"Be the change you wish to see in the world,” so the popular saying goes. But while we have all heard it, few actually live out those intent-laden words on a daily basis. For 26-year-old Nicole Yap, however, it is par for the course. A pioneer in the world of non-fungible token (assets that have been tokenised via a blockchain, in layman’s terms) art and a vocal advocate for Asian representation in the Web3 space, she launched 8sian in 2021. The inaugural collection of NFTs, featuring 8,888 elegant portraits of Asian women, trended among the top 10 projects on OpenSea — the world’s first and largest digital marketplace for crypto collectibles and NFTs — and sold out within two weeks, generating secondary sales of over 3,000 ETH.
It may surprise many that Yap never had any intention of being in tech. “I wanted to be a dentist,” says the youthful mother of a daughter aged six and a son aged three. “I was in a terrible car accident when I was nine, dislocating my jaw so badly that I couldn’t eat solid food for three months and spent the next decade of my life in braces. And so yeah, I thought dentistry was a good profession.”
On what lit the initial spark, Yap shares that it was her passion for computer games as a teen. “Everyone in school played MapleStory then,” she says, referring to the 2D multiplayer online role-playing game. “Your character kills monsters and every time you have a successful kill, you get a token which you can use to buy clothes, shoes or accessories.” She soon merged her love of fashion and tech when the opportunity to dip her toe in cryptocurrency popped up. “I came across an article whose headline said ‘The future of currency … Bitcoin’. That’s all I remember. Although the rest of the article was too complex for me (Yap was 16 then), it made enough of an impression for her to want to start investing.”
Yap is clearly someone who never does things by halves. Saving up as much of her RM10 daily allowance as she could plus her loot from years of collecting Chinese New Year angpow, she proceeded to spend her small fortune of RM3,000 to buy 5,000 bitcoins. “The thought occurred to me then that this would either be the smartest or dumbest move I would ever make. But it sounded interesting and so I decided to trust my instincts.” Today, that purchase would cost the equivalent of US$124 million.
Not long after, Yap used part of her bitcoin stash to indulge in her first major fashion investment — a mid-sized black Chanel handbag. “I was 16 and so excited.” Fuelled by this windfall and on a quest to buy as many Chanel bags as she could in different colours and designs, she began to learn all she could about this new, uncharted territory. It was only when she wanted to open a MetaMask, a custodial wallet used to access blockchain applications and Web3, that she realised there were barely any profile pictures she could identify with. “There was nothing Asian and certainly nothing feminine,” she points out. “I didn’t want to use a picture of a cartoon ape. I wanted something that looked like me.”
Enlisting the aid (and talent) of MrHike, an artist friend who had created assets for PlayStation 5 and Spider-Man 5, they soon came up with an image of an Asian lady elegantly dressed in a traditional cheongsam — the precursor to 8sian’s main collection. “He is now 8sian’s co-founder and lead artist,” she smiles.
Yap’s passion and respect for her heritage, however, soon attracted unwanted attention. Trolls and cyberbullies began targeting her, sending nasty DMs, while she faced sexism and full-blown misogyny whenever she attended in-person crypto gatherings. There was one particularly horrible incident at a blockchain event in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, last October at which Yap protested to acquaintances immediately after but was told to “let it go” as the perpetrator was a big name with an equally powerful crypto trading platform. “I was of course upset and angry but this is why we need more women — Asian women — in crypto,” she entreats. “When we can establish a presence and a more sizeable community, it will be a safer space for all.”
Easy ways for more women to get involved would be to start investing, says Yap. “Spend what you can afford — a hundred dollars, a thousand — buying cryptocurrency, so you will be invited to events, talks and conferences. Or start buying NFTs to be part of the ecosystem.”
Detractors aside, Yap is confident of 8sian’s future, having successfully collaborated with brands such as Royal Selangor and Uniqlo before. 8sian also just launched a Valentine’s Day initiative with Vogue Singapore with the release of a giftable Love Chain NFT.
“If I had to choose my dream collaboration, it would be with Takashi Murakami,” she says, referring to the iconic Japanese contemporary artist and pioneer in NFT art. “It is really hard to be a brand with such a presence, especially in the US, so I look up to him and his Kaikai Kiki company a lot. Besides, it’s okay to dream big. I mean, I can’t draw, I can’t code, but here I am, with 8sian. Also today, you can learn anything you want online — I am living proof of that. Things are now so open. There are no borders, no barriers. All you need to be is creative … oh, and brave.” Sounds like Yap has all she needs already.
This article first appeared on Mar 6, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.