In November, The Millennial Source swung by and we got talking about how The Hong Konger started. My disability story is baked into The Hong Konger, because I only started making digital art while bedridden from autoimmune relapses.
Over the course of the interview, we talked about how I had to "deprogram" my brain from seeing myself as "only valuable if I was productive" to seeing myself as "inherently valuable, regardless of productivity". And that's not a unique thing. I feel like many of us have to undergo some sort of "deprogramming" when we realise that basing your self-worth on your productivity is not sustainable.
When I had to quit my career, move back in with my parents at 25, and accept that I could not work a 9-to-5 job, I became suicidal. That's not a hyperbole. Depression can be uncomfortable to talk about, but the fact of the matter is that many disabled people, including myself, suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts. Why? While I can't speak for all disabled people, I believed that if I was never going to be well enough to support myself and repay my family for investing in my education, what was the point in using up resources by being alive?
In this clip from the interview, I talk about how, as a teenager and young adult, I shaped my whole identity on being hardworking, nice, and a good return on investment for my parents. Then, how I had to reckon with the erasure of that identity when my disabilities rendered me jobless, bedridden, and depressed.
What happens when a life event forces you to change your core identity?
I had to — and am still having to — find value in myself when I'm not productive. And that's a hard lesson for anyone to internalise. Why should someone feel accomplished when they're not accomplishing? That's some entitled millennial snowflake malarkey, right?
I have had to be chronically ill for almost 12 years for me to realise that, ironically, when I give myself a break, I actually, organically, become productive again. When I prioritise taking care of myself, I'm actually setting myself up to take care of others.
I start out this clip by mimicking the logic I used to cycle through in my head, trying to find a "thing" that I could point to to feel valuable. Even if I wasn't being productive, at least I was nice, right? Well, no. I was depressed, bitter, and avoiding my friends. Okay, well at least I was productive. Well, no. I quit my job. Well, what's the bare minimum someone could do? Getting out of bed! At least I'm... oh wait no, I'm bedridden...
Disabled people are discouraged from committing suicide over feelings of hopelessness and uselessness, but we exist in a world in which people are generally celebrated only when they contribute to society. How do we reconcile these two things then without celebrating laziness or pressuring disabled people to ignore their limitations?
How can I make myself valuable? By not trying to be valuable.
I didn't start The Hong Konger suddenly with a plan to turn my life around with a new digital art career. I made The Hong Konger, because I was bored in bed, had a shiny new iPad for Christmas to play with, and was finding a way to interact with my friends through social media posts of my doodles after going dark on many of them in 2019 and 2020.
I did not expect The Hong Konger to engage as many people as it did, and only started to think of ways to monetise it when people asked where they could buy it. I researched how artists sold their art and decided to create 1/1 limited series Collector's Prints. These would be — and still are — the biggest versions of The Hong Konger that I ever make, meaning that when you own one of these, you own the largest version and the only version. (More on these prints here.)
I created a form on my website that harvested emails from interested buyers and collected data on popular prints. After two months, I printed the five most popular prints and gave them a HK $8,800 price tag. I emailed the list and waited for my first-ever customer... (Watch the clip for the dénouement... or read on below).
Every failure helps your frame of reference for future obstacles
To my mortification, I got just one email back. It was checking a typo. My online store said the prints were HK $8,800. That couldn't be right, could it?
I just found the email! Pro-tip: keep a folder in your inbox of these. I tag these sorts of emails under "Memories". They're always fun to whip out in hindsight (or cry over if things don't go your way).
Honestly, this still makes my stomach churn to revisit. These exact same prints now go for HK $50,000 (with 20% being donated to charity), but I still can feel the anxiety of July 2021 me, reading that email for the first time and thinking, "What have I done!?"
But it's also nice to reflect on this and think, "This is so small fry compared to what churns your stomach now." It helps me minimise my current stressors and reminds me that one day, what's keeping me up now will end up being a funny, little anecdote later.
Now, when people balk not only at my prices, but also at the way I do business and create art as a disabled person, that pricing story is a good reminder that balking is not a consequence of my actions. It's a consequence of other people's interpretations.
Watch all The Millennial Source interviews on their YouTube channel, Instagram feed, or LinkedIn page. There is also a full written interview with more meat and potatoes on their website. The Millennial Source (TMS) is a news and media company based in Hong Kong delivering Headlines and Human Stories directly to you every day. Sign up for their newsletter here.
If you're new to my work and self, I'm a Eurasian writer and illustrator from Hong Kong, best known for creating an art collection called The Hong Konger. I started out as a corporate techie after graduating from university, then burned out from ignoring my autoimmune conditions. Two years into my recovery, I started digital art. I am most active on Instagram, LinkedIn, and this blog if you would like to follow my work.
I offer school talks and speak publicly on disability and chronic illness. I have four autoimmune diseases and seven chronic illnesses in total, including autoimmune hepatitis, celiac disease, and myalgic encephalomyelitis. You can read my full bio here.