It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Red Hong Yi, the artist who 'paints without a paintbrush'

Red Hong Yi gave up architecture to become an artist who 'paints without a paintbrush'

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Red Hong Yi left a career in architecture to produce works of art using everyday objects like teabags and chopsticks, including a portrait of Jay Chou made with coffee mug stains.

Nearly six years ago, Red Hong Yi uploaded a video on YouTube for a lark.

Shot by a friend, it had her dipping a basketball in red paint to create a portrait of retired National Basketball Association (NBA) star Yao Ming.

The 31-year-old Malaysian was then working as an architect in Shanghai, and made the video for friends to keep them in the loop about developments in China.

"I chose Yao Ming because he was making headlines then," she says, referring to the towering 2.29m former basketball player's election into the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Shanghai Committee in January 2012.

"All I was prepared for was my mother clicking on it 10,000 times," she says with a laugh.

Instead, the video went viral. After design website Gizmodo picked it up, she woke up to find half a million likes on her YouTube channel. Newspapers, magazines and websites clamoured to interview her.

"It was crazy. Even NBA picked it up and put it on its website. That's when I learnt how new media works," says Ms Hong, who was in Singapore recently to give a talk at the Singapore Management Festival organised by the Singapore Institute of Management.

Ms Red Hong Yi, a former architect, became an Internet sensation after she uploaded a video on YouTube which showed her dipping a basketball in red paint to create a portrait of retired NBA star Yao Ming. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

The episode changed the trajectory of her life. She gave up architecture to become an artist - one "who paints without a paintbrush".

Her world-famous feats? Creating action star Jackie Chan's portrait using 64,000 chopsticks, painting Taiwanese singer Jay Chou's face using coffee cup stains and assembling an image of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei using 20,000 sunflower seeds.

She traverses the globe to do commissions and exhibitions. Earlier this month, she was at the Anchorage Museum at Ramuson Centre in Alaska, showing off shadow artworks of Star Wars characters created from a range of materials. For instance, she used a bunch of feathers to come up with a silhouette of Chewbacca.

Poised and photogenic with cascading black tresses, the eldest of three children was born in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah to an engineer and a banker. "My mum wanted me to wear dresses and do ballet, but I was more interested playing in the mud and catching bugs," she says with a laugh.

A competitive spirit, she did well in her studies but was no bookworm.

"I had dreams of getting into the WNBA but I stopped growing at 14, so my dreams were dashed," she says with a giggle, referring to the women's professional basketball league in North America.

Her talent for art was evident from a young age. "My parents signed me up for classes but I think they were always worried that I might do it full time. I wanted to be a comic artist; I was charging school friends 10 cents for comics I drew," says Ms Hong, who grew up on a diet of Old Master Q, Doraemon and Calvin and Hobbes comics.

Because she was keen on both art and science, she decided to study architecture, eventually graduating with a master's degree in 2010 from the University of Melbourne.

"I thought that perhaps I would be an architect for the rest of my life, although a part of me did wonder why I was not giving art a shot," she says.

Ms Hong's world-famous artistic feats include (above) painting Taiwanese singer Jay Chou's face using coffee cup stains and creating Hong Kong action superstar Jackie Chan's portrait using 64,000 chopsticks. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RED HONG YI

She interned for a year at an architectural firm in Melbourne upon graduation but left for Shanghai in 2011.

"I couldn't find a job in Australia. The construction industry in the country had slowed down a lot, so I decided to apply for a job in other parts of the world."

Most of the replies she received came from China, which was going through a construction boom.

She settled on Hassell in Shanghai, which designed the Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou. The design firm also has offices in, among other places, the United States, Australia and South-east Asia.

"I thought it would be interesting to work there for a year but I ended up working there for three years," says Ms Hong, whose father was born in Shanghai.

She loved, she says, the wildly contrasting aspects of the city: of stallholders slaughtering animals in markets next to towering skyscrapers.

The Chinese youth she got to know were driven, entrepreneurial and "strove to get better at everything".

Ms Hong's world-famous artistic feats include painting Taiwanese singer Jay Chou's face using coffee cup stains and creating Hong Kong action superstar Jackie Chan's portrait (above) using 64,000 chopsticks. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RED HONG YI

Around this time, she read the book Delivering Happiness by Mr Tony Hsieh, founder of online retailer Zappos. Among other things, the book chronicles the lessons he learnt from his entrepreneurial journey, from starting up a worm farm to selling Internet advertising cooperative LinkExchange to Microsoft for US$265 million in 1998.

Ms Hong started thinking about starting an e-commerce venture and toyed with the idea of selling bicycle helmets and bells.

The idea gained momentum when she visited the world's largest wholesale market: the Yiwu International Trade Market in Zhejiang

"It was crazy; things were so cheap. You can buy 100,000 blue bottles and have them delivered to you in a day," she says.

Her entrepreneurial plans, however, went on the back burner after her Yao Ming video went viral.

It reignited her love for art which she had neglected when she started university.

The idea of using a basketball for Yao Ming's portrait came to her randomly.

"I have seen people dipping their fries in ketchup before they doodled. Maybe it came from there," she says. "In the past, I used acrylics, watercolours and crayons. But I couldn't go back to traditional methods after studying architecture. Architecture taught me to work around scale and different materials. I just wanted to build and make things and explore what I can do with raw materials."

Ms Hong had a couple of practice sessions on smaller pieces before executing the Yao Ming painting in the carpark behind her office.

"I just sketched out where the mouth and eyes were," she says, adding that the whole exercise took her about three hours.

Buoyed by the reaction, she started creating other pieces for fun.

Her second piece, which took 12 hours, was a portrait of Jay Chou using coffee-stain rings. Her inspiration came from the opening line of a Chou song Secret, which talks about a coffee cup being lifted from a saucer.

There was also a portrait of Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou, put together using thousands of socks and pins, hanging from bamboo sticks in a Shanghainese alleyway.

Her company did not frown on her projects; in fact, it funded them.

Her former boss, she says, played a major role in how her life has turned out.

He called her into the office one day and asked if she had considered doing art full time.

"When he called me into his room, I thought I was going to get fired. But he said he had two daughters and if I were his daughter, he would tell me to try it out and see where it took me."

What sealed the deal for her was when he said she could come back if things did not work out after six months.

So spread her wings she did. There was no lack of commissions.

One of the earliest saw her winging to Bologna in Italy, where she did a coffee-cup stain painting of the late, beloved Italian singer Lucio Dalla for Nespresso. The coffee company commissioned it for a new boutique it opened just below the singer's apartment and studio.

There have been numerous others since, including one from Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan.

"I met him in Beijing. When I met him, I was so starstruck I could only tell him I liked The Karate Kid a lot," she recalls with a giggle.

After a few meetings, she came up with the idea of using 64,000 suspended chopsticks for his portrait. It was inspired by one of his movies, Drunken Master, where he used chopsticks to fight.

Tying each bundle of chopsticks took her at least 10 minutes, so on the suggestion of her assistant, she flew to a village in Zhejiang and hired several women in the village for the task.

"I stayed with my assistant's parents, who were lotus root farmers, for a month. I got to know what life in the village was like. The amazing thing about China was that I got a truck to transfer the bundles back to Beijing for just $200. There was no way I would be able to do that in Australia," says Ms Hong, who then spent one month assembling the portrait in Chan's Beijing office.

Her success can be attributed in large part to an ever-abundant trove of unique ideas. For Facebook's office in Singapore, she torched 15,000 bamboo chopsticks to paint a mural depicting the story of the Merlion.

Her most complicated project, she says, was a 3D painting of a teh tarik man for Malaysia at the World Economic Forum in Davos two years ago.

Executed with the help of 20 university students, the 3.2m by 2.2m 3D creation weighing more than 200kg involved 20,000 painstakingly dyed teabags in different shades and a lot of wire mesh and staples.

Splitting her time now between Australia, the US and Malaysia, Ms Hong wants to take time off from commissioned projects next year to do her own pieces for an exhibition she hopes to stage.

"I want to create something for myself. My goal is to have an exhibition of between 20 and 30 pieces. Right now, I may have four or five," says the avid runner and cook, whose boyfriend is a data analyst turned entrepreneur.

The artist, who recently attended an art business course at Sotheby's, says her own entrepreneurial dream has not been buried.

"Right now, what I do is not scaleable. But I want to do something for the students and young people who helped to push me out on the Internet. I want to create something for them, and I see a lot of potential in scaling up through this product," she says.

Although she wants to design and build her own home one day, returning to architecture, she says, is highly unlikely.

"I do miss it sometimes. But art will always be my priority."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline It Changed My Life: Red Hong Yi, the artist who 'paints without a paintbrush'. Subscribe