Spirit of Hong Kong Awards: artist with incurable disease devotes time to charitable causes

Hongkonger Sophia Hotung’s journey from a stressful corporate career to a successful artist came about when an incurable disease forced her to re-evaluate life as she struggled to balance a nine-to-five work schedule with constant hospital visits.

The artist, now 29, was left bedridden for most of 2020 after she was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, a condition that causes a patient’s immune system to attack their liver.

That same year, Hotung received an iPad for Christmas from her mother and decided to spend the time teaching herself to draw using an app called Procreate.

Sophia Hotung was left bedridden for most of 2020 after she was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis. Photo: Handout

The decision eventually led her to create “The Hong Konger” collection, her own take on the iconic cover art from the popular magazine The New Yorker, over 2021 and 2022.

Hotung said she loved exploring the concept of space in her art and writing, utilising it in her compendium of poems and illustrations The Hong Konger Anthology and The Heist of Hooded Light, a children’s mystery novel created in collaboration with K11 ARTUS’s artist-in-residence programme.

She draws on the concept in The Stowaways Symphony, a new book coming out this November to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

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The artist also pursues corporate and philanthropic commissions through her company Pangolin Society, founded in 2022, which sets aside 20 per cent of profits from her limited series print sales for her charitable fund.

The fund uses the money to offer commissions, resources and consulting services to local charities for free or at a discounted price.

“It’s a way for The Hong Konger to support real Hong Kongers,” she said. “I combine my art skills with my corporate experience to identify and guide the implementation of sustainable, low-effort and financially rewarding income streams for charities.”

The artist is a Spirit of Culture finalist in this year’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards, an annual event co-organised by the South China Morning Post and property developer Sino Group to honour the achievements of remarkable people whose endeavours might otherwise go unnoticed.

Hotung’s company and fund previously partnered with The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mission to Seafarers’ ccomingMariners Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, and several charities to raise more than HK$165,000 (US$21,100) over the past nine months.

Last October, the artist teamed up with non-profit The Women’s Foundation and Hanson Robotics to co-create an NFT collection. The collaboration raised more than HK$80,000 and the royalties were used to create a passive income stream for the foundation.

Hotung is also set to work alongside charity Equal Justice Hong Kong to launch an artwork series in November that celebrates female business owners in Yau Ma Tei. Money raised from the sales will go to residents in need of pro-bono legal services.

The artist has created “The Hong Konger” collection, her own take on the iconic cover art from the popular magazine The New Yorker, over 2021 and 2022. Photo: Ryan Lee

The artist now spends most of her time in San Francisco, enjoying a less stressful and more unconventional schedule that allows her to manage her condition and stay productive.

Long-term steroid use had hampered her mobility and meant she spent her mornings working from bed in California, she said.

“I get most of my artwork done at this time. Hong Kong is asleep, so my creative flow is not interrupted by phone calls or meetings. I also have the flexibility to go to doctor’s appointments during the day without sacrificing work engagements,” Hotung said.

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The artist said she devoted her late afternoons to spending time with her husband and dogs, before logging in later on to chat with clients and partners starting their working day over in Hong Kong.

“I figured since I can’t go out much anyway, it doesn’t matter where in the world I am. Even when I am in Hong Kong, most of my life plays out online from bed. Work-from-home culture during the pandemic levelled the playing field for disabled people like me to participate in opportunities that we were previously isolated from,” she said.

“I’m grateful that I can do work that I love and still be of service without sacrificing my health in the long term.”

The artist is a member of the Hotung family, which rose to prominence through the accomplishments of Sir Robert Hotung, known as the “grand old man of Hong Kong”.

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