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The Hong Kong Boy Band - Interview with Square

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From F4 and Fahrenheit to Big Bang and Dong Bang Shin Ki to w-inds and Arashi, it's hard to escape the power and presence of boy bands in the world of Asian pop. In that respect, rookie group Square, formed by four tall and handsome guys, is just like any other Asian boy band - except they're from Hong Kong. While Hong Kong has produced and exported many heavenly kings and pop divas over the years, only one Hong Kong boy band has ever managed to establish true local stardom and successfully penetrate the Mandarin music market - Grasshopper - and that was back in the heyday of Hong Kong pop. Meanwhile, Taiwan has churned out one boy band after another in the last decade, as the explosion of Taiwan idols coincided with the decline of the Canto-pop industry.

As a Hong Kong boy band, Square is arguably the first of its kind. With all four hailing from a modeling background and measuring in at over six feet, their image and appearances are more mature and idol-like than the more commonly marketed boy-next-door youth of groups like Shine, Boy'z, E-Kids, and VRF. Without a dancer in the bunch, Square is also most definitely not following in the footsteps of dance groups like Grasshopper, EO2, and Wind Fire Sea. In style and image, Square perhaps shares more in common with their Taiwan counterparts than their Hong Kong predecessors. But is Hong Kong ready for an idol boy band of its own?

Four Sides of the Square

Square was officially formed on April 11, 2008 with members James Ho, Brian Li, Rex Ho, and Gary Chiu. Quick to flash a smile and crack a joke, James worked at an office job for four years before switching to modeling. After appearing in a movie produced by Universe Film in early 2008, he was quickly signed by Universe's record label. His signing led to a casting call for friend Brian, who belonged to the same modeling agency. Having modeled for eight years prior to joining Square, Brian radiates the natural confidence and charisma of one who has walked the runways of Europe for the world's top designer labels. "I went to castings in a school uniform and backpack," he recalls of his days as a part-time model during high school. Rex, the baby and the thinker of the group, also started modeling as a student, though he only became a full-time model two months before getting selected for Square. As for the easygoing and self-effacing Gary, "They were down to the last person, and dug me up from the bottom of the drawer," he jokes wryly.

Brian: We're all around the same age, but one person is pulling up the curve.
James: I think the person pulling up the curve is helping the group to have even more character.
Brian: Thank you, James.
James: That person would be me.
All four members sat down together for the first time in April 2008. A mere two months later, Brian, James, Gary, and Rex appeared on stage as Square for the first time at a Sichuan earthquake relief charity concert. From there, many firsts would follow - first single, first school tour, first album, first mini-concert, first award - all in the span of half a year. Everything seems to have happened incredibly smoothly for Square, but the transition from model to singer, individual to group, comes with its ups and downs. From recording studio blues to stage butterflies to dance lessons - "You can tell we can't dance just by looking at us!" declares James - the group has come a long way in a few months, be it in singing, acting, or just getting accustomed to doing everything as four people. "We're like Siamese twins now," says James. "I see them more than my mother."

Searching for Square

After five months of training and preparation, Square released their debut mini-album Searching on October 9, 2008. First time in the recording studio was a nerve-wracking experience for all the members, especially with their manager and boss looking on. Gary recalls that he wasn't used to hearing his own voice, while James rues that "if you trip up one word or line, you have to keep recording over and over again." In the end, five songs made it to their debut album, including their first single "Great Love Song", their sole dance track "ASAP", and a duet with labelmate Elanne Kwong.

Speaking with disarming self-clarity, Rex admits that he's not completely happy with any song on the album. Now that the initial excitement has passed, it's time to reflect on strengths and weaknesses. Stating multiple times that "there's room for improvement," Rex and Gary modestly rate their maiden effort at 60% - just passing - a good start from which to build bigger and better albums. For their next release, the members want to try out other musical styles like R&B and add variation to their vocals.

Favorite Album Song

Brian: Great Love Song
James: Dating This Season
Gary: Love in a Teacup
Rex: Great Love Song
While the guys are their own toughest critics, they have nothing but praise for the album's producers and songwriters like Ronald Ng, Lin Xi, and Riley Lam, all top names in the industry, as well as their music video directors and photographer. The perfectionist of the group, Brian was particularly concerned about photography and wardrobe. "Since we're all models, we know a lot of people in the industry," he remarks, "so we had many opinions about stylists and photographers." All that modeling experience also came in handy for the cover shoot which lasted for a whopping 18 hours. "By the end, when one person had to look at the camera, the other three were sleeping," Brian laughs.

Square on Screen

Canto-pop may be a tough market, but there's at least one benefit to being a Hong Kong idol: you make it to the silver screen a lot faster. James was the first to grace the silver screen in the 2008 youth caper See You in You Tube produced by Oxide Pang, one-half of the Pang Brothers directing duo behind films like The Eye and Bangkok Dangerous. Playing a college student pulled into a game of escalating dares, James has a particularly memorable scene in which he has to rush into a jewelry shop with a ski mask and machine gun... and buy a gold chain. As the scene was shot from afar, there was a real danger to pulling out a fake gun in the streets - as James realized when he received detailed instructions from the staff on what to do if someone points a gun back at him!

Brian and James co-starred in their next film, the quirky indie romance Some Like It Hot directed by Pierre Lam, which was the opening film of the 2008 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. The experience was memorable and eye opening for the budding actors, both for the lessons in acting and the rites of passage, like overnight shoots, wearing winter clothing in the summer, and pushing an armchair with leading actress Wylie Chiu up and down a steep street. Says Brian, "Wylie isn't heavy. The armchair isn't heavy. Together, they're heavy."

Working at Hong Kong's characteristic breakneck pace, Square completed two other films with the Pang Brothers in 2008 that will soon hit local theaters. James and Gary play a world-weary cop and a "gangster with a conscience," respectively, in a new film directed by Oxide Pang. Also starring singers Siufay and William Chan, the film is built on a butterfly effect premise, following how individual actions affect a whole group of people as one event leads to another and crime leads to more crime. Rex, meanwhile, is the romantic lead in Danny Pang's new youth melodrama Basic Love, co-starring Elanne Kwong and Janice Man and featuring supporting appearances from the other three members of Square. Cast as the male lead for his very first film, Rex feels the pressure, but believes that the benefit of being a newcomer is that he can just be himself, and it's already something new for viewers.

Thinking Outside the Square

Entering 2009, Square is still very new, less than a year old, but the next batch of newcomers will be knocking on the doors soon. As their boss constantly reminds them, "Entering the entertainment industry is like going to war. You have to storm ahead towards the goal." To face the challenges of their second year in the business, they're planning on more work, more movies, more music, and probably less sleep. Both of their films are scheduled for release in early 2009, and they're getting ready for another new movie and album, so prepare for a lot more Square in 2009.

Published January 30, 2009

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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