By Grace Z. Li and Ida Mojadad

On the eve of its 18th birthday, Hyphen – an independent magazine founded in San Francisco and dedicated to amplifying Asian American perspectives – received a nasty surprise.

Andrew Kuo and Kareem Rahma – former executives of A + E Networks, The New York Times and VICE – launched Hyphen Media, a new podcasting company with massive investor support and a nickname and mission similar: “telling colorful stories” by under-represented people. voice. Even its logo resembled that of the almost two-decade-old magazine.

“Someone on Twitter was like, it looks like the Hyphen logo got faxed and stuck,” said Karissa Chen, editor-in-chief of Hyphen. To Chen, the overlapping name sounded like a “slap in the face” because the media company’s branding was so similar to its own volunteer-run “scrappy” magazine, to the point of confusing longtime readers who thought Hyphen was starting a podcast. It wasn’t – Hyphen (the magazine) is not connected to Hyphen Media at all.

It is not clear whether the emerging media company was aware of the magazine’s existence prior to its founding. Hyphen Media declined to provide official responses to press inquiries except to confirm that it agreed to change its name, which had previously been filed by Hyphen magazine. This came after the online reaction from longtime Hyphen readers and correspondence with Hyphen staff.

And while Hyphen’s editors and future Hyphen Media were able to come to an “out-of-court resolution,” the debacle opened a conversation about what it means for communities of color in the United States to write on their own. history.

“It erases the extraordinary amount of community work that has gone into Hyphen,” said Melissa Hung, Founding Editor-in-Chief of Hyphen. “It’s not just a magazine, it’s an incubator that has mentored hundreds of creators and community members and given a lot of people their first chance to get published.”

When Hung took to Twitter to express her concern, she sparked a wave of protests on social media from famous Asian American writers and activists like Cathy Park Hong, Alexander Chee, Jay Caspian Kang, Angry Asian Man (also known as Phil Yu) and Helen. Zia. “WTF? Hyphen magazine still lives on, shining its light and warmth on AAPI communities, as it has brilliantly done for many years, ”Zia tweeted. Several pointed out that the magazine’s readership had already analyzed Pan-Asian identity issues for nearly two decades in a way the mainstream media was just beginning to consider, while doing so on a “shoestring budget.”

“People showed up for us,” Chen says. “They may try to wipe us out – but the community we serve knows that. “

Asian America Means Home

Hyphen, the magazine, and Hyphen Media, the audio company, shared many similarities from the start: they share the same name and the same mission to uplift various stories across media by Asian American founders.

But while Hyphen Media was launched with a series of names of investors who would support the project, Hyphen magazine – founded in 2002 as a fledgling media project between 30 Bay Area activists and local journalists – has historically been under -financed and underfunded. This is the very definition of a “labor of love”. (Which, like Hanging noted online, were predominantly from women.)

In 2015, Hyphen had to stop its print edition due to budget constraints. Local fundraising events such as Mr. Hyphen, a contest that challenged conceptions of Asian-American masculinity, were put on hold due to the massive effort it would take from his volunteer staff.

“For over a decade, I literally worked 20 to 30 hours a week in addition to having a full-time job,” says Hung. “A lot of other people spent hours like this because of the beliefs and mission of sharing more nuanced and complex stories of Asian Americans. And there really was no such thing.

The beginnings were far from 2018, when the era of the Crazy Rich Asians sparked new momentum for the representation of Asian Americans in the mainstream. But long before Hollywood knew it, Hyphen was already working to carve out a space for “Asian America without abbreviations,” as their motto goes. It was a jumping off point for many Asian American creatives in a media space that could be hostile to people of color.

“We didn’t start by begging others to take our stories, and it was a powerful and positive start,” Nina F. Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, said via email to SF Weekly, adding that the hyphen was “pivot”. to his career.

She is not alone in this feeling. Pulitzer Prize finalist (and former SF Weekly editor) Bernice Yeung says she has learned “crucial lessons” about the importance of diversity in reporting that she has applied to her journalistic career since then. Vogue editor-in-chief Lisa Wong Macabasco recalled that her time at Hyphen gave her the confidence she needed to edit a national magazine and understand merit with her own voice. Amy Zhang, producer of the comedy news show Patriot Act hosted by Hasan Minhaj, grew up as a writer at Hyphen. And the magazine gave freelance photographer An Rong Xu one of his “first chances” and served as “wind under my wings,” as he puts it. Xu now contributes to The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post.

Despite its limited resources, Hyphen has always been a place for radical stories and emerging artists. “If we go back to the early issues, when they were still in press, they did everything from economic justice – which members of our community face and which are not talked about because of the model myth of the minority – to issues of sexuality, and identity, ”said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “Many of the ways we move forward in the API community, both in terms of understanding and mutual understanding, relate directly to Hyphen. “

An example that Chen cites is “Against ‘Fire and Fury», A series of interviews conducted by Franny Choi on the impact that rising tensions between the United States and North Korea would have on American Koreans. Most of the mainstream American media interviewed foreign policy experts – few considered the ramifications that political sanctions and threats would have on ordinary citizens of the Korean diaspora. “Sometimes we would publish articles on topics that we would see in the New York Times three years later,” Momo Chang, senior editor at Hyphen, told SF Weekly in an email.

Hyphen also played a big role in community work. “You have San Francisco’s legacy of incremental change and innovation, and I think that means something special to the Asian American community in the Bay Area,” said Pan. For example, in 2018 Hyphen partnered with Oakland’s nonprofit Asian Prisoner Support Committee to create an anthology featuring, centered and mentored Asian Americans and incarcerated Pacific Islanders.

And, in addition to serving the community, Hyphen worked to create it. Almost everyone SF Weekly has contacted to remember the “longtime friends” and community they made in Hyphen. Erin Khue Ninh, professor at UC Santa Barbara, remembers the “living camaraderie” she felt at the magazine – where “Asian America means home”: “It’s that kind of feeling of possibility that I want midwifery for my students, where they don’t have to worry about whether the Asian American identity is real; they know it and they know they are creating it.

Short memory

As much as Hyphen has nurtured and hosted Asian American creatives where typical custodians might not have, the magazine had the community story to thank for getting to this point.

When Hyphen started, says Hung, the founders made a point of reaching out to seasoned journalists and others with a long history in the community. Instead of starting from scratch, subsequent generations benefit from the “wealth of knowledge” that accompanies the transmission of this experience.

“There is a loss of knowledge transfer and a lack of respect for history when we don’t take the time to do it,” says Hung. “It’s really important that people know their story. It doesn’t help the community to have such a short memory. We need to preserve and celebrate these stories and understand what came before us. “

Even as ethnic study options expand in colleges across the country, basic stories about people of color in the United States are already hard to come by in the country’s Eurocentric education system. Often, younger generations have to search for this information scattered across an increasingly large Internet ecosystem. So when this knowledge gap comes from someone within the same community, it turns into self-sabotage.

“There are already so many erasures from our communities in this country because of systemic racism that Asian Americans don’t have to do,” Chen said. “To do more within our community – to erase the work that members of our community have done by other Asian Americans – I think that’s what’s most hurtful. Because why are we doing this work for the system that already exists to do it? “

What the team behind Hyphen Media could have done – and could still do – differently, Chen says, is to share their resources with those who don’t have them and build on the community work that made this initiative possible by first place.

“It’s already so hard to make room for our stories, to make room for our people to do this work,” Chen says. In a hopeful world, Chen would be able to pay his collaborators at market rates for their writings and pay something to his volunteer staff. “Why don’t we share these resources to uplift each other so that we can all continue to do this work? So that we can build on the people who came before us? For me, this is the deepest thing that is troubling.

This story was originally published in SF Weekly, the sister publication of The Examiner.

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