NFT in Hong Kong: Bored Ape Yacht Club owners seek merchandise deals, art exhibitions for cartoon primates

NFT in Hong Kong: Bored Ape Yacht Club owners seek merchandise deals, art exhibitions for cartoon primates

When 27-year-old Raye Chung from Hong Kong bought herself a non-fungible token (NFT) from the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC) project in July, she had little inkling that this portrait of a cartoon ape would become one of the world’s most sought-after digital collectibles.

Four months later, Chung saw the price of that image, which she bought for under US$10,000, rise to more than US$200,000. With only 10,000 portraits of similar cartoon apes in circulation, Chung has joined an exclusive group of BAYC members that include global celebrities such as US talk show host Jimmy Fallon and American basketball star Stephen Curry.

For Chung, a student studying to become a wildlife conservationist in Japan, the experience has been wild. “Originally, I invested in cryptos and NFTs because I knew that my chosen profession could hardly support me financially, so I figured I’d have to find an alternative income,” she said. “But now here we are, really trying to make some noise.”

NFTs, which are blockchain-verified tradeable vouchers that guarantee the authenticity of a digital asset, have become all the rage in the past few months. Increasingly, NFTs are becoming a popular vehicle for digital artworks, with hot ones such as Bored Apes being valued at millions of dollars.

For Chung, it all started when she discovered what was initially a Facebook group called Elite Apes. Founded in July by Jason Au, whose day job is director of the Nasdaq-listed investment firm SGOCO Group, the private club consists of Bored Apes owners from Hong Kong. At the moment, it counts Chung and about 150 other NFT collectors as members, who range from company executives, academics, students, engineers and artists.

Elite Apes represents one of several new community groups focused on digital assets that have emerged in Hong Kong. While mainland Chinese authorities view digital assets such as bitcoin with suspicion and treat them as threats to financial stability, Hong Kong has gradually become a regional base for these new forms of investment.

While some people believe that digital collectibles are merely bubbles propped up by loose monetary policies pursued by central banks around the world, the experiences of people like Chung showed that plenty of investors have come to embrace NFTs as the next big thing on the global financial, social and art landscapes.

Rather than selling her NFT for an instant windfall, Chung has decided to partner with other Bored Apes owners from Hong Kong to exhibit their coveted portraits in museums and galleries, as well as to pitch studios and publishers on films and comics starring the apes as characters.

Elite Apes’ Au said the group’s NFT collection, which features more than 100 apes, is now worth more than 10,000 ether, or roughly US$45 million. Ether is the world’s second largest cryptocurrency.

“We’ve sealed a deal to work with skateboarding legend Christian Hosoi for his upcoming NFTs and skateboards,” he said. “We’re starting to work with the British Museum with some of their NFT projects … And we’re also talking with local malls and businesses about the possibilities for starting some events.”

Elite Apes deals specifically with Bored Apes, which have emerged as the world’s most sought-after NFTs after CrypoPunks – a collection of pixelated characters. In October, a rare Bored Ape was sold for a record US$3.4 million. An average Bored Ape now sells for more than 50 ether, or US$226,000.

Founded by four pseudonymous developers in their 30s under the name Yuga Labs, BAYC comprises 10,000 cartoon apes with varying traits – fur types, facial expressions, clothing, accessories and more – that confer different values according to their rarity. Apes with golden fur and laser eyes, for instance, are highly prized.

Bored Apes are originally intended to be used as online profile pictures for bragging rights, but since buyers also own the intellectual property rights to the portraits, some people have chosen to commercially exploit their NFTs.

“When I first bought my BAYC, I knew right away that I couldn’t do much with just one ape. So I decided to sniff out other Hong Kong ape owners on social media,” Au said. “Now with this group, our bargaining power is much, much bigger.”

When Elite Apes was founded, the group had only about seven members, according to Au. But its size soon exploded, with around 80 ape owners joining by the fourth week of its existence.

NFT in Hong Kong: Bored Ape Yacht Club owners seek merchandise deals, art exhibitions for cartoon primates

Elite Apes members pose for a photo in Hong Kong. Photo: Handout.

“Now we have about 120 BAYC owners in the group. We have 113 original Bored Apes, 98 Mutant Apes and 193 dogs,” Au said. To keep Bored Apes owners engaged, Yuga Labs gifted them NFTs from two other collections consisting of portraits of Mutant Apes and dogs, which are pets of the apes. These affiliate tokens are selling for tens of thousands of dollars each.

“When we did our last tally in October, the group’s assets were worth 8,000 ether. In today’s market, I guess it’d be more than 10,000 ether,” said Au.

Pop music producer Jaz Pan, another member of Elite Apes, said he believes that NFTs are an unstoppable force that will eventually permeate every corner of cultural life. Owner of three Bored Apes, Pan said that these digital assets are becoming popular gifts among celebrities in China.

“Many people in the entertainment industry are collecting NFTs, especially Bored Apes,” Pan said. “They are like the new sneakers. Although people have been collecting sneakers for a long while, you still see sneakers being traded at very high prices. With NFTs, we are still at the beginning.”

After getting his first Bored Ape in July, Pan joined Elite Apes because he wanted to benefit from the group’s collective bargaining power.

SC Kuok, an assistant professor in the UK who studies probabilistic machine learning, is also another member of the club. Given her background, she has been tasked with doing data analytics for the group. She is also helping the group liaise with the British Museum.

“Of the 120 people in the group, I’d say about 30 per cent of them are very active,” Kuok said. “And the people on the core team all play different roles in helping the group.”

Elite Apes is currently reserved for Hongkongers, although some of them are living abroad in countries including the UK, Canada, Australia and Japan. Kuok said that while she could not join physical gatherings in Hong Kong, she tries to attend the group’s online activities.

Around the world, a number of Bored Apes-related projects are gaining traction.

In the US, one owner set up a Twitter account and created a fictional backstory for his ape Jenkins, who is said to be working as a valet at BAYC. After Jenkins was signed to a real-world agency in September, he is poised to get his own biography, written in part by the New York Times bestselling author Neil Strauss.

In November, Universal Music Group said that it has signed a band consisting of three Bored Apes and a Mutant Ape, which will release songs and products. This week, sportswear giant Adidas announced that it will be working with BAYC on future projects.

In Hong Kong, shopping centre K11 Musea borrowed and displayed a number of Bored Ape portraits in its STart Art Gallery in October, although the event was unrelated to the Elite Apes club.

Josh Ong, a 38-year-old communications consultant in New York known as an “unofficial community manager” for the worldwide Bored Apes community, said that he is “encouraged to see how creative Bored Ape owners have been”.

“We’ve seen clothing lines, music, books, comics, coffee brands, wine labels, and many other types of projects,” Ong said. “Working with artists to license my ape, I’ve made a few thousand US dollars in royalties.”

He believes that NFTs provide their owners with the opportunity to build a valuable brand. “I’d recommend developing a backstory and identity, growing your network of creators, and then getting creative without waiting for permission.”

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