We meet with Sophia Hotung, author and illustrator of children’s book The Stowaways Symphony
Sophia Hotung is a writer and illustrator who grew up in Hong Kong. After multiple illness diagnoses, she left her corporate career and began to focus on her art. Best known for her stunning The Hong Konger collection, she also takes commissions and runs The Pangolin Society, which raises money for local charities and performs discounted or pro bono work for non-profit organisations.
You began work in the corporate sector. How did your art career begin?
By accident! I always wanted to be a writer and illustrator as a kid, but growing up in the Hong Kong school system, I thought that wasn’t a viable career. I set my sights on a corporate career in tech or consulting and my first job was in IT audit. I’d been dealing with autoimmune disorders throughout secondary school and university, and, by the time I was 24, I had about 7 chronic illnesses that I was trying to “overcome” and “not let define me.” At one point, when I was bedridden and unable to work, I started The Hong Konger as a joke and it gained traction in a way I did not expect at all!
What attracted you to the digital art medium?
I’d been in and out of hospital for about two years when my mum gifted me an iPad for Christmas 2020. I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed, so I started doodling on the app Procreate and my work became popular really quickly–people wanted to exhibit it, then buy it, then commission new art, and, the next thing I knew, I had a registered business. Now I’m able to work in a way that accommodates rather than sidelines my illnesses and a hefty part of my job is disability advocacy, specifically to young people through schools. I’ve regained a lot of my strength, but I still love the versatility of digital art. I love experimenting with brushes and techniques that make it look like I’ve created watercolours, oils, sketches, collages, and anything else I fancy that doesn’t look digital.
What’s your favourite thing to draw and why?
It took me a while to work that out! I made The Hong Konger; I’ve done myriad commissions; I’ve written and illustrated books, but I was never quite sure what my “style” was. Places? People? Cultures? Recently, I saw Septime Webre, the artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, speak about his efforts to make ballet more accessible and representative of Hong Kong. He explained how ballet is actually a reflection of its audience and that good art reflects people’s stories.That’s when I realised the theme my work all had in common–storytelling–my favourite art is art that tells stories rooted in identity.
What was it like being K11 ARTUS’s Artist-in-Residence?
Funnily enough, I’m actually writing my responses to these questions at K11 ARTUS! It was an amazing opportunity to work with them last year, and the ARTUS team still takes care of me–they sent me snacks during my Covid hotel quarantine and even gave a copy of the book to Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians!
You wrote your first children’s book in this role, can you tell us about that experience?
Writing The Heist of Hooded Light was a whirlwind experience because I challenged myself to write and illustrate it all during my 12-day stay at K11 ARTUS. The story follows two twins on a staycation who thwart an art heist. All the artwork and locations are real, visitable parts of ARTUS, so I spent parts of my days exploring the site, taking photos, notes, and sketches, then I’d burrow away in my (amazing) suite and scribble, type, and paint until evening. I don’t think I could have pulled the book together at home, but ARTUS really does have something in the water (I promise I wasn’t told to say that!); I felt uncannily productive and inspired, and loved the idea of translating its spaces and artworks into a magical realism world.
How did your collaboration with the HK Philharmonic come about and what does it mean to you?
HK Phil approached me for a book that taught music appreciation and concert-going etiquette, but with a story that would engage children. They wanted something to celebrate their 50th anniversary, so I knew it needed to be something fun and festive. The Stowaways Symphony tells the story of 6 zoo animals from the Botanical and Zoological Gardens who stow away on the Star Ferry to go and watch the HK Phil perform at the Cultural Centre. Of course, they get carried away in the concert hall and get dragged out one by one. The bilingual book has stickers and music appreciation fact sheets and is available across bookstores in Hong Kong. All proceeds go to the HK Phil.
How did you choose which animals to put in the book?
When I was a child, my mum ran an extracurricular art school in a building on Garden Road. My Popo would take my sister and me to see the flamingos and lemurs at the Botanical Gardens while we waited for my mum to finish work, and I wanted to incorporate as many elements from there as possible. Fun fact: the otter was originally going to be a white-faced saki, but its face is so weird-looking we decided to change it to a much cuter-looking otter. (Sorry, any Saki fans!)
Why is music important to you as a medium for your art?
As a student throughout middle and high school, I was mainly a musician. I played classical guitar and orchestral tuba and held a music scholarship at a boarding school in England as a teenager. Now, music is a hobby for me, but I still credit it with many things, such as teaching me discipline and being creative, which comes in handy in so many aspects of my life.
Can you tell us about your company, Pangolin Society?
I do all my work under my LLC (Limited Liability Company), Pangolin Society, but its most significant feature is the Pangolin Fund. I channel a portion of limited edition art sales into a fund that supports local registered charities. The Fund has raised just over $175,000 in the past 10 months, has subsidised projects with The Mission to Seafarers, The Hong Kong Philharmonic Society, and The Hong Kong International Literary Festival, and has donated over $150,000 to local charities including The Women’s Foundation, the Hong Kong Council for Early Childhood Education and Services, and Impact HK.
Do you have any upcoming projects or plans you can share with us?
A couple of fun things coming up:
- Nov to Jan: I’ll be exhibiting some of my favourite Hong Konger prints at The Hong Kong Arts Collective’s Christmas exhibition, opening on Nov 30th and running until early January. 20% of all sales go towards the Pangolin Fund and local charities.
- November 30th: I’ve teamed up with Equal Justice, a local charity that works to close the justice gap in Hong Kong, to create The Everyday Collection, a series of artworks of Hong Kong female shopkeepers and business owners. The collection launches officially on November 30th and various editions of prints will be available for sale at sophiahotung.com/equaljustice. 50% of profits will go towards Equal Justice and 20% will go towards the Pangolin Fund.
- 2024: I’ve teamed up with the Mission to Seafarers to create the guest room artwork for their new hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, The Mariners Hotel. The artworks feature an original proprietary seafaring character and are styled as comic strips to show comic book hero adventures across Hong Kong.
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