Daniel Lau, Dex Ng, and Lawrence Tsui are Hong Kong-based urban explorers and content creators that have recently worked with Adidas, Canon, Palladium Boots and Red Bull. The group spoke to Campaign Asia-Pacific about its work and offered advice on how marketers can maximise collaborations online.
In a video titled ‘Crazy Selfie from Hong Kong’ that racked up over three million views on YouTube, Lau stood atop the spire of an 1135 feet building called The Centre in Hong Kong’s Central district. Using a selfie stick he captured himself and two banana-eating photographer-friends who were crouched beside him. The three stood above the top rungs of a ladder that led from the rooftop to the absolute pinnacle of the skyscraper. The video attracted international press. That was back in August 2014.
Comments on YouTube indicate that some users experienced “sweaty palms and feet” just watching the footage. Users on Instagram—where Lau, Ng and Tsui post photos and clips of their adventures—have similarly visceral responses. While the general reaction is awe, some have criticised the group’s recklessness. “What if they dropped their phone from that height?” one user asked. Others have been more sympathetic: “Stay safe out there guys. Life is precious.”
The attention-grabbing nature of their stunts is something that Lau, Ng and Tsui are familiar with. Within 6 hours of the video being released, Lau’s Instagram account grew from 5000 to 12,000 followers. In September 2014, Adidas approached them for their ‘This is Me’ campaign. At the time of publishing this story, Lau has over 52,000 followers on his Instagram account.
The group keeps the figures in perspective. “In Hong Kong if you have over 10,000 followers, people think you’re some kind of celebrity,” said Lau. Their goal was never to gain attention but it’s a consequence of their actions. What drives the group is an idea. They call it ‘exthetics’.
The word comes from combining ‘extremity’ and ‘aesthetics’ in the context of urban exploration, photography and videography. “We don’t think of it as the name of our group,” said Lau. “We started ‘exthetics’ as a hashtag and it’s open to anyone who wants to explore in this way and share their photos or videos.”
Although the ‘extreme’ aspect is what people see first, Lau emphasises the beautiful and ‘aesthetic’ side of what they do, which includes capturing cities from the top of skyscrapers, underground, in abandoned spaces or on sites under construction.
Their entry into the world of urban exploration happened on a whim. “We were sitting in a restaurant in Jordan one night,” said Tsui. “Later, the three of us stood at an intersection with no plan on where to go and the idea just came out.” They’d seen photos of people “roof-topping” before and then found a low-rise building about 20 stories high to venture into for the first time.
“Our level of fear at that moment was probably the same as any average person,” said Ng. “We approached the ledges very slowly.” The experience was strangely uplifting and “a good break from the routine of Hong Kong life.” Soon the three conquered higher buildings together and each time their threshold and tolerance grew until they became “less sensitive to heights.” The three agree that the “moment you open the door to a rooftop” or “discover a site that not many people have been to” is an experience that never grows old. It’s what keeps them going back.
Beyond popularity, brands have been attracted to Lau, Ng and Tsui because of the code that they live by when exploring. “If you’re taking photos on the ledges of high buildings just to get attention, forget about it because that’s very dangerous,” said Lau.
The group research the buildings and structures thoroughly before exploring them and assess whether they “trust the structure or not”. Lau says another important rule is to know your limit. “I felt hungry one day and a bit dizzy when I was on the rooftop,” said Lau. “I decided to leave the challenge for another day. Don’t push yourself because that’s when you’ll make a mistake and it’s lethal. There’s always next time.”
Different to other urban explorers and roof-toppers who chase the “tallest buildings” or the “most daring stunts”, Exthetics is more about freedom, experiencing a heightened sense of self and the environment and capturing those moments with a camera. “It’s like a form of meditation,” said Ng. “Your mind clears out and you consider every little movement before you make it. It’s relaxing but you’re also on edge.”
The idea of Exthetics is best captured in the more atmospheric photos and captions that the group post on Instagram. Rather than just have scenic shots, many photos include Lau, Ng, Tsui or other fellow explorers in the frame. This adds a “presence and a point of reference” to the photographs, which “fans respond well to.”
While the three are in their early 20’s and working or completing their university studies, they say that the experience has changed them in positive ways. Ng, who is studying digital media, has found the experience enriching. During a trip to an unfinished MTR subway construction site in Hong Kong last year, he noted the unusual atmosphere. “It was so quiet that I could hear my own breath and feel the blood pulsing in my ears,” said Ng. “The textures, like cracked paint on walls and the lighting and shadows were very organic.” These sensorial experiences have given Ng fresh ideas and inspiration for his visuals in filmmaking. Shooting in challenging situations has also enhanced his craft and ability to focus.
Tsui feels a greater sense of concentration and patience in his life. “While we’re exploring, I pay complete attention to everything I'm doing but usually I’m pretty impatient and clumsy,” he said, laughing. While for Lau, it’s about the escape from the daily grind. “When you’re looking down at the traffic and cars below, everything is so small and you get a different perspective on popular places that you walk past every day.”
From their early photos on Instagram through to their latest, you get a sense as to how their lives have grown. Last year, Adidas approached the group and asked them to take part in their "This is Me" campaign, which encouraged people to take selfies to express their true selves. The community that was building up around Exthetics and the work Lau, Ng and Tsui produced appealed to Adidas.
The brand supplied Lau with clothing and merchandise to use in his urban adventures. According to Lau, there was an agreement to use the Adidas products in photos posted with the ‘This is me’ hashtag on Instagram and that Adidas would remunerate the group for the work. The three say they still haven’t received any money from Adidas’s Hong Kong office. “It was the first time we'd worked with a brand,” said Lau. “But it’s a good lesson for us because when we were starting we weren’t thinking about processes, invoices and managing this whole thing.”
Now the team are a bit more structured. Lau takes care of the group’s marketing, PR and planning while Ng and Tsui focuses on the production side of their content. After Adidas, they worked with Canon and the three of them use sponsored Canon EOS 7D Mark II to shoot all their urban exploration projects.
Next they worked with Palladium Boots, in which they produced a short branded-content style advertisement showcasing the “stylish yet practical” footwear. According to Kitty Tsang, brand manager at Palladium Boots Hong Kong, the work with Exthetics has aligned well with the brand's mission of 'city exploring'.
"Other than Exthetics, we work with artists and athletes that explore cities through their own respective expertise," said Tsang. "These range from singers and songwriters that post their work on YouTube and organise their own concerts through to interesting athletes who are still in university."
The brand's target group is between the ages of 18 to 35. Tsang says that these influencers are ideal for connecting with their market. While they don't set KPIs involving a "certain number of views or clicks", Tsang said they offer their network of influencers a number of shoes that suit their needs and as a "sign of appreciation". "We really value creativity and individuality and it's a key thing we look for in a brand ambassador."
Lau, Ng and Tsui's most recent work with Redbull saw them fly to Bangkok on a sponsored trip at the end of December for some urban exploring. According to Lau, Red Bull also helped share their content. On the trip, they went to Bangkok’s famous ‘Ghost Tower’, an abandoned skyscraper that is a by-product of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
“I think brands like Redbull want more Asian brand ambassadors,” said Lau. “There are not many Asians doing extreme sports or what we’re doing.”
A high priority for the group is to work with brands that share similar values to Exthetics. Having creative input when collaborating is another important factor but most of all, the three just want to keep things “genuine and real.”
Regarding fans, Lau, Ng, and Tsui receive many messages daily. To their surprise, a lot of their recent Instagram followers have come from Brazil. “The Brazilians are really into urbex,” said Lau. When it comes to interaction, users often ask to “hang out” with the group but Lau says he’s not inclined to be a “tour guide”.
“If people genuinely want to explore with us they can come but often that’s not the case,” said Lau. “I don’t want to be responsible for someone irresponsible getting hurt either.”
As with many fads that spread quickly online and on social media, there’s often a short lifespan and an abrupt expiry date. This is something that the group are keenly aware of.
“We don’t know how long the urban exploration trend will last,” said Lau. “But we know that we want to explore and experience. If a brand comes along and they fit with us and their product or service is useful to us, we’ll be happy to consider working with them but exploration is our main goal.”
“There are still brands that approach us that have nothing in common with what we’re doing or our style and approach,” said Lau.
Beyond exploring Hong Kong, Lau, Ng and Tsui have their eyes set on other places. “We plan to go to India,” said Ng. “We want to keep challenging ourselves.”
On the creative front, the group want to become more of a ‘production house’ and their focus will be to produce more video content. The group has recently started a Snapchat account.