How The New Yorker’s transformation into The Hong Konger launched Sophia Hotung’s digital art career after years of illness extinguished her corporate ambitions

The UK was a huge culture shock and I think a lot of my homesickness came from being confused about everything from how people talk, what they eat, to the mentality surrounding work. It was embarrassing in England to look like you were trying to study, be in a club or get a music scholarship.

My friends were musicians, so to hang out with them, I immersed myself in their schedule and accidentally became quite good at playing the tuba. I performed in orchestras and ensembles, and by the time I graduated from junior high school, I had received a scholarship in high school to play the tuba.

Both Natasha and I wanted to do art – my sister wanted to be an artist in the West End and I wanted to be a writer. Although my mom opened an art school, she is also practical and keen to instill in us that following your passions is not a reliable business model for financial independence when you grow up.

I always thought that I could be a writer along with work. It never occurred to me that I could support myself by doing something artistic.

Khotun at the age of nine with his mother Joanna. “I guess you could say it was one of my first digital artwork haha.” Photo: courtesy of Sophia Hotung

Sick and tired

When I was 16, I became seriously ill and was eventually diagnosed with a fairly rare autoimmune disease, autoimmune hepatitis, in which the immune system attacks the liver. I had to drop out of school right before my final exams and my parents brought me back to Hong Kong.

I had a year out of school during which I was very worried about falling behind in my studies and read many popular books on psychology, then I went to Harrow International School, which had just opened. I was still quite ill and occasionally went to the hospital for checkups during the day.

It was difficult to get food, and I was so tired that if I stood up, after a few seconds I had to sit down, and if I strained, I would pass out. I was very thin because I couldn’t digest food.

Hotung with her mother at her mother's Mid-Levels office in 2012.  Photo: Edward Wong

Hotung with her mother at her mother’s Mid-Levels office in 2012. Photo: Edward Wong

meal planners

By the summer term at Harrow, I was much healthier and ready to go to university. I went to Barnard College, a women’s college at Columbia University in New York. I really had a good time there. I spent most of my time in the university newspaper. I started writing and then I got interested in business – generating income, engaging and marketing.

In the third year of the four-year program, I felt unwell. I didn’t take care of myself; I took a lot of lessons and didn’t eat well. A college counselor told me I was too thin and diagnosed me as anorexic. Anorexia treatment included supervised eating where you were made to eat lots of carbohydrates.

I got so sick that in my senior year I was sent to the hospital where I was diagnosed with celiac disease, another autoimmune disease in which if you eat gluten, your body starts attacking the small intestine to the point where it can’t absorb the food. All these controlled meals exacerbated my illness.

Hotung with an illustration of a property developer exiting a new subway station built atop Lion Rock Hill, based on the August 5, 2002 New Yorker cover by Eric Drucker.  Photo: courtesy of Sophia Hotung

Hotung with an illustration of a property developer exiting a new subway station built atop Lion Rock Hill, based on the August 5, 2002 New Yorker cover by Eric Drucker. Photo: courtesy of Sophia Hotung

Risk and Crisis

In 2018, I completed an English degree and minors in history and economics, and in August of the same year I joined KPMG in Edinburgh in information risk management. I lasted only three or four months before I ended up in the hospital.

I moved to London to get a new job at a crisis communications firm and started seeing a specialist there, but in May 2019 I ended up in the hospital again and my mom flew in. I felt a lot of pressure to make a career and provide for myself, but I was in the hospital and couldn’t walk, so my mom won and I went back to Hong Kong with her.

I started working part-time at the Children’s Gallery doing the technical side of things, but I kept getting sick and relapsing. The pandemic and my relapse happened in tandem. I left work, rested and recovered. I lived at home with my mom and felt worthless because I was 26, had a sloppy resume, and didn’t know if I could ever build a career or support myself financially.

Hotung's book

Hotung’s book “Hong Kong Anthology”. Photo: courtesy of Sophia Hotung

covers the girl

I was such a potato. I lay in bed all the time, I didn’t even watch TV. My mom gave me an iPad for Christmas that I was on cloud nine with and I downloaded a drawing app called Procreate. From the bed boy, I moved to the sofa in the living room, where I painted for hours. I showed my mom the drawing and she offered to post it on Instagram.

I made the Hong Kong version New Yorker magazine cover as a joke for my New York friends who follow me on Instagram and my friends in Hong Kong. I posted it as a one time post and it got more attention than anything else. I posted another one and people liked it too, so I decided to make 12 and make a calendar.

As I got support and kept getting ideas, I made more and more money. I still had this streak inside of me to monetize it and turn it into something so I made a website to sell the work. I added more items to the store, enlarged the website, and started doing custom work.

Before I knew it, I was making money from it in ways I didn’t expect. Being a digital artist is much cheaper than being a physical artist; the only overhead other than the website is electricity to charge my iPad. This is an environment with a very low entry barrier to work.

Hotung with his iPad.  Photo: courtesy of Sophia Hotung

Hotung with his iPad. Photo: courtesy of Sophia Hotung

Learning to relax

I met my boyfriend, Spencer, in my senior year at university. He is from San Francisco and also Eurasian. We started dating, and when I left the US, the relationship went a long way. We were always looking to see if we could find a way to be together again, and then the pandemic hit.

He works in tech and IT and he’s a great guy, very laid back. While I struggled with my health, he was very supportive of me. Thanks to technology, he could be there every step of the way. I’m in New York right now, hanging out with him, and we’re trying to figure out plans that are crawling out of the pandemic.

I work with the Women’s Fund [in Hong Kong] make an NFT with Sophia the robot. I make a digital artwork and then she draws on top of it, adding her interpretation, and we sell it as an NFT to raise money for the foundation. My first book will be published soon, a children’s book that I wrote with K11. In August, I will be selling a limited edition of some of my work at the Affordable Art Fair.

It was important for me to realize that the pressure I used to put on myself wasn’t doing any good, and I’m actually just as successful and content when I relax. I’m not a cold-blooded person, I get very excited, so I have to actively install cooling valves and remind myself that the things I sometimes get stuck in are not important.

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