid corporate girlie to becoming one of Hong Kong’s most interesting up-and-coming artists, who has published her own books, been featured in the city’s top publications, and is soon about to host her own solo art exhibition. As part of our special Future Shapers series on Hong Kong’s artistic talents, we spend an afternoon hanging out with Sophia Hotung, ‘accidental’ writer and illustrator.

Sophia Hotung artist Future Shapers interview
Photograph: Time Out Hong Kong / Calvin Sit

How did you start your journey as an artist?

By accident! I started my career in IT audit, thinking I’d have a techie career, but that dream didn’t last because of my autoimmune diseases. I have been chronically ill since I was 16 and the only way I knew to deal with illness was to suck it up, don’t let it define me, and push on. [As it] turns out, that’s a very unhealthy way of handling chronic illness.

By 26, I had cycled in and out of hospitals and jobs so much that I ended up bedridden and unemployed. For Christmas that year – at a loss for what to get her depressed, potato, adult child – my mum gifted me an iPad, probably so I’d have stuff to do from bed. On a whim, I downloaded the drawing app Procreate and learned how to draw on it.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer so I started illustrating my manuscripts, but I went on to make travel posters and silly cartoons, which I posted on Instagram for my friends. One silly cartoon was my first artwork for a series [that I would call] The Hong Konger. It garnered more engagement than normal, and I soon realised that I was onto something big. 

From there, I applied to my first art fair; I published my first book; I did my first commission, and now, three years on, I have a business where I can write and illustrate professionally without compromising my health.

I often get asked when I’ll start creating ‘real art’ but, to me, that’s like asking … a pianist when they’ll start playing the trombone

How has your work contributed to Hong Kong’s evolving artistic identity and narrative?

I think my most significant contribution is not necessarily the content but the practice of my work. For starters, I create everything digitally. I often get asked when I’ll start creating ‘real art’ but, to me, that’s like asking a ceramist when they’ll start doing oil painting, or a pianist when they’ll start playing the trombone. 

My medium is core to my identity as an artist because of its accessibility to the disabled community. Digital art is a medium that allows me to create even when I’m too unwell to get out of bed or need to soak my joints in a bathtub for three hours. That characteristic alone is what has brought about my career as an artist. I try to highlight the accessibility of digital art as much as I can since previously, the physical effort of standing at an easel, washing palettes, and even prepping canvases, has stopped me from creating as a sick person.

In terms of contributing to Hong Kong as a larger whole, I grow and manage a fund through my company Pangolin Society, that directs percentages of some sales to charities through donations and grants. Last winter, I created limited-edition artworks for Equal Justice, and this year, I’m working with the SPCA on a similar revenue generating project. I try to document and share my adventures on leveraging art for fundraising, and I hope that these experiments become mainstream across art and non-profit communities.

What fuels your passion for Hong Kong’s vibrant industry?

I feel a very deep connection to space, especially to Hong Kong. I walk around the city, and everything feels layered in history to me. For example, my first art fair in 2021 [the Art Next Expo] was at a hotel in Causeway Bay opposite from where my dad was born; where my Popo went to school; where I hung out as a kid; and where I learned to drive. I feel so many memories and (good) ghosts all around Hong Kong, and it makes me want to capture the full extent of my home city in my work.

As far as Hong Kong’s industry goes, Hongkongers are just a joy to work with. I love my printers, framers, manufacturers, and vendors – the community surrounding me and my work feels uniquely Hong Kong, uniquely wonderful, and uniquely inspiring.

Sophia Hotung Future Shapers interview
Photograph: Calvin Sit

What challenges have you faced as an artist in Hong Kong?

The main one is getting paid! This is less of a Hong Kong artist issue and more of a universal artist issue. My biggest challenge when starting out was hearing comments like ‘We’ll be paying in exposure’ or ‘This is more of a fun project than a paid project’, and having to professionally negotiate my way from that client mentality to a settled invoice. I used to get anxious about asserting myself and standing my ground, but now I have the tools, language, and experience to get myself paid – and to share with other freelancers so we all get paid!

Where do you see Hong Kong’s arts scene going, and how are you going to embody a space in that future?

I hope to see art education continuing to grow in Hong Kong. That could involve offering young Hongkongers examples of sustainable, profitable, creative career paths in arts, or making art more mainstream and accessible as a hobby, [form of] therapy, or social activity. Art is a luxury, but it’s a necessary luxury, and the challenge is making it accessible, profitable, and sustainable.

I’m not sure how I fit into that but I try to do my part. I give school workshops to show students exactly how much I make and spend, and how they can get started. I also reserve time every week to chat one-on-one with anyone who wants advice about starting a creative career. These feel like small things, but I try to focus on incremental and tangible efforts rather than large-scale plans, at least for now.

Art is a luxury, but it’s a necessary luxury, and the challenge is making it accessible, profitable, and sustainable

What is your favourite neighbourhood in Hong Kong?

For work inspiration, probably the whole area of Mid-Levels, Sheung Wan, Central, Tai Ping Shan, and Admiralty. So much of my childhood played out at the Botanical Gardens; at my mum’s old extracurricular arts school on McDonnell Road; in Hong Kong Park; at the ballet school in the Helena May; and more. There’s also a connection to my family roots – my grandparents were government workers who lived on Conduit Road and worked in Central, and Soho used to be an enclave for Eurasians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I feel my own memories and those of my family the most in this area.

For just hanging out, eating, and having fun, I like Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s walkable; I love window shopping there and the museums; and one of my favourite restaurants, the Swiss Chalet, is there. They cater to my celiac disease dietary restrictions and bring back great childhood memories!

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m very excited about my solo exhibition Choreopolis at Wyndham Social. The exhibition will feature 10 original artworks reimagining Hong Kong landmarks as musical theatre ensemble numbers. I’ve also been working on performances, guided tours, and master classes throughout Arts Month. I’m looking forward to curating events that engage with the community beyond art on walls.

Photography: Calvin Sit

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