When So Tsz-lun decided to go emo with his username on ICQ, an instant messaging platform popular in the early 2000s, he had no idea that years later it would become his stage name – one of the biggest in China’s beatboxing community.
“My ICQ name was sum fui [or “disheartened” in Cantonese], and I just translated it literally to English – HeartGrey. It sounded cooler than my English name, Eric,” says the 25-year-old Hongkonger.
HeartGrey stumbled across beatboxing at the age of 16, when he was browsing interesting videos on the internet. One showed a man in a park making drum sounds with his mouth. This was in the pre-YouTube era, but a fascinated HeartGrey relentlessly browsed forums for beatbox tutorials.
But these tutorials weren’t interactive enough, so on MSN chat he began randomly adding beatboxers from around the word, and sent his recordings to them for feedback.
After mastering the basic skills, he listened to slowed-down beatboxing tracks and practised copying them for more than eight hours every day.
“I was addicted,” he says. "I would practise on the way to school, during recess, even during morning assembly.”
As a freshman at university, HeartGrey began offering to teach beatboxing on local forums. Response was cold at first, though, because very few people in Hong Kong knew about the art. “Even now, the beatboxing community in Hong Kong is tiny - probably around a hundred people,” says HeartGrey. “And you can count the ones who do it full time on one hand.” But soon he was approached by various organisations to teach at schools and community centres, so after graduation, he decided to become a full-time beatboxer.
HeartGrey now splits his time between performing, producing music and teaching. His students range from five to 40 years old, and there are quite a few girls who want to learn beatbox, too. “For arts like dancing, guys may have the advantage because they have more strength. But beatboxing is fair, because it only uses the mouth,” he says.
Even the elderly enjoy beatboxing. Yesterday, Heartgrey and a group of students performed for 300 elderly at the Youth Square in Chai Wan. To match their tastes, he incorporated Chinese instruments and asked them to clap along to his beats.
There are also deaf people who love to beatbox. It allows them to express themselves using their mouths, since most have trouble learning to speak. HeartGrey says they can remember muscle movements more accurately than normal people, and can make the right sound although they can’t hear it themselves.
HeartGrey’s YouTube channel, started in 2008, has almost 10,000 subscribers. Besides beatbox originals and covers of popular songs, it also contains videos of him beatboxing his political views. One video uploaded during last year’s pro-democracy protests shows him standing at the Admiralty Occupy site.
“Look at this protest,” he says. “It’s very [beatboxes in a slow rhythm] but the police treats the people like [speeds up his beat] … Hong Kong people should no longer [muffled dumbeats] and stand up for themselves.”
In May, HeartGrey will fly to Berlin, Germany, to compete against other national champs in the Beatbox Battle World Championship. Beatboxers who pass the audition round will enter a one-on-one competition, where each will have 90 seconds to beatbox before one of them is eliminated. HeartGrey says competitors are judged based on their musicality, techniques, originality and stage presence. His signature sound is a disc-scratching effect he makes using a snaggletooth.
“The French are known for their insanely fast techniques. The British get really creative with their melodic sequences,” he says. “My biggest worry is the sound system: sometimes people can’t hear the more detailed sounds because the system just doesn’t carry them through.”