Meet Red Hong Yi: University of Melbourne Alumni turned Internationally Renowned Artist!

Many know her as the artist who ‘loves to paint, but not with a paintbrush’. One of MTV’s Instagrammers Changing the Way We See the World, Red Hong Yi is returning to Melbourne as keynote speaker for the Melbourne International Student Conference on September 27 and 28.

Growing up in Malaysia, studying in Melbourne, working in Shanghai and now traveling all over the world as an artist, Red Hong Yi truly is a global citizen.

Fondly known as “Red”, Hong Yi creates her art pieces as well as portraits of famous people with everyday items like a basketball, flowers, food and even coffee stains.


Her most recent feats include portraits of soccer legends Ronaldo, Neymar and Messi for the 2014 World Cup using only a soccer ball and action star Jackie Chan using chopsticks!

As a University of Melbourne alumni we caught up with her when she was last in town for Fiesta Malaysia to talk Melbourne memories, her inspiration for art and tips for making the most of your time as an international student.

Why did you choose to study in Melbourne?

Red Hong Yi: I always knew I wanted to study in Australia because I had a lot of friends coming here and I wanted to study in an arts and cultural hub – so Melbourne was the definite choice for me because it’s an artsy city!

Do you have any favourite places in Melbourne?

Red Hong Yi: Oh heaps of them and it’s always changing! There’s so many beautiful little cafes. One of my favourite cafes would be Café Twenty & Six in North Melbourne – that’s my go to place. Flinders Lane. I like Carlton Gardens. Brunswick St. Just exploring!

Your artistic style and method is very unique, how did you develop this?

Red Hong Yi: When I moved to Shanghai I was really inspired because I was in a different city. I wanted to make sure I documented my time and remember my time there in the future. Instead of journaling which I usually do I decided to do that through art. So I started doing all these portraits of Chinese people to share with friends. So I went to wholesale markets and you can buy lots of stuff for really cheap in China. The first piece was actually a portrait of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei and I used 7kg of sunflower seeds to create this, took some photos and shared it online. That’s how it started.


Did you always create art using other materials instead of a paintbrush?

Red Hong Yi: When I was a kid I was also into crayons and doodling and colour painting and things like that. It was never physical until after I studied architecture at the University of Melbourne. That was when I started to make models and play around with textures and design spaces and things like that. That’s when things changed for me.


Why did you choose to study architecture?

Red Hong Yi: I’ve always loved art and design but I love science too. I liked a range of things and I knew I wanted to do something in the design industry but I didn’t know what to do. My dad is from the building industry so my parents did encourage me to do architecture. And I enjoy working with spaces.

What did you do after you graduated from the University of Melbourne?

Red Hong Yi: I got a job with architecture firm Hassell in Shanghai and I worked there for two years. Last year though I quit and now I’m full time working as an artist/designer.

Do you think your time in Melbourne had any influence on your art?

Red Hong Yi: Yes. A lot! I think Melbourne itself – everyone is so free to express and you find so many little hidden laneways and gems, and people playing around with public street art, that was what made me want to experiment and see how the public would react to it, so my very first art that I dabbled with in China involved a lot of street art projects. Putting it out on the street and seeing how the crowd reacted. In Shanghai they don’t really have things like that so a lot of people were curious as to what I was doing. That’s definitely the Melbourne influence.

You have an incredible social media following, do you think that helps with your passion and creativity?

Red Hong Yi: Yes it helps so much. I think at the start I wasn’t sure if I wanted to welcome that because I was scared of trolls and criticisms. But they have been the ones pushing me and sharing my works.

Jackie Chan recently commissioned you to create his portrait for his 60th birthday, would that be that one of your career highlights so far?

Red Hong Yi: Definitely! Yes! I was so intimidated at the beginning but he turned out to be so warm and friendly so that was fantastic.

Do you have any tips for international students who are currently in Melbourne?

Red Hong Yi: Make as many friends as possible! It’s not just about studying. I think many people go ‘oh it’s all about university and getting your degree’ but part of the overseas university experience is to just get to know people, to travel, to go to different places. Just have fun while you’re studying.

The Melbourne International Student Conference will be taking place on September 27 and 28 and is jointly hosted by the City of Melbourne and Meld Magazine. The cost of the conference is $35 and students can register via Eventbrite. Do book early as spaces are limited