Interview: Shawn Yue

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Charming and chiseled, Shawn Yue has become both a leading man on the silver screen and a leading everyman of Hong Kong style. By Arthur Tam.

As he hops up onto a battered couch, strappingly donning a sharp suit and sleek street sneakers, Shawn Yue Man-lok sends a signature brow-furrowed gaze across the studio – one that’s, by our estimations, part cheeky, part smouldering, part boyish and part every man. It’s a look that very much sums up the magnetic appeal of the 31-year-old star – the reason why the ladies have been swooning after him and why many men have been trying to emulate him. 

This is particularly so in the last few years. Despite having been in both the acting and singing spotlight for more than a decade – getting some of his most notable early roles as Chan Wing-yan in the Infernal Affairs trilogy – the Guangdong-born Yue has only recently become one of Hong Kong’s leading men. Yue himself puts the turning point in his career down to his role in Pang Ho-cheung’s 2009 film Love in Puff, where he plays the smart alec chain smoker Jimmy Cheung, who humorously follows a path of mischief, hijinks, and crass Canto-jokes to swoon Miriam Yeung’s character – and since this role, has found his star continually rising. 

Today, despite his former life as a model and as a five-album Cantopop singer, Yue is very much a film man, amassing an impressive resume of over 50 films, including his latest, a reunion with Pang Ho-cheung in SDU: Sex Duties Unit. But apart from his leading man magnetism, part of Yue’s ever-increasing popularity is his off-camera persona – a relatable, down-to-earth guy from humble beginnings who loves basketball and a simple, street style. In many ways, he’s become the epitome of what it means to be a young, modern Hong Kong guy – and a role model for cool, urban style, just as hip-hop street culture is infiltrating runway fashion in a big way. 

Yue’s started his own brand, Common Sense+ (CMSS+), in 2011, collaborating with street labels like Bathing Ape, Neighborhood, Nike and most recently New Balance to release exclusive crossovers. And because of this, he’s also been given a weekly column in East Touch magazine, where he recommends his essential weekly fashion item picks. 

For our Style Issue, Time Out sits down with the man’s man Yue to chat about his latest comedy, his upcoming drama, basketball, fashion and most importantly of all – his obsession with shoes. 

Hey Shawn, glad to have the opportunity to chat with you! We’ve been seeing a lot of you in your underwear on billboards recently, for SDU: Sex Duties Unit. How it was working with Pang Ho-chang again? 
We’ve been friends for many years – over 10, I think. We’ve worked together a couple times before and I believe I can read his mind. I know what he needs and what he is trying to do. He isn’t someone that trusts easily, you have to prove to him over and over again that you can do what he wants – then he will let you do what you want, but before that, no way.

In another interview, Pang says that you have a good comedic rhythm. What is it that he lets you do?
We can change the script. He’ll let us create our own characters. I’m okay at comedy. I can follow the rhythm, but I’m not a master. It just depends on who I’m partnered up with. If I get put with someone that’s terribly boring… oh my god. Thankfully everyone in [SDU] is extremely funny, especially Chapman [To] – he’s the next level. We bounce ideas around during rehearsal and see what’s funny or what’s not to see what should be added or omitted. 

Tell us who else have you had a close working relationship with during your acting career? 
Derek Kwok. Every actor and director has these relationships where they can collaborate over and over again, like Tony Leung and Wong Kar-wai or Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. They can read each other and be really good friends on and off the camera. This is the case with Pang and Derek.  I’ve known Derek since he was a scriptwriter. We can have deep conversations with no inhibitions. To be such good friends is really the luck of fate.

Who would you like to have an opportunity to work with?
I really want to work with Sean Lau Ching-wan. I like him so much. We know each other, but I’ve never had the opportunity to work with him. I can learn a lot from him. He’s fun and chilled.


Wardrobe: J Crew, Jewellery: Juste un Clou bracelet and ring by Cartier, Hat: Stylist's own.

What kind of roles are your favourites?
I like roles where there is lots of dialogue. Films that delve deep into human relationships particularly interest me, like Closer. That movie is so real, deep and there is lots of character development. 

Is there a role that you really want to try, but haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?
A role that’s really extreme that might require me to get really fat or thin like Christian Bale in The Fighter. Oh my god, did you see him? I want to challenge myself before I get too old to recover from extreme roles. Every actor wants to try a role like that at least once. 

When do you think audiences started paying attention to your acting career?
Definitely after Love in a Puff. I didn’t imagine that film would get such a positive audience response and have such an impact. It surpassed my expectations and it’s the type of film I’ve always wanted to do. The audience saw me in a completely new way after that film.

With over 50 films to your resume, do you feel a sense of accomplishment?
No, not at all. I’m an actor and it’s my job to act and it’s what I love to do, so I would never think, ‘oh I’m so good’. I’m pretty happy though.


Wardrobe: Six Lee, Glasses: Hong Kong Treasure, Hat: Stylist's own, Shoes: Superga.

In one of your past interviews, you mentioned that you thought about quitting the business. Why was that?
Back then I was so tired because I did like five to six movies a year. The film industry here is so different compared to the west. In the States, an actor does maybe two movies max a year. 

But now you have the energy and the motivation again?
Yes, but these days I’ve cut down. I’ll do three [films] max a year. I want to spend more time to prepare so I can perform my roles well.

Tell us about your upcoming movie As the Light Goes Out (to be released in December), where you play a fireman.
It’s a really intense one and it’s my second time collaborating with Derek [Kwok]. This time it’s tough because we filmed during summertime. I had to put my uniform on under the beating heat and humidity and face open flames. It was tough, man.

Were you afraid?
I wasn’t afraid, but I was exhausted every day because of what I had to face is so intense. I play a single dad who just wants to do his job and save people. He is very aware of what’s going on around him but won’t involve himself in any sort of nonsense. In his world, the most important thing is his son. He seems like he isn’t the most responsible person, but he actually is. He keeps a lot of his emotions to himself. The film isn’t just about firefighting – there is a strong human element that’s very deep – something people can relate to nowadays. I feel that in this generation, more and more people like watching heroes who are vulnerable.


Wardrobe: J. Crew, Bracelet and glasses: Cartier, Tie: Stylist's own, Hat: Stylist's own, Shoes: Converse.

Besides concentrating on film, have you ever thought of starting up your music career again?
Probably not now. It’s too hard to do too many things at one time. If I want to concentrate on being a good actor, it would be hard to be a good singer. And frankly, I like acting more and I have more talent in acting than singing. Singing is on hold until I come up with a concept that I really like and want to pursue.

If you did return to music, perhaps you could do something in hip-hop? The playlist you plugged in during the shoot was mostly hip-hop and rap.
I like Jay-Z and a lot of hip-hop when I’m at work, but at home I like acoustic and ballads. Music has become a hobby.

Speaking of hobbies, everyone knows you as a huge basketball fan and now you have even started your own tournament and team called Wang Chau Industry Basketball Team. What was your motivation behind that?
It’s because I love basketball. When I was young, my dream was to become a professional player, but of course I couldn’t do it. But I still love basketball very much. I watch basketball games every day. I just want to be a part of it every day, which is why I decided to start the tournament.

How far are you planning to take this league because it seems like you are getting a lot of sponsorships? Will it happen again next year?
At first, I was just thinking it was something that would just bring the bros together, but as we continued, things just started snowballing. I didn’t plan on doing fashion collaborations with the team logo – it’s just luck. It might well be that in two years, we won’t even have Wang Chau anymore because, let’s face it, we’re getting old. It’s really hard to keep up with the youngsters. Maybe in the future I’ll do a tournament that’s just for the youth.

What do you think about the relationship between fashion and basketball? These days, NBA players like Dwayne Wade and Russell Westbrook are sporting runway looks. Do you think you’ll give it a try?
I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think I can handle it because I’m short. For street fashion and hip-hop style, I think it has to do with skin tone too. They have tattoos and their proportion is really nice.

Come on, you’re a model. If you can’t pull it off that means you’re saying most Hong Kong men can’t. 
But I still can’t compare. They are super tall and they can pull off skinny pants with basketball shoes. I don’t wanna try because I wouldn’t be able to pull it off as well as they can. And maybe in Hong Kong, no one really can pull it off yet. Who’s the most fashionable male icon in the states now? Kanye [West]? ASAP? Man, I love [Allen] Iverson. He’s God, man. For me, he’s the fucking man of style.

You’ve also got a tattoo too [on his deltoid], which seems to have a hip-hop aesthetic to it. Can you tell us the story behind it?
It’s a picture of my grandma. She was a big part of my life, so I wanted to do this as a way of respect. I’ve always wanted to do something like this, but there wasn’t someone that I could trust to pull it off, but then I found this tattoo artist in New York – Tommy from New York Inc. I like tattoos with meaning.

You give us the impression that you are  a very family-oriented person?
I think it’s because both my parents are very traditionally Chinese. When I was growing up they kept telling me that I need to take care of my family when I grow up – my sister, my brother. When I was young actually, I didn’t stay with my family, I stayed with my auntie – my mum’s sister. My grandmother took care of my brother. We were all separated. At first I was angry because I didn’t understand why my parents didn’t take care of me when I was young, but then I understood that it was because they had to work. If I got another tattoo, I would get one of my auntie.

That’s cool. We also hear that shoes are your thing.
Yeah. I have, like, over 1,000 shoes. I love sneakers because I love basketball. When I was young, I didn’t have money to buy basketball shoes. [There was] no way I could afford a pair of Jordans. So after I started working, I made it a goal to collect all the shoes I couldn’t buy before. And I’ve done just that. I’m crazy for shoes.

So it sounds! In fact, we’ve heard that when you buy shoes, you buy two pairs of the same style?
Yes! How did you know that? Man, I love shoes, particularly in white. So I’ll buy a pair to collect in one closet and in my other closet will be the shoes that I wear out. The same thing goes with shirts. I’ll buy two shirts of the same style. Actually I do that for a lot of things. Crazy right? [chuckles

What is your upcoming essential shoe pick? We know you have your column recommending your picks.
Mmm… Jordans. I pretty much have all of them. I would like to have a pair of Iversons. For my next round of collectibles... I’ll probably go for all of the Iversons.


Overcoat and pants: Six Lee, Brooklyn t-shirt: Stylist's own, Shoes: Converse, Hat: Stylist's own.

You started Common Sense + a few years ago. Where are you taking the brand now?
I want to share all the stuff, like fashion, furniture, cars, jewellery and watches. It’s a platform for me to share what kind of things I want to introduce. It’s also a way for me to educate young people about fashion. 

Okay. So on that, cars – what’s your next purchase going to be, and will you deck it out?
I like a lot of different cars, but I think my next purchase would be a G class Jeep. I don’t like changing cars. I like it in its original form. I’m going to get in black. That’s my style. 

What about accessories – what are your essentials? 
Watches, that’s it. And the occasional sunglasses, but I keep it simple.

So how would you describe your own personal style?
I like simple casualwear, but it has to be good quality. I’m quite finicky about cutting, material and craftsmanship. I like things that look normal at first glance but actually have special details, something only someone into fashion would notice. I really like grey, but I’m not so much into black these days. Every day is black, black, black – so boring. 

Are there any particular brands that you like?
I’m really into Thom Browne. I wear his clothes all the time. I love his old American style. I mean, wow, his suits are so fine and detailed. It’s classic, but he transforms it into something edgy and modern. I want a custom made piece from him. I wish I could work with him one day. 

What is your ideal look for women?
I like it when women wear flat shoes – I dunno why. I like women that wear things a bit casual like Kate Moss. Simple, in good taste and not so grand. 

Do you think of yourself as a style icon? A lot of Hong Kong men seem to look up to your style?
[Chuckles] No, I think the most important thing is to just have an attitude. No matter what style you have, as long as you can present what you like in an honest way, it’s going to captivate people. 

Where do you want to go now in your career? What should Shawn Yue fans be looking forward to? 
I hope to continue to be a good actor. I hope my movies will reach a wider audience. Hopefully I can work in Hollywood someday – that’s my dream.    

For more on Shawn Yue, follow him at facebook.com/sy.

Photography: Calvin Sit 
Art direction: Jeroen Brulez
Stylist: Arthur Tam
Hair: Ben Yeung
Makeup: Jenny Tziong 

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