Hyphen hosts a group show at Space Gallery in San Francisco in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Albert Law/Pork Belly Studio)

Hyphen hosts a group show at Space Gallery in San Francisco in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Albert Law/Pork Belly Studio)

What’s in a name? Asian American magazine fights to keep its identity

An investor-backed media group laid claim to the moniker of SF’s long-running Hyphen magazine, sparking a conversation about writing over community history

By Grace Z. Li and Ida Mojadad

On the cusp of its 18th birthday, Hyphen — a San Francisco-founded indie magazine dedicated to amplifying Asian American perspectives — received an unpleasant surprise.

Andrew Kuo and Kareem Rahma — former executives at A+E Networks, the New York Times, and VICE — were launching Hyphen Media, a new podcasting company with considerable investor backing and a similar moniker and mission: to “tell colorful stories” by underrepresented voices. Even its logo bore some resemblances to the nearly two-decade-old magazine’s.

“Someone on Twitter was like, it kind of looks like if the Hyphen logo was faxed and it got jammed,” Karissa Chen, Hyphen’s editor-in-chief, says. To Chen, the overlapping name felt like a “slap in the face” because the media company’s branding looked so similar to her own volunteer-led “scrappy” magazine, to the point of confusing longtime readers who thought Hyphen was starting a podcast. That was not the case — Hyphen (the magazine) is not connected to Hyphen Media at all.

It is unclear whether the emerging media company was aware of the magazine’s existence prior to its founding. Hyphen Media declined to provide on-the-record responses to press inquiries, except to confirm it agreed to change its name, which already had been trademarked by Hyphen the magazine. This came after online backlash from longtime Hyphen readers and correspondences with the Hyphen staff.

And while Hyphen editors and the to-be-renamed Hyphen Media were able to come to an “amicable resolution,” the debacle opened up a conversation about what it means for communities of color in the United States to write over their own history.

“It erases the extraordinary amount of community labor that has gone into Hyphen,” Melissa Hung, the founding editor of Hyphen, says. “It’s not just a magazine — it’s an incubator that has mentored hundreds of creators and community folks and gave a lot of people their first chance at being published.”

When Hung took to Twitter to express her concern, she ignited a wave of social media outcry by famed 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, shining its light and warmth on the AAPI communities, as it has done brilliantly for many years,” Zia tweeted. Several pointed out how the magazine’s readership already had been parsing issues of pan-Asian identity for nearly two decades in a way mainstream media is only starting to consider, all while doing so on a “shoestring budget.”

“People showed up for us,” Chen says. “They can try to erase us — but the community that we serve knows.”

Asian America Means Home

Hyphen, the magazine, and Hyphen Media, the audio company, shared plenty of similarities from the get-go: They share the same name and mission for uplifting diverse stories through media by Asian American founders.

But while Hyphen Media launched with a string of names of investors that would be backing the project, Hyphen the magazine — founded in 2002 as a budding media project between 30 Bay Area activists and local journalists — historically has been underfunded and under-resourced. It is the very definition of “a labor of love.” (Which, as Hung noted online, came overwhelmingly from women.)

In 2015, Hyphen had to halt its print issue because of budget constraints. Local fundraising events such as Mr. Hyphen, a pageant that challenged conceptions of Asian American masculinity, were put on hold because of the massive effort it would require from its volunteer staff.

“For more than a decade, I literally worked for 20 to 30 hours a week on top of having a full-time job,” Hung says. “Many other people put in hours like that because of the beliefs and the mission of sharing more nuanced and complex stories of Asian Americans. And there wasn’t really anything like it.”

The early aughts were a long time away from 2018, when the Crazy Rich Asians era launched a new impetus for Asian American representation in the mainstream. But well before Hollywood took notice, Hyphen already was doing the work of carving out a space for “Asian America unabridged,” as their motto goes. It was a starting ground 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 accept our stories, and that was a powerful and positive start,” Nina F. Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, told SF Weekly via email, adding that Hyphen was “pivotal” to her career.

She’s not alone in that sentiment. Pulitzer Prize finalist (and former SF Weekly staff writer) Bernice Yeung says she learned “crucial lessons” about the importance of diversity in reporting that she’s applied to her journalism career ever since. Vogue editor Lisa Wong Macabasco recalled that her time at Hyphen gave her the confidence she needed to edit for a national magazine and understand the merit of her own voice. Amy Zhang, a producer on the Hasan Minhaj-hosted comedy news program Patriot Act, grew as an editor at Hyphen. And the magazine gave freelance photographer An Rong Xu one of his “first chances” and served as “wind beneath 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 always has been a place for radical stories and emerging artists. “If we go back to early issues, when they were still in print, they did everything from economic justice — that members of our community face that aren’t talked about because of the model minority myth — to questions of sexuality, gender fluidity, and identity,” Vincent Pan, executive director at Chinese for Affirmative Action, says. “A lot of the ways we make progress in the API community both in terms of how we’re understood and how we understand one another — that goes directly to Hyphen.”

One example Chen cites is “Against ‘Fire and Fury,’” an interview series Franny Choi conducted on the impact that rising tensions between the United States and North Korea would have on Korean Americans. Most mainstream American news media interviewed foreign policy experts — few considered the ramifications that sanctions and political threats would have on everyday people in the Korean diaspora. “Sometimes, we published stories on topics that we’d see in the New York Times, three years later,” Momo Chang, a senior contributing editor at Hyphen, said to SF Weekly in an email.

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

And, aside from serving the community, Hyphen worked to create it. Nearly every person SF Weekly reached out to recalled the “life-long friends” and community they made at Hyphen. UC Santa Barbara professor erin Khue Ninh recalls the “vibrant camaraderie” she felt at the magazine — where “Asian America means home”: “It’s that kind of sense of possibility I want to midwife for my students, where they don’t have to fret about whether Asian American identity is real; they know it is, and they know they’re creating it.”

Short Memory

As much as Hyphen cultivated and welcomed Asian American creatives where typical gatekeepers may not have, the magazine had community history to thank for getting it to that point.

When Hyphen started, Hung says, founders made it a point to reach out to veteran journalists and others with a longstanding history in the community. Instead of starting from scratch, the following generations benefit from the “wealth of knowledge” that comes with that experience being passed on.

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

Even as ethnic studies options expand in colleges across the nation, basic histories about people of color in the United States already are tough to find in the country’s Eurocentric education system. Oftentimes, younger generations must seek that information scattered throughout an increasingly vast internet ecosystem. So when that knowledge gap comes from someone within the same community, it veers into self-sabotage.

“There’s already so much erasure of our communities happening in this country because of the systemic racism that Asian Americans don’t have to do,” Chen says. “To do more of that within our community — to erase the work that people within our community have done by other Asian Americans — I think is what is most hurtful. Because why are we doing that work for the system that is already existing to do that?”

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 upon the community work that made this initiative possible in the first place.

“It’s already so hard to make space for our stories, to make space for our people to do this work,” Chen says. In a hopeful world, Chen would be able to pay her contributors at the market rate for their writing and pay her volunteer staff something. “Why aren’t we sharing these resources to lift each other up so that we all can continue to do this work? So that we can build upon the people who have come before us? That to me is the deeper thing that’s troubling.”

This story was originally published in SF Weekly, The Examiner’s sister publication.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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