Unique perform in Beijing in 2002.
In 2001, my older brother Rich went to Beijing. Once there, he lied about his age, changed his name to Jun (which means “handsome” in Chinese), and started a pop group. Their biggest hit was a song called “Get On Up and Get Down,” which they performed in front of millions of screaming teenagers. According to our mum, short-lived as it was, it’s the single most incredible thing that a member of my family has ever done.
Vice: Hey… remember when you were in that pop group? What was that about?
Honestly, a lack of options.
Really! A combination of no higher education and poor choice of professions made “boy-band member” seem like a good idea.
Job offers like that don’t just come along, though. Where were you at the time? What were you thinking?
We were just a bunch of guys who knew each other from the dance scene in Melbourne, trying to get parts in musicals. We’d each been to China a couple of times and we were jealous at how easily impressed they were. They were crazy for the Backstreet Boys and even third-tier acts like Michael Learns to Rock. We looked at each other and thought, “We can do this.” This was ten years ago, when there were millions of people walking around with nothing to look at. Crowds would gather at car crashes or domestic arguments. Not that we did it in a super-exploitative sense, though we would have been crazy not to see that aspect of it. But yeah, the thinking was, with all those millions of people, our chances were pretty good.
So break it down step by step (ooh baby): Who was in the band?
There was this kid, Alex, who wanted to be the rapper/B-boy type in the band. He was the driver of the whole thing. Seriously wanted to be famous.
He was Chinese, right?
Yep. Then there was a white Aussie guy—gay, big into musical theater. Total triple threat. His name was Nick. And then there was me. Privately, we were the Homeboy, the Homo, and the Home Wrecker.
And what did you call yourselves publicly?
We were called Unique.
Well… it was about us being international. We had a Chinese guy, a white guy, and me—I am kind of mixed. And that was different. Plus, we dressed in different styles. It’s not brain surgery, but it worked as a concept. Besides, it was either Unique or the Sydney Boys.
But you were from Melbourne.
Yeah. It was Alex’s dad’s idea. He was like, “Chinese people love the Olympics!” Alex’s dad, Mr. Gao, was important because he was funding everything. He had a furniture business but was a total stage dad. I had to fight tooth and nail to veto that name.
Your boy band was dad-funded?
It was pretty entertaining. He tried to make us play pop/R&B versions of Chinese folk songs. Or he’d issue proclamations like “Alex must stand in the front!”
Well, he was the shortest.
That’s true. Anyway, Mr. Gao was very demanding and expected a lot. He was mostly fine with Nick and me, but he’d publicly berate Alex if he messed up.
Ouch. OK, so you’ve got a band, your band has a name, you get some songs together, then what?
We go to Beijing. Mr. Gao puts us up in this shitty little apartment. Freezing cold. Then, basically, we become pop stars. There were so many weird and painful moments, but honestly, it was also fucking great. China was crazy. When I said they were easily impressed, that was condescending and inaccurate. They just have that super-enthusiastic fanboy/girl mentality. They really get behind things. Plus, no one ever used to come to China except for K-pop boy/girl bands.
“Rich to Wang Fei: I’m Cooler Than That Guy.”
So you were big? What kind of shows were you doing? Which cities?
First of all, we never made it huge, but we did a bunch of cities. We gave it a good nudge at the start, before we had everything together, so it was a bit slapdash. But we’d do TV shows in a city, then a couple of shows in clubs or bars there. Then we’d be on radio, which was cool for Alex because he was the only one who could speak Chinese. We’d also do the occasional “fan meeting” too.
What’s a fan meeting?
It works like a live TV special. Except you’re not on TV. There’d be an audience and a host. You’d go on, do a couple of songs, and then get interviewed. Then I’d teach the crowd some dance moves, and we’d sing again. Afterward we’d sign posters.
Bizarre. A fake TV show.
So at your gigs, was there screaming?
None that I noticed. I’m pretty blind without my glasses, though, remember?
Were you lip-syncing or actually singing?
Ooh, good question.
I’ll rephrase: What was lip-syncing like?
Our numbers were pretty dance heavy, so it made sense to lip-sync. And neither Alex nor myself was a very good singer. Nick had a great voice, though. Mostly, the situations were just so strange that I probably would have freaked out if we were singing live. I would have started laughing or something. Like, we played one show to 30,000 people.
Right. They weren’t all there to see us, but that’s a lot of fucking people. Then there was the time we played in the Great Hall of the People and the president was in the audience.
Who was it back then, Zemin?
For real, man. Fucking Jiang Zemin.
Did he like the show?
All I know is that when I got there I was wearing a huge crucifix, but him being the leader of the Communist Party and all, I had to take it off. We were pretty naive. China has come a long way, but in 2002 or whatever, you could piss people off really fucking easily. Once, we were being interviewed by a newspaper and one of the questions that always came up was “What Chinese singers do you like?” My standard answer was “Wang Fei, ’cause she’s hot.” She was very famous then. Anyway, the interviewer goes, “You know she’s married now, right?” (to some HK pretty boy), so I say something along the lines of “Pfft, I’m cooler than that guy.” Meanwhile we’re scheduled to do a radio interview the next day that accepts callers.
So I get vilified on national radio: “How could you do that!” “They’re happily married!” “Foreign devil!” It was in all the papers too. I still have clippings. I think one of the titles was “Rich to Wang Fei: I’m Cooler Than That Guy.” I’m not even joking. It was just a stupid thing I said, but the fact was, people cared!
Alex, Rich, and Luke (aka Nick 2.0).
That doesn’t even describe it. I want to say that the first time we were recognized on the street was weird. I also want to say that the fact that I can still Chinese-google myself and find some pretty random shit is weird. And then I want to say that the first time I saw (and bought) a pirate version of the CD that we put out was weird. But “weird” isn’t a weird enough word.
It sounds like things were going great. What happened? Like, why aren’t you the Chinese Robbie Williams?
Well, you look at the pop industry, and whatever your thoughts are about it, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. Suffice it to say, we weren’t. Also, we weren’t getting along. In particular, feelings toward Alex became complicated, as he was a complex guy. He’d run crying to Mr. Gao and then Mr. Gao would be like, “After all I do for you, you make my son feel like Joey Fatone?” But the actual story of how we split up is more drawn out than that.
Go on then.
Nick was really homesick. He was just so far away from everything. His friends, his family, his gay lifestyle. He couldn’t tell anyone he was gay in China. Language-wise too, he couldn’t really chat to anyone. Big culture shock. So he quit the band.
That must have been tough for you, right? You guys were good friends by that stage.
Yeah. I’m part Chinese, so I always had that internal logic as to why I was there. He didn’t. It was rough going. We got along really well.
So what did you do?
We went back to Melbourne for a bit and auditioned for a new token white guy.
Did you put an ad in the paper?
I think we might have, actually.
Was it like Idol? Did many dudes turn up?
No. It was slim pickings. The ad went something like “Be a pop star in China,” so go figure.
Unique’s debut CD.
How did the poor turnout affect band morale?
Not well. Say what you like about boy bands, but just try finding a not-unattractive guy that can sing and dance. Then ask him to move to China. In the end we found a guy. Someone I kind of knew. He wasn’t a great singer and not really a trained dancer, though he could pull it off.
What was his name?
Luke. To this day I have no idea why he agreed to come. He was a bit negative. Kind of a whiner. I mean, I had to take care of Nick a bit, I couldn’t let him go wandering off into traffic. But the new guy… total eggshell situation. To be fair, he may have been picking up on our energy. At that point it was all rapidly deteriorating. I had my own worsening relationship with Alex to deal with.
He parachuted onto a sinking ship. How did the end finally manifest?
Like a ninja. I had no idea.
What do you mean? Weren’t you looking after him?
I was looking after Nick, not white guy 2.0. In any case, we’d just come off a long tour and were all sick to death of each other so we took a few days off. I can’t remember where Alex went; I guess he was staying with a friend, which is what I was doing. So one day I go back to the apartment to get some clothes or something, and I have this weird feeling, like, “Wouldn’t it be weird if Luke was gone?” So I go into his room and it’s totally empty.
He was a neat freak, so it was hard to tell at first. But everything: closet, clothes, all gone.
Did he leave anything? A note?
Nada. His room was serial-killer clean. I remember thinking I should call someone but so much had gone under the bridge that I felt like, “Fuck it, let Alex find out on his own.”
A Unique poster hangs proudly at our mom’s house.
So you left it.
Yeah. Not proud of it, necessarily. But it had been a long run. Alex found out a couple of days later. It actually made total sense. We had finally started being paid real money. It wasn’t much, but it was heaps more than what we’d seen so far. So Luke took his money and ran for the border. The funny thing is, unbeknownst to all of us, our visas had expired.
Shit is right. Luke gets detained by police at Shanghai Airport and they won’t let him leave China unless he pays a huge fine. Of course, the only person he could call was our friend at the embassy, which is how we found out about it. But the friend was like, “Shit, what can you do? Pay the fine.” And it was true, she couldn’t do anything.
So he lost all his money. Poor dude.
Yeah. He should have waited. We were so close to breaking up anyway, he could have kept his money and been given a ticket home for free. After he disappeared, I took about ten seconds to consider my options and retired my do-rag.
All over. Where are the other guys now?
I heard Nick was in the musical
We Will Rock You
or something, which is great. Not sure about Luke, but I’m sure he’s doing fine. He’s a born hustler. Alex is still here in Beijing pursuing his solo career. YouTube him: Alex Gao. Tell me what you think.
Last question: Looking back, what were the best and worst things about being in a semi-famous Chinese boy band?
Well, it’ll always be this “I did what?!” kind of thing for me, which is why I’m glad I kept a scrapbook. I could have been a lot less emo about it when it was happening, but it ended as amicably as it could have, for me at least, so no problems there. I think the best thing I got from this whole weird story is that backstage at some show, years and years ago, I met my fiancé, Inna. And she’s cool as hell.