Red Hong Yi – the pride of Sabah
Published on: Sunday, April 25, 2021
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Red with her #iamnotavirus series.
SABAHANS have this spirited pride about all things Sabah. It’s rare, however, to feel deeply proud about a Sabahan.

But this time, it is high-flown and epic, when a masterpiece design from renowned, multiple award-winning Sabah-born artist Red Hong Yi makes it to the cover of Time Magazine featuring “Climate Is Everything”.


Compelling for sure she has said as humans, everybody should voice out on things that matter.

But what is certain is as the designer of this particular Time Magazine cover  it makes her an influential voice that says: “climate matters” – why not.  

The problem with Climate Change is it is very difficult to stir public interest, particularly action, because of a phenomenon associated with all “Tragedy of the Commons”, that is – everybody has an incentive not to cooperate.

Plastic pollution, for instance, everybody hates it but single-use plastic is so convenient and cheap everybody has an incentive not to do anything!

The same with high carbon-based fuel or petrol which is an intimate part of the easy energy system.    

But given a change of administration in the US, maybe Red Hong Yi’s pick for the job reflects a wind of change on a worrisome issue – where famed climatiologist, Professor James Hanson has warned that Earth is gaining extra energy by an equivalence of exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs each day, 365 days a year setting the stage for a massive energy imbalance that may irreversibly overheat Earth with unthinkable consequences because human have chosen to keep adding loads of CO2 which keeps more solar energy coming in than going out.

A worrying happening? 


Time Magazine commissioned her 

But consider this is the first crack at it from any Sabahan ever since Time Magazine was founded on 3 March 1923 – a first in nearly 100 years.

My fact check found it was Time Magazine which commissioned her to do the job, not vice versa. 

So, wow, what has she got that sent Time Magazine come looking for her?

Actually she established reputation by challenging the paradigms of art by using unusual and everyday materials as her mediums – from basketball to chopsticks to seeds to tea bags to socks etc and in Time Magazine’s case, 50,000 pieces of green tipped match sticks.

Her unconventional style distinguished her as “the artist who paints without paintbrush”.

Of course, that raised eyebrows and brought unexpected fame.  

Painting basketball super star Yao Ming portrait with a basketball shot her to fame  

Patricia Karunungan reported one of her first feats which astounded the world:

“Hong shot to fame in 2012 when a video of her using a basketball and paint to create a portrait of retired NBA star Yao Ming went viral.

“It was a sudden inspiration and I decided to do a Yao Ming portrait using a basketball. 

“I never expected in to be a hit,” she told reporters during a display of her works at Sutera Harbour Marina and Country Club, in January 2013, reported fellow journalist Sandra Sokial.

Her fame spread and other feats followed, involving another super star.

In 2014, action star Jackie Chan commissioned her to create a portrait of himself with 64,000 chopsticks for his 60th birthday and video of the artwork has been watched 1.9 million times on YouTube.

Nobody think you can paint using coffee cup stains, but she painted popular Taiwanese singer Ray Chou with just that.

Similarly, she used 20,000 sunflower seeds to assemble an image of Chinese artist He Wei Wei. 

In 2015, she was invited to present her work, “Teh Tarik Man”, made of 20,000 dyed tea bags, during the Malaysian Night at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

The list of her feats may go on and on.

A top dog award winning brilliant Sabahan to match the reputation of Time. But it is no coincidence that Time Magazine knew her. 

She has the brilliance to match the quality of iconic Time reputed for dealing with the most provocative ideas and topics of our time.

In 2016, Esquire Magazine Malaysia named her the top 12 “Brilliant Malaysians” and “Brilliant Artist Award”. The US-based parent Esquire Magazine was founded in 1933 “to be all things to all men”.

In addition, she was also recipient of Perspective Global’s “40 Under 40’s Designers” Award – a programme which recognises young design talents from architecture, art, interior design and production design, who are set to lead the future of design in the year to come.

Besides, Australia Unlimited also named her one of the 19 “Future Chasers” as future decision-makers of courage, imagination and will.

High praise from ex-principal 

But the terrific “feel good” factor is she is Sabahan-born in Kota Kinabalu in 1986 to developer parents Wedge Hong and Terry Ng Kin Wan, went to school at Seri Insan, Likas, where Kathryn Rivai was Principal, before venturing to Australia in 2004 to attend the Foundation Studies programme at the Trinity College (University of Melbourne), graduated with a Bachelor of Planning and Design in 2007 and then Master in Architecture in 2010 from the University of Melbourne.

Contacted by Daily Express, New Zealand-hailed Kathryn (writer’s ex-colleague at SM La Salle) said: “Yes, she was my student. 

She is an amazing artist. I’ll buy a copy of Time Magazine. Her art teacher at Seri Insan is Damian Yuen, a wonderful art teacher, she is still teaching.” 

Upon graduation, she moved to Shanghai to work for Australian Architecture company Hassell but quit her job in 2014 to pursue art full-time. 

Series #seedsofhope to portray positive people helpful to others 

Then she came up with her incredible #seedsofhope series on Instagram – making portraits of people worthy of admiration during pandemic out of seeds.

And she is right about it. 

In Asia and certainly in the West, too, there are lots of good people saying and doing incredible work to help humanity who are really the “seeds of hope” for the world and their voice deserve a place via portraits that can go viral these days by sharing with the world the through shooting the process of such utterly unconventional style of painting without a painting brush except seeds that represent positive forces in the world that produce benefits to all instead of poisoning it with conflicts      

By using seeds as the medium of creating their portraits, it carries a very powerful message that what they say, what they do and what they stand for will germinate and grow into good fruits that benefit all.    

#iamnotavirus to voice out things that matter

“I started #seeds of hope right after #iamnotavirus because as much as there are worrying things happening in the world, there are people who are doing incredible things to help others.”

She said she found Shanghai “endlessly fascinating with so much left to discover” and would like to travel back there one day, also India, but among places in Malaysia. 

She still gives Sabah top vote “for its nature and great outdoors” while Penang’s “quirky streets and art culture” certainly attracts her.   

In her #iamnotavirus series, all accounts suggest that Red Hong Yi very conscious of the fact that there are “worrying things happening in the world” but in this case as “humans”, not specifically artists, they should voice out things that matter to us all, “it does not matter whether we are artists or scientists, bankers, doctors, geologists etc,” she told Patricia Karunungan.


Time Magazine cover scheduled for the April 26, 2021 edition designed by Red Hong Yi. 

Red Hong Yi

The moment of truth as Red’s team members set fire on ‘Earth’. 

Red actively giving instructions in project studio. 


Composite pictures of ‘Earth’ up in flames to highlight its worrying destruction by human choices envisaged by Red. Note the part of the 50,000 green-tipped match sticks used to create the 3m x 2.5m world map that was burnt up in two minutes.

The portrait that shot Red to fame – painting basketball superstar with a basketball. But it’s her video that stunned the world. 


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