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Mina Choi Tenison

Gags to Riches: The Back Dorm Boys

A life in showbiz beckons for a pair of college jokers whose spoof music video shot them to mainland stardom

If you don’t know the Back Dorm Boys, you’re really not with it – the catchphrase that went around mainland campuses a couple of years ago illustrates the media sensation Huang Yixin and Wei Wei have become. Life has been a roller-coaster ride for the art school graduates since March 2005, when they posted a clip of themselves lip-synching to a song by the Backstreet Boys on the internet.

Revved up by an enthusiastic response to their antics, Huang and Wei, then final-year students at the Guangzhou Art Institute, hammed it up in more webcam music videos parodying various over-the-top productions by the likes of Taiwan girl group S.H.E and the Black-Eyed Peas. The hilarious clips were downloaded in the tens of millions and made them instant internet stars. Companies such as Motorola recruited them for youth-orientated campaigns even before they graduated. They were quickly signed to a five-year contract with mainland entertainment company Taihe Rye, and have been building a career in show business since moving to Beijing two years ago.

“We got lucky. The internet is so popular in China that if we hadn’t done these videos, somebody else would have,” says Huang.

Somewhat like a Chinese version of Laurel and Hardy, Wei, a Shandong lad who stands at 189cm, is a towering contrast to comical Guangzhou native Huang, who is just 173cm. Under Taihe Rye, which manages other high-profile talent such as Supergirl contest winner Li Yuchun, Beijing rocker Pu Xu and Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee, the boys have appeared in Pepsi ads and started taking dance and vocal lessons, and honing their stage performance.

Although household names on the mainland, especially among the twentysomething crowd, the two haven’t let fame go to their heads. “We still have a long way to go. Every new experience adds to our knowledge and we have a lot to learn,” says Huang.While they continue to make lip-synch videos, Huang and Wei have ventured into other areas as television presenters, recording artists – “very cheerful and funny songs with athletic themes” says Huang – and more recently as actors. Last year, they starred in three comedies – Zi Shou (Turn Yourself In), Shi Quan Jiu Mei (Not Quite Perfect), which are still in post-production, and HaHaHa, which was released in May. In the latter, Huang and Wei play hapless con artists who try to scam inexperienced drivers by faking injuries, but become entangled in a kidnap caper involving a stolen baby.

Friends since high school, the pair are slowly adjusting to their new careers and homes in the capital, where they live in the same building in the hip Chaoyang district.

“We’re getting used to it now, the weather is very different from Guangzhou and it’s a different kind of city – more cultural,” says Wei.

Much of their time is devoted recording songs and making television appearances. The two sculpture majors haven’t lost touch with their art training, and still do a little drawing, painting and sculpting to unwind.

Both sports fans, the boys often hang out together playing basketball and badminton and Huang recently flew to Thailand to watch a badminton tournament. Was he recognised? “Yes, but only by the Chinese,” he says.

“We still spend about 50 to 60 per cent of our time together, either playing basketball or working, but we try not to go out together because if we do, then we get recognised by everyone – like 90 per cent of the people,” says Wei.

“[Huang] can go out with a bit of disguise – a hat, sunglasses, and sometimes with a surgical mask – but it’s harder for me because I’m so tall. We can’t really even go out with our regular friends without getting recognised so there’s no question of going out with a girlfriend.

“Our life has changed a lot. Before we used to hang out with students and average people, but now we mostly mingle with arts and entertainment people.”

For Huang, one of the more aggravating new demands is skin care. “We put on so much makeup all the time, so we have to take care of our skin like girls. Every night, I use masks and skin creams,” he says. “Whenever I go abroad, I stop at the cosmetic counters and ask the clerks for creams. I say ‘pore’ in English and they give me some products. I wish I knew how to say blackheads in English. We never had to worry about this before.”

Quizzed about their unexpected career trajectory, Huang says he sometimes wonders if he’s dreaming. “It’s pretty amazing to go from being students to be the main characters in a film,” he says. “We had no idea that so many would respond so enthusiastically to our first post.”

Huang and Wei made the first clip to amuse themselves while stuck in dormitories in suburban Guangzhou with nothing to do. The simple webcam video filmed in their dorm room was initially posted on their college network, and was such a campus hit that fellow students quickly circulated it on the Web.

“A lot of our classmates couldn’t believe that was us doing the lip-synching because we’re usually quiet and composed when they see us,” says Wei.

However, the boys’ flippant, playful image belies a serious work ethic. Luo Yan, the director of HaHaHa, found them to be extremely professional on the set. “When they weren’t in front of the camera, they kept themselves busy, drawing and painting and experimenting with computer games,” says the Shanghai-based filmmaker, who first saw them in a talent show in 2006. Even then, she felt they delivered the best performance of the evening – “It was outstanding.”

But recent comments on their efforts haven’t been so kind. HaHaHa disappeared soon after its release and online blogs have criticised the production for not using the duo’s talents properly.

Huang concedes it’s a big leap from making spoof music videos to movies. “We’re pretty good at lip-synching. Lip-synching is liberating, we can explode and go crazy, but acting in films is all about control, control, control.” However, the boys aren’t interested in going back. “Lip-synching is really just a hobby and something we did when we were students,” says Huang. “I prefer acting and hosting television shows.”

For now, their unexpected detour into show business remains a novelty and the two funny guys-next-door hope to have a movie written specially for them.

It remains to be seen whether the Back Dorm Boys’ viral video stardom can be transformed into successful movie and television careers, but Huang plans to “keep trying, keep working, keep learning”.

And despite virtually living in each other’s pockets, he says they remain “very good friends”. And that’s not be a bad place to be after three years of whirlwind activity in the spotlight.

SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST July 23rd, 2008 Print Edition

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