Hong with the Zhang Yimou portrait.

IT’S not every day you get a Malaysian featured on CNN, NBC, Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post, but that’s exactly what artist-architect Hong Yi, aka Red, has done.

Hong’s incredible works of art are “painted” without a brush, like her potrait of Datuk Lee Chong Wei made completely of shuttlecock feathers, or the piece on our cover of Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, made out of socks and pins hung off bamboo sticks in a back alley in China.

But as amazing as her pieces are, it was arguably YouTube that truly catapulted Hong to international fame and renown. Her YouTube videos, showing how she uses everyday items like fruits, vegetables, coffee cups and even a basketball to create her work, have captured the imagination of people the world over.

Though currently based in Shanghai, China, where she operates her design studio, Hong is still very much a Malaysian at heart, having been born and bred in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

With Hong back in Malaysia to speak at TEDxKL tomorrow, R.AGE was able to get to know a little better the artist who’s been doing us all proud.


Road to fame
Back when she was a kid, Hong said her first experience with art was drawing Elmo and the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. Obviously, she never thought she’d be a world-famous artist someday at the age of 27.

She made her first big splash last year when a video of her painting a portrait of Yao Ming with a basketball went viral. Invitations from a host of international media outlets and art galleries soon followed.

“Everything happened so suddenly, and my parents were so worried they flew over (to Shanghai)!” said Hong.

Describing her career trajectory as an “accident”, Hong said she never thought something she had always done for fun could ever take her as far as it has now.

“Yao Ming was not my first art work. It happened by chance. A visiting friend from Melbourne saw what I was doing and made a simple video out of it,” said the University of Melbourne architecture graduate.

And though she’s now known for her ability to paint without a paintbrush, Hong did start painting the “traditional” way.

“My dad was a civil engineer so he taught me to sketch, and my mom, who’s a banker, taught me to paint so I was lucky to have such encouraging parents,” she added.

However, making a living out of painting wasn’t exactly what Hong had imagined she would be doing.

“I always knew I wanted to do something related to the creative industry,” she said. “I took up architecture out of my interest in buildings, since I grew up seeing dad deal with them all the time, and it was a secure career path.”

In fact, she won several architectural awards during her undergraduate years and holds two masters degrees in architecture from the University of Melbourne and Delft University of Technology in Netherlands.


Hong with her portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi back in January 2013 held at Kota Kinabalu, which took a total of three days.

Special touch
Hong’s work isn’t just about producing accurate portraits, or even about using weird mediums. Each piece she has created carries a deeper meaning, like her piece on Myanmarese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Aung San Suu Kyi sacrificed her happiness for her people,” she said. “To depict that spirit and determination to fight for freedom, I decided on red to represent love, passion, sacrifice and blood, and live flowers to represent the people.”

For this particular piece, Hong filled little plastic cups with water and different amounts of red food colouring. She arranged the 2,000 cups in a huge square based on the different shades of red in them, and placed a white carnation in each cup. After about 35 hours, the carnations absorbed the red dye, revealing a red and white portrait of Aung Sang Suu Kyi.

“Like humans, the flowers will eventually die; and this piece represents the time we have on earth,” she explained.

Every personality or image she creates is the result of a lot of research, and no small amount of imagination.

“I like this concept because the idea of rearranging objects fascinates me and I gain inspiration from everything around me,” said Hong.

Her first attempt at this artform was a portrait of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, after seeing an installation by him at the Tate Museum in London which was made of 100 million hand-painted sunflower seeds. She used the same material to make a portrait of Ai in an alley in Shanghai.

Art of the future
Hong hopes that in time, art will be as appreciated in Asia as it is in other regions. Her exhibitions in Western countries have been incredibly well-received and supported by the public, and she believes this is something that can happen in Asia as well.

“Art and design needs to be encouraged more in Asia. More people today are graduating with the same degrees. The market will be more saturated, so you will need more people from different fields,” said Hong.

Her parents weren’t too enthusiastic about her art career at first, but having seen the joy it brings her, they have become her biggest supporters.

“I noticed that many of us are trapped in reality, where we think we have to do what we studied. But there are so many opportunities out there waiting to be explored,” said Hong.

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