Transnationally Asian

A new media neighborhood for an emerging world

Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The wisdom of the anglophone commentariat at what they called the “start” of the coronavirus—which is to say, when it hit Europe and the United States—was that the pandemic would make the world nastier; “more fragmentary” and brutish. They were sure that globalization was soon to give way to sour isolationism. They predicted that every nation would curl in on itself, the way a dandelion closes its petals at night. 

Why did this sound so alien to me? For weeks, I’d been watching the news out of South Korea and texting with relatives there. My Asian-American friends were doing the same, staying in closer than usual touch with family abroad. Through WhatsApp, WeChat, and KakaoTalk, we received tips on social distancing and updates about the science on the virus. Some of my friends’ relatives sent them masks and respirators, even as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control declined to recommend face coverings for the general population until early April. The City, a local New York outlet, found comparatively lower rates of covid-19 in East Asian sections of immigrant neighborhoods, where residents and shopkeepers heeded “early warnings from family.” 

Much of East and Southeast Asia had lead time on the United States, and though many English-language news outlets covered the early progression of the coronavirus, American policymakers, the medical establishment, and the general public seemed coolly unperturbed. Here in the US, we had only been scraped by sars, mers, H1N1, and even Ebola; we apparently doubted that a global virus could hit the West the way it hit the rest.

When I published a Wired interview with a South Korean doctor who’d led the response in that nation’s epicenter, a few outlying American physicians and a health insurance representative reached out to me, desperate for guidance. When I wrote in the New York Times about how Taiwan and South Korea nationalized the production and distribution of masks, in response to an early shortage, the feedback was split between those who wished that our state and federal governments would play a more decisive role and those who dismissed as un-American the idea of strong government intervention. In the mainstream anglophone press, Asian programs of mask-wearing and high-tech contact tracing were often portrayed as functions of a Confucian citizenry willing to “sacrifice their own individual liberty for the greater good.”

Listening to Asia, being willing to learn from Asia, might have saved time and resources and even lives in the fight against covid-19. Yet coverage in US outlets was myopic at best and racist at worst. The frustration of this fact, combined with the feeling of being suspended between continents—Asian competence versus American inaction, with our nurses clad in garbage bags—drove me toward the like-minded. I kept thinking of a quote by the Russian avant-garde painter Natalia Goncharova: “I turn away from the West because for me personally it has dried up and because my sympathies lie with the East.” 

I repaired to a small, relatively new quarter of the media world that I began to describe as “transnationally Asian.” I looked in particular to three online Asian magazines that publish primarily in English and mix journalism with left activism. New Naratif, New Bloom, and Lausan focus on Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, respectively, but in ways that avoid the biases of foreign correspondents and policy wonks or the narrow concerns of in-country English-language newspapers. Their orientation is not so much postcolonial as anti-nationalist and internationalist, meaning that they’re keener to explore what’s shared between working people in say, Taipei and Los Angeles, or Bangkok and Davao City, than to ask whether Canada or Vietnam has the more capable government—a temptation of traditional journalism. Indeed, when American leaders resorted to blaming China for all things coronavirus, I feared that my invocations of Asia were taking on a creeping nationalism. I turned to these magazines to correct course. By taking a transnationally Asian point of view, they were able to critique the American response without reflexively defending China or naively recycling praise of covid-19 success stories.

Yet the moral and practical force of New Naratif, New Bloom, and Lausan transcends the pandemic. As the era of covid-19 morphed into another sort of crisis, and a renewed Black Lives Matter movement went global, these outlets continued to provide guidance. Hong Kong activists relayed information on tear gas to protesters in Minneapolis while Singaporeans debated the future of their colonial monuments, inspired by the toppling of sculpted genocidaires in Philadelphia and Bristol. People everywhere seemed to be taking up similar forms of self-determination: sovereignty without nationalism; humans before the state. 

 

Ten and especially twenty years ago, the Asian media I read and wrote for were Asian American, focused on people and events within the United States. The questions posed by magazines like Hyphen and KoreAm concerned racial identity, assimilation versus acculturation, and representation in business and pop culture. Their stories tended to proclaim American belonging, tinged with inherited transpacific trauma. Asia was a distant, historical place, not a partner in dialogue. Its news and politics were not ours to wrangle with, nor did most of us have the linguistic tools to do so. 

Some of this is generational. Like most Asian Americans, my family benefited from the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which ended country-based entry quotas. Many East Asians who came in the 1970s, including my Korean parents, were poor or working class and had no reason to believe they could ever make a decent life for themselves in their home countries. Many others, from Vietnam and Cambodia, arrived as refugees, having escaped war or pogroms. 

In the intervening decades, swaths of East and Southeast Asia have grown impressively rich. The so-called Asian Tiger countries democratized and became ruthlessly capitalist. China achieved hegemonic status. Today, the largest population of foreign students in the US and Europe hails from mainland China. (This fact gained notice in early July, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement threatened to impose a partial ban on international students.)

It makes sense, then, that the Asian immigrant diaspora has become strikingly diverse. But other categories of Asians have grown, too. There are now thousands of students and workers to whom a hyphenated, traditional immigrant label does not apply; they are not merely bilingual or multilingual but split between time zones and thoroughly transnational. They may consider themselves unqualifiedly Taiwanese or Malaysian yet feel most at home in English and committed to life in Austin or Manchester. 

It’s in this context that New Naratif, New Bloom, and Lausan are best understood. All three were founded by young intellectuals and organizers who identified a need for more nuanced, politically complex, personal journalism than what they saw in Western anglophone media. For the most part, they cultivated these publications in their off-hours from work or school, seeking not financial compensation but to write their own record of current events. New Bloom, the oldest of the three, began as an outcropping of Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement, when activists occupied the legislature for eighteen days to oppose a backdoor trade deal with China. At the time, a group of Taiwanese Americans and expats in New York organized solidarity actions and later, with friends in Taipei, decided to start an online magazine to help shape American coverage. New Naratif (pronounced “narrative” in Bahasa) came next, in 2017, when three Singaporeans—Ping Tjin “PJ” Thum, Kirsten Han, and Sonny Liew—raised funds to create a media organization that, in Thum’s words, could grasp Southeast Asia as part of “the post-empire liberation movement” instead of “on a country by country, nation-state by nation-state basis.” And Lausan began as an international WhatsApp group of a dozen people, in late July 2019, as police cracked down on thousands of Hong Kongers who were protesting a law that would allow for their extradition to Beijing. 

The anti-nationalist, activist origins of these transnationally Asian publications are visible not only in their commentary across borders, but in their attention to migrants, low-wage workers, and minority groups, too. New Naratif publishes reportage, explainers, comics, and academic research in English and the occasional Bahasa translation; it produces videos; and it hosts events and workshops. The magazine operates on a membership-based model ($52 per year), supplemented by donations and philanthropic grants, to pay freelance contributors and twelve employees. New Naratif has run in-depth pieces on the Indonesian colony of West Papua, “one of the world’s longest-running military occupations”; Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s record of war-on-drugs vigilantism; unprecedented student demonstrations in Jakarta; and discrimination against migrant workers afflicted by covid-19. Earlier this year, New Naratif posted a YouTube video, “How bad laws are created and abused in Singapore,” a critique of a 2018 law that threatens free speech—in response to which the government invoked that law to force the magazine to publish a “correction” for circulating “false and misleading statements.” In early July, Singapore hit New Naratif with another “correction direction,” this time for an interview that criticized the health ministry’s covid-19 testing policy. 

New Bloom, through six years on the internet and IRL in Taipei, has aimed to push and develop a Taiwanese left in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. It has done so as an informal, nonhierarchical collective of “members,” without funding or paid staff. Daily editorial decisions are made as a group, in a rowdy Facebook chat. “Sometimes you wake up and there’s eight hundred messages,” Brian Hioe (pronounced “hue”), a Taiwanese-American writer and translator based in Taipei and a cofounder of New Bloom, told me. The magazine’s lack of money, he said, has enabled a strange kind of sustainability. “Once you have money and lose it, you shut down. Money never became an issue because we never had it.”

During the life span of New Bloom, Taiwan has seen an energized electorate, a flourishing of art, and the legalization of gay marriage, but also persistent discrimination against migrant and indigenous groups and the threat of Trumpian nabobs with electoral ambitions. Parson Young, a Marxist activist, wrote a piece warning about the rise of Terry Gou, the CEO of Foxconn, and imploring Taiwanese leftists to form new alliances with “similar working class advocates worldwide,” in the vein of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Wen Liu, a social psychology professor, queer activist, and New Bloom cofounder, wrote that Taiwan’s liminal status—China deprived it of international recognition, and the US saw it as a democratic, capitalist anomaly in the Sinosphere—suggested an autonomous way of being rather than “constantly begging in between two major imperial powers.” In April, New Bloom covered a dramatic episode in Taiwan’s exclusion from the global community: during a live interview about covid-19, Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general, was so intent on avoiding the subject of Taiwan, a non-member, that he appeared to hang up on a reporter. 

Hong Kong parallels Taiwan in its relationship to China, though the angles are sharper. Lausan has sought to document Hong Kongers’ recent democracy movement while forcing a new understanding of the city-state as a place of working-class struggle, not merely an outpost of Chinese and Western finance. Like New Bloom, Lausan is structured informally: members of a collective contribute whatever and whenever they can to the editorial workflow and take turns covering expenses. (Both Hioe and Liu of New Bloom also participate in Lausan.) “There is no business model. We’re all volunteer,” JS, a software engineer and Lausan member, told me, adding a self-deprecating laugh. “It’s something, I hope, personally, that won’t be this way forever. It’d be good to figure out a way to pay writers.” 

In the early days of the magazine, about a year ago, Lausan served to color in the bare outlines of the protests. Promise Li, a Hong Konger and graduate student at Princeton, translated a petition by an activist housewife named Dr. Wong Choi-fung calling on caregivers “to come and speak out against the extradition bill” and find commonality with similar women workers in China. In the subsequent months, through local elections, covid-19, and the announcement of a game-changing national security law imposed by Beijing, Lausan has held up Hong Kong as an internationally relevant case study. In “How to abolish the Hong Kong police,” a story published in English and Chinese five months before a white American policeman murdered George Floyd, Lausan writers Vincent Wong and Edward Hon-Sing Wong connected Hong Kong to the “Black liberation movement” and explained how law enforcement is used to maintain “an unequal race and class based social order.” Then, as Minneapolis smoldered, Lausan cohosted a live “activist exchange,” via Zoom, between Black American and Hong Kong organizers. Maya Little, of Take Action Chapel Hill, praised Hong Kongers’ resistance to the police state as a model for America.

Courtesy New Bloom magazine

 

On a Saturday evening in May (Taiwan time), New Bloom held an editorial meeting by Skype video. Most of the team was seated Asian style on the floor of a small apartment in Taipei, eating pizza and drinking beer, while others dialed in from Ohio and New York. I could only see half the Taipei group on my screen, thanks to the narrow pitch of the webcam, but a young man sitting front and center wore a standard garment of the Sunflower Movement: a black T-shirt that read, in white bilingual script, fuck the government. The scene felt like something out of a Tsai Ming-liang film—young people carving out a rebellious niche in Taipei.

The loosely organized editors, writers, filmmakers, and activists of New Bloom generally describe themselves as Marxist or anarchist, but not all of them have the same perspective on Taiwan’s future. “The minimum is to empathize with the self-determination movement,” Wen Liu told me. In the Skype meeting, New Bloom members discussed their tasks and previewed stories, as well as a video project and a podcast. Hioe, the Taiwanese-American cofounder, facilitated and gave an update on his search for an office and community-organizing space. Before the covid-19 lockdown, a friend in the restaurant business had planned to let New Bloom use a spare room; now Hioe was back to scouting random properties.

The search for space seemed metaphorical: New Bloom, Lausan, and New Naratif are attempts to locate an alternative for those most obviously stuck between the US and China. Wilfred Chan, a journalist with Lausan and a contributing writer at The Nation, recalled to me how, in 2019, Western press accounts of the Hong Kong movement were dominated by images of a small group of “pro democracy” protesters who waved US flags and appealed to Trump for help. Marco Rubio appointed himself their ally, hoping to burnish his anti-Communist credentials, and a vocal portion of the American left instinctively sided with China. “That’s why we can’t give the audience what they’re familiar with,” Chan explained. “You re-create the stereotypical world.” S.H., a native Hong Konger who works in New York as a freelance journalist, told me that, in addition to providing context in cases like the one Chan described, Lausan has given its members freedom of identity. “When I decided I wanted to become a writer, I knew I would be seen in two ways,” she told me. “I would be seen either as a ‘dissident Hong Kong writer’ writing in English who can provide some sort of native insights, or I would be seen as the ‘immigrant writer’ who belongs in America more so than in her home city. Both of those things I’m highly allergic to.” Lausan offered her both a place to publish and a political community. 

An objectivist media critic might dismiss Lausan, New Bloom, and New Naratif as ideological organs instead of journalism outlets, but they’d be wrong. Putting aside the fact that these magazines play by the usual rules of news analysis, reportage, and opinion essays, Lausan and New Naratif in particular should be read against the backdrop of media persecution in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Han, the New Naratif cofounder and a freelance reporter, told me that, in places like Laos and Brunei, it’s almost impossible to do independent reporting. Transnationally Asian media can help draw out important stories while pushing a baseline politics of freedom of expression. “The people who want to broaden out the perspectives do so because there’s a certain civil-society motivation,” Han said. 

Ellena Ekaharendy, a freelance designer and union activist in Jakarta, joined New Naratif last year as a part-time design editor. “Before New Naratif, I had very little knowledge of what was happening outside Indonesia,” she recalled. “It’s not fair to compare Indonesia to Singapore in terms of our financial conditions or resources, but in terms of people’s struggles, I think we can learn and share with each other, especially in the context of our shared history as colonized regions.” Ekaharendy happened to start working for New Naratif around the time of Indonesia’s largest social uprising since the late 1990s, in response to draconian revisions of labor and criminal laws. When she marched with activists, she said, “We really looked up to Hong Kong. Hong Kong got great international coverage, so we looked at, how did they take the streets?” She began to read Lausan and apply its lessons of “cross-border solidarity”; now she volunteers to translate its stories into Bahasa.

The staff of Lausan, New Naratif, and New Bloom told me that they hoped to do more work in multiple languages. They’re conscious of the fact that English, as the hegemonic tongue, is marked as elite and exclusive—and can thus be a barrier in organizing. H.P., a Lausan contributor in the United Kingdom, described a process of double translation or “translating outwards”: moving a story from spoken Cantonese to English and back into written Chinese. “One of the things we’re doing is giving voice and reamplifying people whose stories deserve to be told and sending the translation back and saying, ‘We published this.’ ” Her words brought to mind something the poet and translator Sasha Dugdale once told me: that multilingual text is “a very actual way of writing. It’s the state of the world we live in. So many people have two or three languages that are equally present in their consciousness.”

 

Though New Bloom, New Naratif, and Lausan are the most developed outlets of the transnationally Asian media world, they aren’t alone. Since April 2019, a newsletter and Slack channel called Chinese Storytellers has tried to create a similar community for journalists from mainland China. Two of its founders, Isabelle Niu and Shen Lu, who grew up in China and trained as journalists in the US, became friends while feeling out of place at a conference of the Asian American Journalists Association. “We realized that this small but growing group of people could bridge the gap between domestic and international news,” Niu told me. The Chinese Storytellers newsletter features a short opening essay followed by job listings, snippets on diversity in media, and links to recent work by colleagues and friends. Recent headers include “No Country for Chinese Journalists” and “Coronavirus Through a Diasporic Lens.” On Slack, people exchange job listings, discuss the frustration of doing unacknowledged reporting and translation for white journalists, and help one another navigate the US immigration system. (In early May, the Trump administration imposed a ninety-day limit on work visas for Chinese journalists.)

I wish a similar vehicle existed for transnationally minded Koreans. For a time, beginning in 2014, we had the Seoul-based Korea Exposé, which published op-eds and features on South Korean politics and society (e.g., “Ilbe: South Korea’s Angry Young Men,” “The Brooklyn of Seoul,” “S. Korea’s Politics of Betrayal and the Mirage of Conservative Unity”). It became essential when, in 2016, South Koreans staged a successful revolt against their president. As one of the website’s founders, Raphael Rashid, now a freelance reporter in Seoul, told me, Korea Exposé attracted local investors but was later abandoned for failing to turn a profit. “There’s clearly a demand for information about Korea beyond North Korea and K-pop,” he said. “More detailed, nuanced analysis.”

Korea Exposé stopped publishing last year, but its alumni have not. Rashid, for example, has since written for Elle Korea, the New York Times, and Nikkei Asian Review. The same goes for Chinese Storytellers, Lausan, New Bloom, and New Naratif; their journalists, academics, and activists are increasingly visible across anglophone media and social media, especially on the left. Lausan’s writers, for instance, have recently appeared in The Nation, Jacobin, Dissent, and The Point, reaching a segment of readers who may know the spindly contours of every socialist tendency but have little expertise on the Sinosphere. (Lausan contributors with journalistic ambitions have to write beyond the collective in order to make a living.)

If a supposed lesson of covid-19 was that every country, every individual, must become an island to survive, the early days of summer offered proof in the opposite direction. An uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, at once mournful and ecstatic, reverberated worldwide, despite the threat of the pandemic. Lausan drew a line from Hong Kong to Minneapolis and Manila; New Bloom covered solidarity protests in Taipei, staged in support of Hong Kongers and Black Lives Matter; and New Naratif published an illustrated piece on the discourse of human rights and a feature on discrimination against Sikhs in Myanmar. In these magazines’ far-reaching pages, the overlapping crises of our moment—in health and wealth; race, nation, and class—felt undeniably shared.

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E. Tammy Kim is a freelance reporter and essayist whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and many other publications. She coedited 2016’s Punk Ethnography.