Interview: “Red” Hong Yi, the painter without paintbrush

Today we receive on Marketing to China “Red”Hong Yi, the painter without a brush. After several of her creations went viral she gives her insights about how art and marketing can go together for an out-of-the box marketing campaign

1)     Introduce yourself, please

My name is Hong Yi and I go by the nickname, ‘Red’. I’m Malaysian, studied in Australia, and spent the last 3 years working in Shanghai. While I was in Shanghai, I worked as an architect but found my passion in art. Somehow my art got discovered and my work got circulated online, and that’s how I started my career in art.

Red Hong Yi

2)     What made you decide to switch from a career in architecture to art?

 I’ve always been drawn to art and design as a kid, and I don’t really see much difference in my passion in these two fields. The industry in art fascinates me a lot more though. I made the switch to art when my work was discovered online and when I started to get commissions that made me realise that I could make a living from creating art. In the past I always thought it was impossible…so I took the leap and switched jobs. I don’t think I will get back into the architecture industry, but I will definitely set aside time to design personal projects, like my own house.

3)     Could you describe how you came from a student in architecture in Australia to being the artist you are now, what revealed you to the general public?

 I created a portrait of Yao Ming with a basketball dipped in red paint, and shared a video of the process on Facebook. My friends shared it and eventually it went viral. I cringe when I watch it sometimes because that was a piece I did just for fun and it was not a serious art project, but somehow the public liked it!

4)     We published several stories (in French here and there)  about how artists can help promote brands, now I would like to know how you, the artist, that was the center of the stories, see yourself in this.

In your opinion, what does art bring into a marketing campaign?

 It helps show the brand in a different light according to the artist’s interpretation. I love how more and more artists seem to be collaborating with brands; it’s a win-win, and I think artists should not stay away from doing commercial work as we need to eat too! I also think it’s important to balance commercial and personal work.

5)     You promoted Malaysia with your tea leaves portrait, how did it help to promote Malaysia?

You mean teabag portrait? I made a piece showing an everyday Malaysian scene of a man making teh-tarik (pulled tea) which is a national drink you can get in hawker stalls. I made it out of different shades of dipped and dyed teabags. I wanted a humble, everyday scene instead of a typical iconic image of Malaysia like the twin towers. Locals drink this with their friends in local shops, so I guess it’s an extend of friendship for people around the world.

6)     How do you think, your art can appeal to Chinese and help brands?

I started creating art because I was so inspired by the chaos and contradictions in China. After traveling so much, I still find China the most fascinating place to be, and each time I visit I’m inspired to make art. There’s just something about the country and I hope locals would appreciate its uniqueness and beauty.

7)     Who are the people supporting you?

You are the artist but you definitely are not alone, who are the people in the “team Hongyi”? How did you meet them?

 I have people who manage my projects in Malaysia, China and Australia, and I am super grateful to have them on board with me. It’s all been a learning process of how to work with these 3 different people who manage my projects, and along the way we’ve definitely learned about ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses. My manager in China found my work online and we started talking, became friends, and I needed someone to help me out there so that’s how it happened. My manager from Malaysia has been a long time friend who manages other talents, so I asked him for advice when I first went freelance. I was introduced to my manager in Australia through some friends and found him very competent and capable at what he does, and he looks after my overall brand now. Whenever there is a project, one of them would assemble a team locally to help me out.

8)     In China how do you increase your network to the point where the most famous Chinese celebrities meet you?

 I don’t know! I think media helps? I’m very lucky. Maybe word of mouth too.

9)     Can you give a rough idea of the time it takes you for a creation. I imagine it may vary a great deal so I will ask for two particularly striking example :

1 The bird for HP


2 The portrait of Zhang Yimou


These bigger installations usually take me two months. A week to conceptualise, a week to design, a week to source materials, and many weeks to create…then video shooting also takes a few days.

10)   The artist side is often described, still you are also an entrepreneur, and a very successful one at that, any advice you can give to young artists entrepreneurs like you in China?

I wanted to start an online store selling bicycle parts before my art went viral. I think startups and entrepreneurship appeals to me because I think it’s creative work. Artists are like entrepreneurs and vice versa. We need to think of an idea and execute it and share it with people and see how they react. My advice to artists is to think like an entrepreneur – think about branding, marketing, and get a good manager!

Should you want to know more about the artist and her creations it’s at

As Hong Yi mentioned, the essential tool for an artist’s work, after its work of course is social media as you can see how viral her content went

More information about social media in China

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