Adventures in Asian pop music: 6 UBC acts to note
From Hong Kong to the Philippines and South Korea, UBC grads and former students have taken diverse and unpredictable routes in pursuit of musical dreams.
Following the success of rapper Psy’s worldwide smash “Gangnam Style” in 2012, South Korean pop acts like boy band BTS and girl group Blackpink have ridden Hallyu (the Korean Wave) to heady heights around the globe.
As K-pop (Korean pop) has been shattering linguistic and racial glass ceilings on U.S. Billboard and world charts, could it be merely a matter of time before music acts from other Asian countries also break through?
While we've previously featured Vancouver singer-songwriter Wanting Qu (who has released two EPs and three albums with songs in English and Mandarin), here’s a look at six more UBC grads and former students who pursued careers in Asian pop music. With forays into Cantopop (Cantonese pop), Mandopop (Mandarin pop), K-pop, and English-language markets, their stories reveal that musical success can come about in a variety of ways, ranging from unexpected inroads and sudden success to journeys filled with twists and turns.
Gerphil Geraldine Flores
This Filipino-German classical crossover singer inverted the conventional career route. Born in Germany, Gerphil Geraldine Flores (Dip’19) grew up singing and performing in musicals and operas. But before finishing her post-secondary studies came fame on the home screen.
First, she was a semi-finalist on the inaugural season of the TV competition Pilipinas Got Talent in 2010.
Then she auditioned for Season 1 of Asia’s Got Talent in 2014. Performing “Speak Softly, Love” from The Godfather, this soprano garnered praise from the judges, including Canadian producer David Foster who hit the golden buzzer for her. After she finished in third place, Foster tapped her to perform on his 2015–16 tour in Asia.
What’s more, Flores graduated with a Bachelor in Music from the University of the Philippines College of Music in 2016. Furthering her interests in the arts, she enrolled at UBC and graduated with a diploma in Art History in 2019.
In addition to making YouTube videos featuring covers of tunes by ABBA and Simon and Garfunkel, she released her Neapolitan single “Santa Lucia” in December 2021. Embarking upon her newest chapter in life, Flores became a mother to a baby boy on January 9 of this year.
Strap yourself in — this one’s a rollercoaster.
While Daniel Kim (BCom’08) was a UBC Sauder School of Business student, he took a film production course that sparked his interest in releasing cover-song videos on YouTube, starting in 2007. After graduation, he relocated to South Korea to pursue a music career. The demands of churning out one pop cover-song video each week to boost his following spurred him to sing medleys and release them less frequently instead. When viewers asked him to compile the original songs (instead of covers sung by him), he created what became Pop Danthology: mashups of Top 40 hits by major acts like Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Pharrell.
By 2012, Pop Danthology had mushroomed into a worldwide smash with millions of views — messages and job offers flooded in from around the world, including from South Korea’s entertainment industry. Kim had also garnered the interest of the latter when his medley of K-pop hits bagged him a spot on the inaugural season of the televised South Korean pop idol competition, MBC’s 위대한 탄생 (Birth of a Great Star).
But be careful what you wish for in the viral video era.
Without any business structure in place, Kim was overwhelmed. Furthermore, copyright changes on YouTube resulted in companies peppering his videos with ads, and blocking or removing them. But by his fourth year as a YouTuber, he had returned to Canada for help with depression and addiction. Discontinuing the mashups, he launched other YouTube channels. One was about mental health and psychology (Talk Danthology), which got him invited to deliver motivational speeches at conferences. More recently, he has shifted to focus on life with his wife and children (We the Kims).
Now a Brand Marketing Specialist at Wondershare Technology, he tells TREK that he doesn’t plan on returning to music, which he says stresses him out. Along the way, though, he discovered that the video content he loves the most involves teaching others. Coming full circle, he has applied to UBC’s Education program to become a middle-school teacher and is looking forward to becoming a student again.
Phil Lam 林奕匡
Born in Nanaimo and raised in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island, Phil Lam (BSc’08) studied cell biology and genetics at UBC. But UBC Music’s jazz band accepted him each year of his undergrad and, representing Vancouver, he made the top four in Hong Kong’s New Talent Singing Awards in 2007.
At an audition while still a student, a record company wanted to sign him on the spot, but he asked if he could finish his final semester. They okayed it. But revealing how the entertainment business can be fickle, he discovered that they had changed their minds about him when he returned to Hong Kong in 2008.
After facing struggles to survive on his own, he signed with Sony in 2009 and released his first Cantopop EP, Loaded, in 2010. Although his initial releases didn’t fare well commercially, he hit his stride with his 2014 EP entitled 3, when the song “高山低谷” (“High Mountain, Low Valley”) gained traction.
With a range from reflective to midtempo tunes, this singer-songwriter has released a total of four EPs and six albums, including Finding Charlie in 2020 and the EP Philosophy in 2021. He also entered the Mandopop market with his 2010 song “雨落大地” (“Rain Fell on the Ground”) and selections from his 2015 album 有人共鳴 (You Ren Gong Ming).
In addition, he returned to the Vancouver campus of his alma mater when he married former TVB financial anchor and sports host Rikko Li Aiji at UBC’s Cecil Green Park House in 2017.
Although Emily Liang (BA’21 in Music) may not be a star yet, she’s one for the Cantopop industry to keep tabs on.
With the COVID-19 pandemic having begun, the UBC School of Music joined forces with the UBC Cantonese Language Program to celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary. In March 2020, they held the Combating COVID-19 Cantonese Lyrics Competition, with Cantopop industry professionals from Hong Kong as judges.
Out of 20 entries, Liang won the contest with her composition “相擁風雨中” (“Rain Before Sunshine”). The lyrics are about a nurse saying goodbye to her partner and facing her fears as she leaves for the hospital in order to serve the community.
Hong Kong-based singer Ashia 廖嘉敏 recorded the song, with remote production by a team in Hong Kong, Vancouver, and the U.S. In July 2020, the tune was released on Apple Music, iTunes, YouTube, KKBOX, and JOOX, accompanied by a music video designed by UBC Media Studies student Sonia Kung.
Liang, who has been playing piano since the age of 5 and completed the Royal Conservatory of Music piano performance curriculum, tells TREK that she has also written classical scores for piano, voice, and orchestra. To delve further into the history of Cantonese opera in Canada, she’s planning to return to UBC this fall to pursue her Master’s degree in Musicology.
Writing more Cantopop songs, she says, will also be a part of her future plans. So stay tuned.
Bernice Liu 廖碧兒
When it comes to the Hong Kong entertainment scene, Bernice Liu (BCom’20) seems to have almost done it all.
Liu, who was born in Prince Rupert, B.C., undertook three years of pre-med studies in the Faculty of Science at UBC before switching to the UBC Sauder School of Business. While still a student, she entered beauty pageants. After winning Miss Chinese Vancouver 2000 and Miss Chinese International 2001, her academic trajectory was interrupted when Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) came calling with an acting contract in 2001.
Thus her career performing on Chinese TV series got underway, including as Princess Sam-tin on the popular sitcom Virtues of Harmony, in addition to modelling gigs and appearances in films.
Her entry into the world of home screens also led to her singing debut. For the private investigation drama Into Thin Air in 2005, she not only starred on the show but also sang the theme song, "實情" (“Truth"). She has since sung opening or closing songs for several TV series: "分手" (“Breakup" ) for The Brink of Law, "還用在意嗎" (“Do You Still Need to Care") for The Slicing of the Demon, and “I’m So in Love With You" for Steps.
Resuming her business studies at UBC in 2018, she maintained her acting work — attending classes from Mondays to Wednesdays while, gruellingly, flying back to Hong Kong for filming from Thursdays to Saturdays — until she graduated in 2020. The knowledge she acquired will help her with her business endeavours: her own wine company, Bellavizio, as well as an online wine community, Wine Maven.
Kevin Moon 케빈
Kevin Moon is among a handful of Canadians who have ascended to K-pop stardom.
Moon was born in Gyeongi-do, Gwangju, in South Korea, and moved to Metro Vancouver at the age of 4. He attended Burnaby’s Seaforth Elementary School, the alma mater of singer Michael Bublé. As a harbinger of his future success, Moon won an award named after Bublé for the student with the most musical potential.
In 2016, he attended UBC to study psychology, with hopes of pursuing a grad degree in Education. But a mere four days into his first school year, he successfully auditioned in Seattle for the TV talent series K-pop Star and competed on Season 6. After flopping in the third round, he intended to resume his university studies. Destiny, however, had other plans — an entertainment company invited him into the coveted fold of the K-glitterati.
After leaving Vancouver in 2016, Moon debuted as part of the then 12-member group The Boyz in December 2017 with the single “Boy” (“소년”) and their debut EP The First. Their first album, Reveal, dropped in February 2020 and hit the top of the Korean charts. They’ve also broken into the Japanese market with Korean-language songs: they debuted in Japan with the 2019 EP Tattoo, followed by the album Breaking Dawn in March, and are releasing the EP She’s the Boss in May.
So far, the group’s career appears to be humming along, but if things don’t work out for Moon in the future, perhaps he could pick up where he left off at UBC?