Cover Sophia Hotung is reimagining New Yorker magazines covers with a Hong Kong twist

It doesn’t matter that Sophia Hotung is not a trained illustrator; her Hong Konger prints have captured hearts all over the city

From a sportily dressed woman walking a leash-load of Hong Kong wildlife down Star Street to three wise men sailing a junk through Victoria Harbour, Sophia Hotung’s artwork peeks at city life through a witty and imaginative lens. The illustrator is behind The Hong Konger, a quirky series that reimagines covers of The New Yorker with a local twist.

The Hotung name is prestigious in Hong Kong, but the 27-year old is gaining a reputation in her own right for drawings that are threaded with nostalgia. The Hong Konger series began in March when Hotung decided to create a Hong Kong version of Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue, the March 29, 1976 cover of The New Yorker, which paints Manhattan as the centre of the world and is regarded as one of the 96-year-old weekly magazine’s most memorable.

“The joke targeted expats who know Hong Kong Island well but don’t really venture to Kowloon, think the New Territories consists of rice paddy fields, and are intimidated by the sprawling mass beyond the border,” says Hotung. At first, this parody cover and subsequent ones in the same vein were intended only for Hotung’s friends, whose enthusiasm for her newfound outlet encouraged her to make more and share them. “I felt like I was on to something,” she adds.

Hotung spent time in New York while studying literature at Barnard College, a women’s school under the Columbia University umbrella, and her familiarity with the city enabled her to understand the facets of its culture that were being lampooned or elevated by The New Yorker and draw from her own Hong Kong identity to produce her series of retakes. However, her illustrations hold a more personal meaning that cuts to the emotional disconnect she felt while living between the two metropolises.

“Whenever I used to come home from boarding school or college, I wasn’t properly getting over my homesickness for Hong Kong. It was because I wasn’t just homesick for a place, but for a place during a certain time,” she says, adding that her art remains open to interpretation. “When people look at the prints, they glean their own narratives and find stories in them.”

A scroll through Hotung’s blog or Instagram feed not only shows her art and its appearances at exhibitions around town, but also the artist’s experiences living as a young disabled person. 

“When people look at the prints, they glean their own narratives and find stories in them"
Sophia Hotung

At 16, Hotung developed autoimmune hepatitis, a genetic condition, and has subsequently suffered from a host of chronic illnesses, including autoimmune cholangitis, Coeliac disease and ocular myasthenia gravis. She was also diagnosed with osteoporosis, myalgic encephalomyelitis, aka chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia, warranting use of mobility aids. When illness in 2017 left her bedridden, she began to wonder how she would support herself financially if she couldn’t hold a traditional job. For Christmas that year, her mother gave her an iPad, and she began using drawing app Procreate and “became addicted”.

Despite her art having been on display at event spaces and art expos, the success of the series came as a surprise to Hotung, as she never felt artistically inclined. Her mother, Joanna, founded the children’s art school Kids’ Gallery in 1996 and as a child, Hotung would take the classes. “I was always the kid who made not very good—read: weird—projects. In college, when I ran the blog at my student paper, the design department often told me to stop making graphics because they looked so homemade. My career as an illustrator has therefore come as a real surprise to many, most of all myself. It only started because of my disability,” she says.

This month, Hotung will publish a collection of her pieces, The Hong Konger Anthology. The book will be a 160-page coffee table read featuring 70 prints that condense her personal experiences, and will be available online and in select stores. The anthology will also include 70 poems she penned as narratives for each print. “When I started out posting my Hong Kongers on Instagram, I would include little essays behind each artwork. Some poems are based on famous western and Chinese poetry that has been subverted— much like the New Yorker covers— to fit Hong Kong,” she says.

Next up, Hotung is working on her first book in a series of crime fiction based on The Hong Konger prints. “I have a lot to say and create about women, work, Eurasians and the millennial generation,” she says. “I think of myself more as a storyteller and for now, illustration is a medium I use to tell stories.”

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