A stroll down to the beach at Discovery Bay with a sketchbook kick-started a whole new phase of artist Richard Crosbie’s life and career. We chat with the Welsh expat about his work and hobbies and what he loves about his neighbourhood in Hong Kong.
Tell us a bit about your background. Where are you from? Is Hong Kong “home” for you?
I’m originally from South Wales, UK – a small town called Llwynpia. This still causes some confusion at immigration when officials try to pronounce it or guess where it is! (A JFK Airport official: “So where in Africa are you from?”) However, I grew up in a small mining town near the more linguistically manageable Caerphilly.
This year marks 25 years since I arrived in Hong Kong, which makes me pause for a moment when people ask “Where are you from?” as I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. Do I say, “Oh, I’m from Wales”? Or do I say, “I’m from Discovery Bay” since that’s where I’ve been living since 2002?
I guess people are curious about origins, as if your formative years are what defines you. However, I feel I’ve grown more as a person after my first 19 years in Wales. So, yes, I do consider Hong Kong as my home… or, more specifically, Lantau island – ha!
What do you do here?
My background is in design. I studied product design at university and then applied for a position as a toy designer with a company called Hong Kong Toy Center that I saw advertised in a trade magazine. The first thing I did after learning I had the job was go to the library (this being pre-Google!) to find out where Hong Kong was. Three weeks later, I arrived at Kai Tak Airport after taking my first ever flight – wow… that was fun! Afterwards, I thought it was perfectly normal to land in between buildings!
I then spent over 20 years in the local toy industry working for both manufacturers and retailers. My last position was with Toys R Us – and you can probably work out how that particular chapter ended.
So, just over a year ago, I found myself with some free time on my hands. One day, I found an old empty sketchbook and took it to the beach and just started painting. At first I was sketching and painting scenes of my local area in DB. It was just something creative, fun and cathartic to do. I uploaded a few artworks to Instagram to share with a few friends. Gradually, I seemed to attract some interest from other Instagram users, especially when I started to sketch scenes of the wider area of Hong Kong.
Tell us about your first art commission.
One sketch of some street food hawkers attracted the interest of a lady based in Vancouver, Canada. She contacted me and asked if I could find a particular street food vendor in Hong Kong who she knew from her childhood and create an artwork for her. Amazingly, I found the guy still working at the same spot, and so I bought a roast yam from him (delicious!) and created an illustration showing him hard at work.
After completing the picture (15 hours of work), I presented it to the client who loved it. However, she did not love my fee and so asked for a print instead. That was the day I found out about deposits before starting commissions – and it was also the day my print business was born! Lesson learnt.
I now ask for an arrangement where the customer can have the original artwork but I keep the rights to make reproductions. This way I can offer a price that’s reasonable to them but also fair to me in terms of the time and effort I put into my work. The more commercial an image with the potential for selling as a print, the lower my price will be for the original.
I’m still testing the market. I didn’t really set out to be an artist or to start a business; it has grown organically. But I’ve had lots of positive comments about my work, and it’s encouraging to see photos of my artwork in customers’ homes around the world. I’ve now shipped artwork to Malaysia, Japan, the UK, Sweden, the US and Canada.
Where are your favourite places to paint?
I love all areas of Hong Kong, both urban and rural, and despite the situation we all find ourselves in, I’ve enjoyed my yearlong art “staycation”. I’ve used it to reconnect with the city. I love going out onto the streets to do urban sketching from life. Having said that, the weather is a major factor; sometimes I’m able to sketch or paint “en plein air”; other times, I work from my own photos at home.
I love all the hustle and bustle of street scenes, especially markets. This city is just bursting with life and energy. And while I try to cover the more commercial icons of Hong Kong, like the Peak and the Harbour, I love the nitty-gritty details of street life too.
Weather aside, are there other challenges in the process of creating your art?
Finding good places to sit and sketch has been a major challenge; I usually find myself sitting amongst all the local old guys on the streets who spend their time smoking and swearing. I find it adds character to my artwork! If I ever make a book, that just might be the title: Smoking and Swearing – My Hong Kong Art Journey.
Give us an insight into a typical working day for you.
It’s a bit like trying to spin plates. All I want to do is create art, but it’s sometimes hard to find the time. There’s all the admin, dealing with orders, marketing and so on. It almost feels like a job! Sometimes, while I’m in the middle of a detailed studio piece, I like to give myself a break and go outside to do some fast sketching to loosen up. Funny, really – to get tired of painting and to do some painting instead!
What do you like about your neighbourhood?
It’s close both to the sea and to mountains, which offers great options for artistic inspiration. I love sunrises and sunsets. Watching the sun come up from a mountain top in DB on a clear day is amazing. You can see all the outlying islands all the way to Central and Kowloon. I also enjoy paddling my kayak – some of the best views of HK are from the water. And I’m just five minutes from the beach. There’s something about the simple pleasure of having sand between your toes that’s good for the soul.
Outside of work, what are your hobbies in Hong Kong?
I like to sing, and I’m a proud member of the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir (being one of only three actual Welsh guys in it!). We’re always looking for new talent so if there are any gentlemen who would like to join, give us a shout!
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2021 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.