Hong Kong free skatepark's owner believes in giving back

Entrepreneur, designer, actor, musician and skateboarder Julius Brian Siswojo reflects on life's lucky breaks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 10:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 10:14am

On an average Tuesday evening, seven floors up a nondescript Kwun Tong industrial building, about 20, mostly young, Hongkongers are skateboarding, and displaying widely divergent skill levels.

There's concentration and seriousness alongside the fun and obvious camaraderie; at weekends parents bring children as young as nine. It helps that the venue, 8Five2 indoor skatepark, 3,000 sq ft of ramps, rails and quarter pipes built to professional standards next to a shop of the same name, is entirely free to use.

The reasons it's free, apart from sponsorship by sportswear brand Vans, is Julius Brian Siswojo, aka JBS, Sir JBS, or just Brian. The skatepark is the fulfilment of a dream for him - but then Siswojo is used to seeing his dreams come true. The park aside, he also owns the shop and another like it; he's a successful streetwear designer under his own Know1edge brand; as a member of Hong Kong hip-hop collective 24Herbs he has worked with the likes of Nas and Snoop Dogg; as an actor he has shared sets and screen time with Keanu Reeves and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing.

It probably wasn't quite the future Jakarta-born Siswojo was expecting when he moved to Hong Kong at the age of 11 in 1985. "All I spoke was Indonesian, and my parents, especially my mum, said you've got to learn English," he says.

"At that time you couldn't go to an international school in Indonesia if you had an Indonesian passport, so in 1985 me and my elder sister moved to Hong Kong, lived with our aunt and went to Royden House on Caine Road, which was the cheapest international school.

"It was pretty tough: for the first couple of years I didn't speak the language, and my three cousins were kind of dicks to me. But then I mastered English, and I picked up Cantonese from friends and from TV, and once you've mastered the language, everything's easy."

But everything really changed for him three years after he arrived, when he discovered skateboarding. "I vividly remember the moment. One of my friends brought a toy skateboard to Aberdeen Sports Ground, and I remember feeling: damn, this is dope - this is the best feeling ever," he recalls.

"Skateboarding allows me to forget about stress for two or three hours. As corny as it sounds, it gives me happiness. I'm 41 years old, and I have old knees and ankles, but the feeling of skating is still the same.

"I went to the skatepark at least twice every weekend before I even had a board, for about six months. When I started, there were maybe 30 skaters; a lot of them are still my best friends today. Most of them have stopped skating, but I try to keep the torch burning."

It was a few years before he thought about making a living out of it. The long hours at his first job, in an employment agency for Indonesian domestic helpers, left no time for skating, so he moved to a nine-to-five job in marketing at Oxford University Press (OUP).

Skateboarding allows me to forget about stress for two or three hours. As corny as it sounds, it gives me happiness
Julius Brian Siswojo

Immigration Tower was his favourite skating spot; in the late 1990s, up to 300 skaters gathered there every Friday night. (These days there are 14 outdoor government skateparks and, Siswojo estimates, about 2,000 regular skaters.)

After five years at OUP, he decided to combine his knowledge of skating and brand-building to start his own business. He had saved HK$200,000, and he invested the lot in skateboards and skating apparel. Using his apartment as his base, he sold 90 per cent of it within two weeks. Nine months later his boss at OUP offered him a job as an editor and support for him to study for a degree. "I was really honoured and I told her I appreciated the offer, but I was about to quit. She said if I hadn't been doing it for my own business she wouldn't have let me go."

The first 8Five2 shop opened in Causeway Bay in 2001. The second shop, along with the indoor skatepark, followed four years ago. 8Five2 now sponsors seven riders. In 2001 Siswojo was also hired by iconic US streetwear brand Alphanumeric Clothing as its Asia sales and marketing director, and set up a showroom in Kwun Tong. After the brand's design team split with its management, he found himself the only employee in Asia, and having educated himself in matters such as cutting, fabrics and working with factories, he was soon asked by his bosses to design individual items, and then entire collections.

Starting his own brand was a logical next move, and Know1edge was born in 2004. Run with his Korean-Canadian wife, with whom he has a five-year-old daughter, the brand now produces 60 to 70 items per season, five seasons a year.

And Siswojo got the chance to indulge another design passion last year, when Japanese denim brand Edwin hired him as creative director of its watch division.

His career took another twist in 2006 with the formation of 24Herbs, a collection of Hong Kong musical royalty whose catchy but recognisably local, authentic sound was an unlikely commercial success, in particular 2009 hit Wonderland.

The band have appeared on stage with everyone from Naughty by Nature to Raekwon and Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan, and are currently involved in a project with Snoop Dogg. JBS, as he's known when performing, is the hype man. "I don't know how to rap. I get the crowd going," he says.

"Through skateboarding, I was introduced to hip hop. We did 24Herbs for fun, because we were bored with existing music. We were just talking s*** about Hong Kong, and suddenly it becomes huge and the radio loves us. It was because it was based on real Hong Kong experiences.

"Then Wonderland took it to another level. People were singing it at karaoke, we won a Commercial Radio award and people in the street knew who we were. I have to say I was stoked about that."

Another string to his bow emerged in his annus mirabilis of 2009, when director-screenwriter Felix Chong Man-keung asked three members of 24Herbs to act in Once a Gangster, released in 2010. Siswojo has appeared in 13 other films, his favourite being his turn as a drunkard in 2012 cop thriller Cold War, which starred Aaron Kwok. He also appeared alongside Keanu Reeves in the actor's 2013 directorial debut Man of Tai Chi ("he was super-nice - hanging out with the dude for three months; it was crazy, man"), and played a paedophile in 2014 kung fu flick Rise of the Legend.

"I've met all my design heroes, all my skateboarding heroes and all my hip-hop heroes," he says.

"I don't drink, smoke or do drugs, but in the movies I get to play a drunk and a paedophile. If you ask me, am I a successful businessman? No. But being able to give back to the community with an indoor skatepark is worth more than money. I've been really lucky."

For this story and more, see The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post, on June 14