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  • Sophia Hotung

How I started The Hong Konger: A 2021 year in review

Updated: May 9

The Hong Konger has taken over my life way more than I thought it would and has defined my year. I never started it with a real agenda or business plan, it’s developed organically, with me taking opportunities that came a-callin’ and going one step at a time, trying to navigate a tricky balance between being deeply unwell with refractive autoimmune conditions and succumbing to my default workaholic setting.


I thought it would be interesting to do a Year in Review blog post, a tour of 2021 if you will, recounting how I went from someone who couldn’t even draw to someone publishing a book of 70 drawings a year later.


January 2021


Art: I have had an iPad since Christmas Day 2020. I am watching CNN coverage almost 24/7 because of the January 6 Insurrection while learning to use Procreate. I am stuck in bed sick with nothing better to do. I draw illustrations for a podcast I’m making with my friends, Veronica and Huber. The illustrations are not great, but it’s a good way for me to learn how the Procreate app works.


Health: My hepatologist who oversees my refractive autoimmune hepatitis mentions a monoclonal antibody infusion I can get called Rituximab. It’s used for multiple sclerosis patients and annihilates all B cells so your immune system doesn’t attack your body. I could try it, he explains, but there’s little evidence it works on autoimmune hepatitis. I also need to get the COVID vaccine first. I’m so over being sick at the moment that I’m willing to try anything.




February 2021


Art: I draw something that I think is good enough to show people. It’s a travel poster of a lighthouse from a holiday I took in February 2020 to South America. My friends on Instagram are confused because I have never shown any skill in the visual arts. Because of the positive reception, I continue to post travel posters, including a series called Four Seasons at Barnard College. My alma mater, Barnard, catches wind of the series and they print it on greeting cards. I decide to start selling my prints on Society6 so make a website.


Health: I have taken so many drugs and tried so many treatments that I don’t have a lot of high hopes for Rituximab working, but I am so done with life at this point, I’m open to trying anything. The COVID vaccine is starting to roll out and I make an appointment to get mine in March.

March 2021


Art: I am trying to think of more things to add to my store. I start a series of retro Hong Kong illustrations, which is mildly successful. I remember a poster that a friend in college had on his wall. It’s the New Yorker cover of Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue. I try to make a Hong Kong version of it. I am not happy with it so don’t post it, but it gets the gears turning for me to Hong Kongify New Yorker covers. I post my first Hong Konger, a work in progress of what would later become Room With a View.


Health: I get the first dose of my COVID vaccine and feel fine. I’m still at a point where I am not well and only go out to visit doctors, but the drawing has made me happier and less depressed.


April 2021


Art: I dive head-first into making Hong Kongers. Making them excites me and gives me a reason to not just wallow in bed all day for the first time since becoming bed-ridden. People seem to like them and this only encourages me. That being said, I hold off on printing or selling any Hong Kongers because I know that I’m onto something and need to craft a concrete plan about monetising this project. I throw around ideas for a calendar, but when I end up making more than 12 covers, I consider a book…


Health: I get my second COVID vaccine and begin to prep my immune system for Rituximab. I need a flu shot and a pneumonia vaccine before the infusion, which gets scheduled for the end of May. I’m still unable to make myself hopeful for the infusion because nothing has ever seemed to fully work before, but I am generally feeling less numb about and more excited about life in general now because of the art.

May 2021


Art: I am now working on commissions and pitching to companies to create artwork for them. It’s a new playing field — one I am not used to. I am getting harsh wake-up calls about how much of a people-pleaser I am. I learn a lot about how to manage my time, my boundaries, and myself as a young, female, disabled artist. I draw on my corporate experiences from working, but find that the arena’s very different when I’m a sole-trader iPad doodler and not a KPMG info risk analyst. I keep making Hong Kongers in my spare time but I have to sacrifice Hong Konger art time to work on commissions since that’s where the money is coming from.


Health: I go in for my first infusion of Rituximab. I go into hospital for a full day (8 hours) and receive the drug through an IV drip. It’s boring, but the anti-allergy stuff they also give you makes you sleepy so I doze and time flies. I absorb a big bag of drugs that will wipe out my immune system’s B cells and am scheduled to return on June 1, two weeks later, for round two.



June 2021


Art: The Wild Lot invites me to exhibit a Hong Konger for their Pride shindig. I have Choi Hung up my sleeve because it’s got rainbows in it, but the initial call I have with The Wild Lot inspires me to create Courtship. I start looking around for printers and try to come up with a business model for limited series prints. I decide to print one of each Hong Konger on fancy 84 x 56” archival paper and choose Spectrart as my printer. I print five Hong Kongers: Courtship for The Wild Lot, High Dive, Shelf Reflection, St John’s Cathedral, and Zodiac Divers. I choose them because they’re requested in an interest form I have on my website. I email the people who filled out the interest form and tell them I have these five prints for sale. I add them to my online store for HKD8,888. Someone emails me back saying there’s a mistake on my website and the prints have the wrong price — they are outrageously expensive. I have to tell them that’s the actual price. No one buys a print and I feel like I’ve completely misjudged my whole business plan. No one buys Courtship for HKD8,888 at The Wild Lot either and this only makes me more worried that I’ve sunk a lot of money printing and framing art that no one wants.


Health: I go in for my second Rituximab infusion. Two weeks later, I have my blood-work assessed. One of the ways I gauge how bad my autoimmune diseases are is by testing my liver function panel. Two key inflammation markers in that panel are ALT and AST. Both should be less than about 40 units, and I have been between 200 and 1200 for the past four years. Before the Rituximab, I was around 300. After the Rituximab, I am around 600. I am angry and sad that the Rituximab not only didn’t work but also made me worse, but I am also numb to it all because this always seems to happen when I try new treatments. This, coupled with the fact that I’ve sunk money into five prints that are grossly over-priced and unwanted, makes me feel fed up. That being said, I’m excited about the prospect of a book so push on with that.



July 2021


Art: I see an Instagram ad for something called Art Next Expo. It’s an art exhibition for emerging artists in Hong Kong and the application is pretty straight-forward. I fill out the form online and then carry on with everyday life, not expecting to hear back. I’ve decided by this point to turn the 50-ish Hong Kongers I now have into a book, so I start crowdsourcing online for people to share their stories about Hong Kong. My goal is to pair interviews and anecdotes from Hong Kongers with my covers. I also start to garner attention from podcasters and go on What Kind of Asian Are You? hosted by Kyle Leung and The Awkward Turtle at Work by Emery Fung. I’m feeling like I’m making friends from the art now, which is new for me and makes me feel less alone and less anxious about my money and health issues.


Health: I get great news at the end of July. My ASTs and ALTs are going down! The Rituximab is actually working! My ASTs and ALTs are now around 100, which they haven’t been for years. The downside of Rituximab is that I get every skin infection under the sun. My dog jumps on me; the scratch gets infected. I slip and gash my elbow open; it gets infected leaving a scar tissue lump. A shoe blister becomes a wart. A ripped cuticle from playing guitar turns my nail-bed green. I have no immune system to battle the wear and tear of everyday life anymore. I feel dermatologically disgusting.



August 2021


Art: My life has been consumed with book admin, leaving me stumped and brow-beaten. My main issue is that I don’t have interviews or anecdotes for all my covers, but I have a lot of people who want to talk. I conduct 14 interviews but encounter various issues: some people want to be paid but that would corrupt the journalistic integrity of the project; some people want to remain anonymous after giving interviews leaving me in a moral conundrum of publishing off-the-record interviews or abandoning hours of work; some people want me to plug their brands in their interviews; some people don’t speak to the content in the artwork; some people just need someone to talk to and I become an unqualified counsellor; some people want me to make new Hong Kongers that tell their stories; some people feel uncomfortable with a white-passing girl making Hong Kongers. I decide against doing interviews in the end because of the social politics. Instead, I resolve to make the book about what I initially wanted: the covers and the stories behind them. I settle on telling these stories through poetry because it’s a versatile form that allows for both humour and seriousness.


Health: My blood results are slowly improving and I am able to reduce my steroid dosage. This is huge. In 2017, my Prednisolone (steroid) dose was 60mg. I only weighed 35kg at the time and usually you’re only meant to be on maximum 1mg of Prednisolone per 1kg of your mass. I was on 1.7mg per 1kg. The steroids were reduced to 7.5mg from 10mg in August. It’s difficult to come off steroids because of gruelling withdrawal symptoms so I have to taper very carefully. I feel the effects of adrenal fatigue from the withdrawal and this exacerbates the stress from pulling the book together. The steroid withdrawal influences my decision to abandon my crowdsourcing plan and make the book more autobiographical.



September 2021


Art: I start selling Hong Kongers on my website. At first I am printing them locally at Banner Shop and delivering them by hand, driving to people’s homes and handing them over. It’s a tiring job, but I get about an order a week so it is manageable. In the back of my mind though, I know it’s not scalable. I then get an international order to the U.S. and try to ship using the Hong Kong Postal Service. It costs HKD300 to ship. The retail price of the print was HKD300. I lose money. I know I have to change my delivery system ASAP so I pivot to drop-shipping with Printful. I’ve moved from Society6 because my cut is bigger with Printful. I hear back from Art Next Expo, which feels very out of the blue. I’ve been accepted to exhibit my art with them, but it’s going to cost me HKD9,000 to participate. This seems steep to me. I’m scared because people balked at the HKD8,888 price tag and I’d need to sell at least three prints to break even once Art Next has taken its cut. I do have money left over from my old job though and I like the idea of having the experience of putting on an exhibition, so I bite the bullet and pay the HKD9,000.


Health: I feel like I could take a lot of stress off my joints, bones, and muscles if I use mobility aides. A wheelchair or cane is something I’ve wanted for a while but I am aware of being a burden on my mum and caregivers. I am also self-conscious about what people will think. I decide to rent a wheelchair and cane from the Red Cross for a month to test-drive mobility aides. I find that using the wheelchair is good for speed but not convenience and the cane is good for convenience but not for speed. While I prefer using the wheelchair, it is so inconvenient and stops me from going to so many places that I decide at the end of the month that I will just buy a cane.



October 2021


Art: Art Next Expo is an overwhelming thrill. I end up selling Hong Kongers for HKD15,000 a pop and people actually buy them! I rework my pricing structure to offer two types of limited series prints and two types of open series prints. This allows me to cater to all budgets now and I feel good about not alienating Hong Konger fans. I win one of the Excellence Awards at the Expo and make a bunch of new media, gallery, and artist contacts. I can’t believe people have bought the prints and I realise that the Hong Konger is actually making me more money than commissions now. I find commissions difficult because my unreliable health makes for an unreliable me, so I decide to stop commissions entirely and go all in on Hong Konger-ing. I feel exhausted from the exhibition and need to finish the book if it’s going to come out in December. October is a real exercise in me prioritising what I want to do and saying “no” to what I don’t want to do.


Health: Art Next Expo takes a lot out of me. For the whole year I have never had to stand for longer than 15 minutes or go out for two full days in a row. For a whole Friday to Sunday weekend, I am on my feet from 10am to 10pm, being “on”: talking about the art, schmoozing, networking, upselling, and gesticulating. I tell myself I can rest the following week, but of course, the weeks that follow are chock-full of follow-up meetings on potential collaborations or shows. I’m conflicted because the type-A business crone in me can’t wait to get The Hong Konger out there, but the sickly curmudgeon needs to rest. I am also down to 5mg Prednisolone now so am battling steroid withdrawal. I feel a little out of control and try to reign in the situation by carving out time to stay in bed and write the book, which now demands 70 poems and 70 artist’s notes for its 70 prints. I end up writing all but one of the poems in September and October. I wrote the poem for Potential in 2014.



November 2021


Art: I have decided to go with Regal Printing Ltd to print The Hong Konger Anthology. I have decided to call it “Anthology” and not “Book” because I have Hong Konger fiction books lined up and I worry that calling this first book “Book” will confuse things later. I keep finding problems with my manuscript: typos, layout glitches, formatting discrepancies. It takes me longer than I planned to go to print. I’ve managed to score a gig at Bookazine signing books on 4 December, but I am getting increasingly worried that the book won’t be ready on time.


Health: Now I’m down to 2.5mg Prednisolone and my liver function tests are still good. They aren’t normal, but they’re double-digits now, which is unheard-of given that they’ve been triple- or quadruple-digits for so long. I’m feeling fewer side effects from the withdrawal too. I also have a DEXA bone density scan, which I used to do every five years but now have to do every year because my osteopenia turned into osteoporosis in 2020. My bone density has gotten even worse since the 2020 scan and there is more pressure now on my endocrinologist and hepatologist to get me off steroids, which are causing the osteoporosis. I continue to use my cane since it not only preserves me energy, but also stops me from losing my balance, falling, and shattering a hollow hip.



December 2021

Art: The book arrives on 30 November and I am delivering it to Bookazine, Asia Society, and pre-orderers during the first few days of the month. I start out delivering pre-ordered books by hand, but it is exhausting. I don’t want to have to pay extortionate postal fees again like I did with the prints in September, but my childhood school friend Kendra teaches me how to use SF Express and the rest of the books go out that way. I do my author talk and book signing at Bookazine and end up selling out of the 100 copies I consigned! I hand over more books to Bookazine, all while cold-calling other shops to stock the Anthology. Within a week, I’ve sold 425 copies and place an order for a second print run of 1,000. Tomorrow, I have my first gallery exhibition at Oi Ling Antiques. I’ve already sold one of the prints. They’re now going for HKD30,000 and no one bats an eyelid when I tell them that’s price. It is the last event I have schedule for the year because I feel like I need to take stock and focus on the final stretch of my steroid taper.


Health: I am still on 2.5mg steroids. I need to get my liver function panel checked again soon. I am writing this with a massive butterfly rash on my face. (That’s a rash that spreads across your nose and cheeks.) I have spent the whole day in bed and am worried that I may be relapsing from all this Hong Konger fanfare. The butterfly rash is common among lupus patients. I have not been diagnosed with lupus but I have many of the same symptoms because of my overlapping autoimmune diseases. It is also difficult to diagnose autoimmune diseases when you are immunosuppressed because the immunosuppression masks diseases like lupus. In short, I don’t know what I have. I just know not to be surprised when I get symptoms for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or other autoimmune diseases. I can’t quite process the success of the book or The Hong Konger project in general because things have happened so quickly this year and I’m scared I’ve done all this at the expense of my health. All I can do is remember that what is important to me is being healthy, being with people I love, and not equating my value or happiness to this bizarre project that defined my year.

 

Thanks for reading until the end (or at least skimming). While writing this I kept thinking, “Man this is a lot. I should probably break this down into multiple posts.” But in the end, I just decided to put it all into one big momma post. I also recognise that I did not mentioned every project or every partnership I worked on in this post. I’m sorry if I did not mention our work together. I really had to cull for word count and make this mostly Hong Konger-centric!



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