Hong Kong's Coolest Street Icon: Julius Brian Siswojo


Meet Julius Brian Siswojo, Hong Kong's Coolest Street Icon

Julius Brian Siswojo wears many hats in his hectic Hong Kong life.

He runs the city’s longest-lasting local skateboarding brand, 8FIVE2, introduced premium men’s grooming to the masses with Handsome Factory Barbershop, swings and raps with his crew, 24Herbs, orchestrated the city’s first tribute show to local hip-hop, Whats Good Music Awards, and has acted alongside Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, and Aaron Kwok.

Sitting in a kitsch cha chaan teng opposite his Causeway Bay location for Handsome Factory Barbershop, my hour-long interview delving into Brian’s life almost follows a sensational narrative of a celebrity Wikipedia entry, met with twists and turns that have matured the Jakarta-born Hong Konger into a central figure in the local skateboarding, barbering, rapping, and cinema spaces.

The conception of Brian’s Hong Kong story came to being with a move to the city in 1985 to study English, at the behest of his mother. With his older sister, Brian began his studies at the now-defunct Royden House School in Mid-Levels, “a hood,” Brian told The Beat Asia.

Brian developed his distinct fixation for skating on a lone football pitch in Aberdeen, during a summer sports day, in 1988. At 14 years old, the Indonesian teenager picked up a board borrowed from a friend on the pitch and instantly fell in love with the sport. “I stepped on [the board] and pushed, and was like, dude, this is the best sh*t ever! I didn’t stop till that day. I am the only dude in Hong Kong that never stopped [skating].”

At the turn of the ‘90s, Brian’s life revolved in orbit with skating culture existing everywhere: he would pour over skate magazines Thrasher, Transworld, and Slap Magazine “20 to 30 times,” indulge in street fashion, and obsess over U.S.-produced skate videos. He quickly joined a niche skateboarding dominion in Hong Kong, consisting of 50 to 100 skaters, according to Brian’s estimates. Skaters would hang out and shop at the city’s “first skating store,” Bicycle World in Wan Chai, and freestyle outside Central’s City Hall.

“Once I found out [about Bicycle World], every day after I finished school, I went down there to check out the boards, look at the graphics, nerding out.” In 1989, Brian brought his first board from the store with HK$1,800. At night-time seshes with more experienced skaters in the city, Brian caught the attention of skate shop Now N’ Later, eventually sponsoring the then 16-year-old to skate.

As Brian finished his high school studies at 17 in Hong Kong, there was a sudden desperation to remain in the city he had grown fond of, rather than return to Indonesia. In a plan to extend his time, Brian travelled to Japan to study Japanese for nine months, before securing his HKID. He secured a job with his uncle’s employment agency, assisting Indonesian nationals operating as foreign domestic helpers, which inevitably hindered his opportunity to skate. “I worked seven days a week; I had no time to skate.” Eventually, Brian found office work at Oxford University Press, affording him more time on weekday nights and weekends to skate.

In 1998, Brian met Alyasha “Aly” Owerka-Moore, an American fashion designer and skateboarder, who owned influential skating brand, Alphanumeric. Having purchased skating equipment and clothing from overseas for years prior, a lightbulb moment came to Brian. “Let me order and distribute your brand,” he asked Aly. He poured HK$450,000 of savings into an inventory, stocking clothes in his Causeway Bay family home, and selling to friends. In two weeks, he doubled his investment. A year later, and in his small bedroom, Brian founded 8FIVE2SHOP, importing Carhartt WIP, Thrasher, Alien, Habitat, Elwood, and more to sell locally.

"I was chilling," Brian said, ordering consignment and shipping to local shops in Mong Kok, Prince Edward, and Tsim Sha Tsui, whilst operating 12 accounts in Hong Kong. Impressing Aly and the team at Alphanumeric, Brian was pitched to become sales and marketing director for APAC in 2000. He distributed apparel and equipment to Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. When internal arguments sprouted within the U.S.-based founding team at Alphanumeric, Aly quit his position, with Brian offered the position of creative director from the company, but later declining. His goal was set on opening his own store.

8FIVE2SHOP opened officially to a Hong Kong market in 2001, stowed inside a worn commercial building on Jaffe Road in Causeway Bay. For five years, Brian ventured to run the entire store himself, sourcing and importing stock and selling boards and skate apparel to visitors. Today, 8FIVE2 dominates the local skateboarding scene, inspiring upwards of 40,000 skaters in the city, Brian estimates, to indulge in a trending sport, and has also popularised street fashion and culture in Hong Kong.

Sourcing a need to further provide back to a hungry – and growing – skateboarding community in Hong Kong, Brian established the All Hong Kong Skateboards Association (AHKSA) in 1999 with friend, actor-model Pak Khei, providing a platform for skateboard community events, hosting workshops, lessons, and camps for children.

In 2011, 8FIVE2 created Hong Kong’s first ever indoor skatepark, Sk85IVE2, further positioning Brian as instrumental to pushing skating upwards in the city. In the past seven years, AHKSA has taken on a greater role in pushing for city-wide events to promote skateboarding.

However, back in 2003, Brian made “the best decision I ever made”: travel to South Korea and meet his wife, Annie Lee. Two years later, he met his next import partner, Conroy Chan, leading Brian onto his next venture: rap and hip-hop. Scoping the music scene in Hong Kong, Conroy bemoaned a lack of hip-hop serving the people; he was intent in creating the city’s first modern rap crew to serve that absence.

In 2006, Conroy, known as Drunk, formed 24Herbs with Brian (Sir JBS), rappers Brandon Ho (Ghost Style), Eddie Chung (Dor Yuk), Kit Leung, and Phat Chan. The crew’s name referred to 廿四味 (jaa6 sei3 mei2), a local Hong Kong bitter tea drink with strong health benefits. “It’s rough with foul slang, but the message is good for you,” Brian said. 24Herb's inaugural album, “24herbs,” released in 2008 to “a lot of love from commercial radio and locals.”

Rock musician Paul Wong hosted the rapping group in a rock concert “Let’s Fight” in 2008, propelling them into the limelight. Photographer to Wong Kar Wai’s cinematographer, Wing Shya, directed one of the group’s music videos. Confessed fan of 24Herbs American-Hong Kong rapper MC Jin featured on “照做” (Jiu Jo), establishing Brian, Conroy, and their crew in the scene. “We were more like entertainers, than rappers,” Brian admitted. “Hong Kong is so stressful. We just wanted to chill out and relax.”

Another twist in the fairy-tale story of Brian’s life came in 2009, as 8FIVE2SHOP and 24Herbs thrived with growing success, when the multi-hyphenate man received a call from screenwriter Felix Chong of “Infernal Affairs” to star in his debut directed film, “Once a Gangster.” At the same time, Brian was pitched and starred as a cameo for Wing Shya’s “Hot Summer Days.”

A big break in Brian’s silver screen career arrived in 2012 when his agent received a call to audition him for “Man of Tai Chi” starring Keanu Reeves. “I travelled to Beijing to meet with him and shadowed for a whole month in the filming. When he came to Hong Kong for shooting, we [ate] fried chicken wings and ramen with him. I invited him to 8FIVE2. The dudes in there freaked out when they saw him there!”

“The satisfaction [of acting] is pretty amazing, it’s like landing a trick. People convinced me to go for it and I'm thankful. I owe it to Felix Chung who gave me the opportunity. I don’t push for it but I look for the right opportunities to make my breaks. People will see me on the silver screen next time, and say, oh, it’s that guy!”

“I am hoping one day I can be the leading actor, but I’m not chasing it. Wherever there’s an acting role, I’m hyped and I’m taking it.”

However, Brian’s story doesn’t stop just there. As transpired in our interview with him, whatever is missing in Hong Kong, he wants to provide it. And in 2015, that happened to be the city’s first premium men’s hair grooming chain, Handsome Barber Factory. “I love classical stuff,” he said.

“I had always wanted to open a barbershop, ever since 2005. Hong Kong is a melting pot city. Everyone coming to town would ask me, where’s the barbershop? I would answer, we don’t have one. A few years ago, it sounds like we needed to open one. A shop with an authentic 1950s barbershop experience.”

Brian enlisted the help of partner Jeffrey Chong and master barber Ball Ng to open Handsome Factory’s first chain store on Haven Street in Causeway Bay. From 2015 onwards, Brian and Jeff enlisted a team of 40 trained barbers, opening two stores in Causeway Bay, two in Central, as well as in Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui, and Lane Crawford IFC.

Recently, Brian has returned to his rapping fever, inaugurating Hong Kong’s first exclusive hip-hop/rap music ceremony, What’s Good Music Awards 2022, held on Aug. 6. As a tribute to a scene that has exploded following the creation of 24Herbs, Brian and Phat sought to pay back and acknowledge the male and female artists building the local hip-hop industry.

"We wanted to build this platform to acknowledge these people. We want these artists to have a platform, hopefully, so that they can make a living out of their art. We need more real representation in the industry.”

With 8FIVE2 and Handsome Factory led by trusted friends, Brian is set on driving his acting career, appearing in a 20-episode TV series for local channel Viu.TV and a Malaysian-Hong Kong action film production in September, October, and November. “I still love learning the whole process [of making a film], working with hundreds of people to make it happen,” he said.

Like everything in his storied Hong Kong life, he is distinctly resolute about his committing to his passions and goals. “What I believe in is what I really believe in. I pour my 110% into everything. I f*cking do shit and make it happen.”

"Always stay loyal,” Brian said, ending our interview, a humble phrase that the street icon follows every day.

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