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Hyphen Magazine Bridges the Gap

NCM Profile

NCM, Catherine Black Posted: Dec 09, 2003

Untitled Document

Place Hyphen magazine next to some of the more established Asian publications in the United States and several things immediately distinguish it: First, it’s in English, which identifies its audience as primarily American-born. Second, it sports an artsy, unconventional design that further defines its audience as young and hip. Finally, the content—which spans pop culture, politics and social commentary—is doing more than simply selling an image and its advertisements like so many identity-driven niche publications today.

The staff of Hyphen Magazine

Produced primarily by a staff of twenty- and thirty-somethings, the quarterly publication that bills itself as “Asian America unabridged” is part of a growing number of media that target younger Asians who speak English as a first language and are as familiar with punk rock as they are with bok choy. This isn’t the Hong Kong based Sing Tao Daily or the Korean language Korea Times that Hyphen readers' parents and grandparents consume to stay connected to distant homelands, but a hybrid that says, “Yes, we’re Asian. But we’re American too, and these are the issues that we think about.”

Hyphen was released in early 2003 partly due to the folding of A. magazine—a glossy lifestyle monthly that was aimed primarily at an educated 35-and-under Asian American readership, preferably with disposable income to boot. With its image-driven emphasis on celebrity, fashion and trends, A. magazine lasted for an impressive 13 years before shutting down in 2002. Several former contributors, including Hyphen’s current editor-in-chief Melissa Hung, decided to build on A. magazine’s successful connection to a younger, more "Americanized" Asian audience while making some clear departures as well.

“We wanted something more news oriented, more critical, more focused on social justice issues,” says the 26-year-old Hung. “There wasn’t a publication out there that reflected progressive Asian Americans.” A group of seven people got together in March of 2002 to brainstorm, and eight months later the magazine held its first fundraiser to underwrite initial publishing costs.

Hyphen’s all-volunteer staff is between 23 and 35, mostly female and college educated—“like our readers,” notes Hung—and run as a non-profit venture rather than a strictly advertising-driven publication. Most of the staff also have experience in “progressive” areas like community organizing, teaching, and underground arts.

“[Being a non-profit organization] really says something about us,” notes Hyphen’s art director Stefanie Liang. “People realize that we’re doing this because we really want to.” And Hyphen’s hefty mission statement reads more like a recipe for social change than that of a glossy, four-color cover magazine targeting one of the most sought-after demographics in advertising today: “On a societal level: we seek to combat complacency and redefine what it means to be Asian American; On an industry level: we seek to be a thought-leader in the mainstream media; On a product level: we seek to produce revelatory journalism that profiles, explores, and illuminates the lives, culture and politics of Asian America.”

Hyphen’s fall 2003 issue cover story is about the history and evolution of Asian American farming in California’s Central Valley—a cultural legacy often overshadowed by Cesar Chavez’s more high-profile Hispanic farmworker’s movement—while the story on the next page is a profile of a Filipino indie rocker, titled “Slack Motherfrumper.” With sections like Policy Watch on “politics and power,” Redux “another look at media” and Matter “news that counts”—in addition to the usual serving of fashion, reviews and literary excerpts—Hyphen is meeting the diverse tastes of America’s young, educated pan-Asian population.

Some might find the tone of the magazine harsh and confrontational compared to other Asian media in the United States. After the first issue, some from the older generation reacted negatively to a hip hop artist profile titled, “Move Bitch, Jin’s on the Way,” as well as the unconventional layout.

Hyphen's first cover, spring 2003

“It’s important to examine things that aren’t always going to be pretty, says Hung. “There’s a tendency among older Asian Americans to only expose what’s nice.” Ironically, one of the most popular pieces in that same issue, titled “The Forgotten Revolution,” was written by an older activist looking back on his political and cultural awakening during the 60s and 70s.

In addition to probing political and social justice questions, Hyphen places heavy emphasis on its pan-Asian scope. It is part of a small, but growing number of media that transcend the divisions of separate Asian ethnicities (alongside publications like Giant Robot and AsianWeek).
“Multiculturalism is very important to our readers and staff,” notes Hung. “We believe it’s important to present a united Asian front [that] translates into more power politically.”

Rather than focus strictly on issues of politics or ethnic identity, however, the editors at Hyphen “sneak” them into the content, which remains appealing to the broader tastes of popular culture. “The goal behind all this is that we want to be a catalyst for change in the community,” says Hung. “There’s a large number of young people out there who are apathetic about things and the world we live in. While this could be said about mainstream Americans, it’s particularly annoying to me when that person is Asian, considering all our community has been through historically.”

Hyphen can be found at independent bookstores in the Bay Area and New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Austin. For more information, visit www.hyphenmagazine.com


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