Cover Jumbo at Night by Felix Ip (Image: Hong Kong Machines)

Jumbo Floating Restaurant, the tram, neon signage—these are just some of the iconic Hong Kong sights illustrated by artist Felix Ip. We take a look at his work, which he is minting as NFTs

You may not know the name Felix Ip, but chances are that you’ve seen the popular animations that this Hong Kong artist has worked on: he was the creative director of Imagi Animation Studios, which worked on DreamWorks’ 2004 sitcom Father of the Pride; he co-produced Mirage Studios’ 2007 Ninja Turtles movie TMNT; and was the creative director of Astro Boy in 2009. He also adapted Hong Kong novelist Jozev Lau’s Blood and Steel into a comic book, which won China’s comic festival Golden Dragon Award’s Original Animation and Comic Competition in 2011.

Now, as the artist turns his attention to NFTs, his comic book art is sought after by both galleries and malls. In K11 Musea’s spring exhibition Metavision earlier this year, 19 of his digital art pieces, in which elaborately illustrated Hong Kong elements such as trams and the Jumbo Floating Restaurant are turned into cyborgs, were placed alongside some of the most expensive and well-known NFT collectibles, including pieces from Bored Ape Yacht Club, Mutant Ape Yacht Club, CyberKongz, World of Women and Rocket Factory.

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These artworks are only a small portion of the more than 1,000 old-Hong-Kong-themed illustrations that Ip has created since 2009. He has compiled them into the book Hong Kong Machines, where one can find both disappeared and disappearing sights of the city, with a touch of sci-fi fantasy added: a green tram has “limbs” formed by extra parts and wheels and “walks” along Des Voeux Road Central, where there used to be an old-style bing sutt diner, known for being the first in Hong Kong to sell ice cream flambé, in the 1950s; a self-righting bollard—a type which has been gradually replaced by retro-reflective ones since 2007—holds an ink brush and is covered with the King of Kowloon Tsang Tsou Choi’s calligraphy; tenement buildings are reimagined as the titular edifice in the Studio Ghibli animation Howl’s Moving Castle.

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More illustrations, both new and from the book, will be available for sale as NFTs on OpenSea this year. Ip will also launch a Web3 game in December where players interact with animated Hong Kong buildings or bollards, and accomplish tasks in both real life and the metaverse set in the city.

The comic book artist says foreign sci-fi films like Blade Runner have made Hong Kong a cinematic city, and it has always been his dream to create his own sci-fi Hong Kong story from a local perspective. “I like revisiting my childhood and imagining what the future is like from there,” Ip says. He recalls how a ride on the Star Ferry one time made him realise that the city has been changing at a fast pace. “I hadn’t even enjoyed the breeze enough before I had to get off; the harbour has become smaller because of reclamation. This just reminds me of how a lot of other precious memories are gone too. I want to preserve these disappearing elements which resonate with Hongkongers of my generation with my art.” The Jumbo Floating Restaurant series, which was shown in K11, was created on the day the restaurant closed. “It was such a shame that one more of our childhood memories will be gone,” he says.

Ip says that by turning his art into NFTs, it has allowed more people, especially the younger generation who aren’t familiar with Hong Kong’s past, to know more about sunset trades and the city their parents grew up in. “I’ve seen parents [at the K11 exhibition] telling their children about their good old days. The buyer of my tram piece told me that he used to take the same tram in the illustration home from school and that my work has brought back forgotten memories.

“Most of all, NFTs have given digital artists and comic artists that recognition they’ve never had when compared to artists represented by galleries.” Comics weren’t considered a proper profession in Hong Kong just a few decades ago, despite the popularity of Japanese manga and animations in the 1970s. “I’ve been drawing comics since primary school. I grew up with Ghost in the Shell. I was very impressed by how manga artist Masamune Shirow could turn places like Sham Shui Po into a cyberpunk space next to a channel of water with his imagination,” he says. But there was a general social impression that manga and comics were related to violence and delinquency.

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The fact that there wasn’t a formal employment system in the comics industry in Hong Kong also made it difficult for Ip and many other aspiring comic artists to carve out a successful career. He recalls knocking on the doors of the few established artists to submit his drafts, hoping to be taken on as an apprentice. “But unlike Japan, where there is a more refined system of training comic artists, most of the apprentices here, including myself, would only be assigned to draw the frames for the storyboards for the masters. If you were good, you might be considered for drawing some accessories like rings. But the masters wouldn’t want to be replaced, so you would end up with minor roles for a long time.”

Ip gave up on his dream and studied illustration at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He worked in advertising, design and animation companies until 2009, when he set up Unicorn Animation Studio with Hong Kong animation studio Imagi Studio’s owner Francis Kao. Ip was to be the production designer and director for their project Monkey King Reloaded, but his colleague suggested that he could be the comic artist too. That rekindled his unfulfilled passion for the art form.

“The city’s perception of comics has definitely been changing, partly because of NFTs, and partly because we’ve seen more diverse topics than merely physical violence in comics these days. There’s so much possibility to what comic and digital artists can draw,” he says. That obviously includes dreaming up a sci-fi old Hong Kong in the metaverse.

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