Justin Lee
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Banana Split

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Jasmine, Bambooda and Rice Paper are all trying to do what Banana magazine couldn't: attract second generation Asian-Canadians

t’s a late November afternoon in 2002 and Banana magazine managing editor Kuan Foo is in Toronto to meet entertainment editor Christine Miguel and other contributors. It’s going to be a depressing meeting – the day before, Foo received a disturbing phone call from editor-in-chief Mark Simon in Vancouver. Simon delivered the bad news: Banana’s sixth issue won’t hit newsstands until early 2004. The Asian-Canadian lifestyle quarterly has already skipped its fall issue, and many of its ads, not to mention articles, are time-sensitive. Foo thinks this new setback will damage the magazine’s reputation.

At the meeting, Foo relays the message. Despite their questions, he has few answers. It’s an open secret among staff that owners Simon and Jory Levitt have been feuding, but other than that explanation Foo simply tries to be honest. “I’m going back to Vancouver,” he says. “If within a week I don’t have any confidence we can get our act together, I’m leaving.”

A few days later, Foo returns to Vancouver where he speaks to various staffers, ranging from Simon and Levitt (through a lawyer) right down to sales, as well as potential investors. Foo hears the same story – the magazine has an inadequate business plan, poor organizational skills and delusions of grandeur. Banana sustained itself for a year, but Foo says the success was “smoke and mirrors” generated by publicity, press and promotional parties. “People start ascribing to you more importance than you deserve,” he says. “You start believing that.”

The initial success may have been illusory, yet Banana received nibbles from corporate advertisers such as Coca-Cola and a Versace offshoot company. The catch was the magazine would have to increase its circulation from 15,000 to 60,000 copies and its frequency from quarterly to bimonthly. It was tempting, but Foo found it unacceptable that there were no plans to compensate the magazine’s writers. “I didn’t think it could continue,” he recalls. “Either you can sit there and ride it out as it dies a slow death or you can pull the plug.” Foo then resigned as managing editor. “It’s ironic, because the reason Asian-Canadian publications and voices are important is because there aren’t many out there,” he says. “Whenever there is one, it’s anointed flavour of the month. You have to take care of the details or you’re just dooming yourself.”

Being Korean-Canadian, I share the same love-hate relationship with Asian-Canadian magazines. I genuinely want to support them, but like any magazine, the editorial must be engaging, well-written and informative. Sadly for most Asian-Canadian magazines, aiming for a large readership means degrading overall editorial quality.

The lack of advertising is significant and needs to be addressed, though. Despite their strong consumer spending habits – not to mention that they comprise 10 per cent of Canada’s population – little research has been done on Asian-Canadians, particularly second-generation. Marketing agencies continue to employ a traditional strategy: mainstream media for second-generation Asians and “in-language” ethnic media (like Chinese newspapers) for immigrants.

“Many Chinese people are still very much influenced by, and still stick to, the Chinese medium,” says Elsa Lai of Koo Creative Group, a Vancouver-based marketing agency specializing in targeting the Asian niche market. Seventy-five per cent of Chinese-Canadians in Toronto and Vancouver are foreign-born and most are either fully fluent or somewhat fluent in Chinese. “It’s more efficient to reach them through Chinese media,” says Lai.

o o o

It’s been 10 months since Foo peeled out of Banana. On the other side of the country, both floors of Revival – a stylish lounge located in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy – are filled to capacity. Over 400 twenty-somethings have gathered on a cool autumn evening in September to celebrate the launch of Jasmine, a new Asian-Canadian women’s magazine. Among those in attendance are Miguel, now a Jasmine contributor, and contributor Jaclyn Law, now Jasmine’s editorial consultant.

A Citytv cameraman films the fervent crowd from the balcony. Casually dressed guests, drinks in hand, mingle by the bar. A slim, attractive girl politely wards off the advances of a loud, obnoxious jerk. “I’m not into Asian guys anymore – they’re too possessive,” she says. On stage, local hip hop artist Masia One spits rhymes from her new single, “Halfway Through the City.” The Jasmine logo is projected directly overhead and a large catwalk lies perpendicular to the stage. Downstairs, hair and makeup stylists primp gorgeous models dressed in haute couture designed by fellow Asian-Canadian women. Their faces are painted in murky earth tones, while their hair suggests a kind of Stone Age sophistication. You can imagine them leaping with the gazelles in Africa.

Suddenly, one of the gazelles emerges from the herd. Dressed in an elegant black tube-top dress, Jasmine founder and publisher Amy Lan takes a schmooze break and sits next to me on a plush couch. She warmly tells me she hasn’t slept in 48 hours, yet shows no signs of fatigue. She wants to talk shop. “Asian-Canadian females are the most brand conscious, but the least brand loyal,” she says. “It’s because there’s never been a message catered to us in any medium. We never know if a manufacturer is talking to us, so we have to rely on our friends and our own wasted money buying stuff to know that it doesn’t work.” Lan has long seen the need for a magazine devoted to Asian-Canadian women. As a young Taiwanese-Canadian, She was disenchanted by the lack of Asians in pop culture and mainstream media. She turned to women’s magazines like Seventeen and Cosmopolitan for beauty tips, only to discover that her yellow skin tone and coarse Asian hair were not relevant.

A decade later, Lan decided to fill the void herself. Investing $25,000 in savings and applying knowledge gained from her previous job – marketing manager of Integrated Health Retailer magazine – she put together a group that researched the target market. Unlike other niches, Lan found there was little information on the Asian-Canadian community. While comprehensive subscriber lists were available for purchase from women’s magazines like Chatelaine, none reflected Jasmine’s target, 18- to 34-year-old Asian-Canadian females. So the group examined Statistics Canada findings, created online surveys, held focus groups and created awareness at special events like the Toronto International Film Festival. Eventually they built a list of 4,000 potential readers.

Lan then approached major clothing and cosmetics companies. Many viewed the Asian-Canadian market as a homogenous ethnic group fully assimilated into the mainstream. Therefore, advertising in magazines like Chatelaine and Flare would suffice. Additionally, Chatelaine’s cost per thousand is only $64, compared to Jasmine’s $333, because of Chatelaine’s higher circulation numbers (700,000 compared to Jasmine’s 15,000). Bill Shields, editor of Masthead magazine, says Jasmine will succeed only if “print advertisers believe they can’t reach [the Asian-Canadian women] demographic any other way.” Lan seems frustrated by the stubbornness of potential advertisers. “When I speak with you, I’m sure that a lot of people will agree that our complexions are different, our hair is different, our thoughts are different,” she says. “But when I’m speaking to advertisers, they don’t see it. There’s a lot of convincing to do.”

Where Banana suffered from poor management – Foo says there wasn’t a detailed business plan in place until a year after the first issue – many industry insiders, including Rice Paper president Jim Wong-Chu, consider Jasmine’s business model “rock solid.” Law agrees. “Normally when people start a magazine,” she says, “it’s a bunch of editorial people who are really excited about a concept. Amy’s background is ad sales – that’s her specialty and she’s very good at it. We had a business plan in place before anything.”

o o o

On a chilly winter evening, Miguel and Corina MacLean are on a quest for smut at Video 99, a popular Bloor Street DVD and video rental shop. The two women, bundled in winter jackets, proceed to the back where makeshift walls fence off the adult section. They read out loud the names of Asian fetish titles like Sum Yummy Sluts and Touch My Tofu in the kind of monotone reserved for the ingredients listed on a cereal box. They’re less offended than bored and eventually migrate to Suspect Video across the street, known for its selection of hentai – Japanese animated porn. They find these films considerably more disturbing than the live-action variety. Despite the animated surrealism, the films feature graphic scenes of rape and violence.

Miguel and MacLean are researching an upcoming Jasmine article on the lack of pornography available for Asian females. The topic raises the obvious question of whether Asian women even view pornography. Similarly, are second-generation Asian-Canadians even interested in magazines like Banana and Jasmine? After speaking to many Asian-Canadian female friends, the general consensus is, despite being thrilled to see a magazine catering solely to them, most wouldn’t buy it. Criticisms include mediocre writing, uninspired or trivial topics and an overall lack of focus. Even Jasmine’s own Miguel is not impressed. “There’s no central article that makes me want to pick up the magazine,” she says. “[The first issue] was very scattered. Jasmine’s still trying to find its footing.”

Lan admits that the magazine is more of “a leisure read” than hard-hitting, because it is intended to be a fashion/beauty title. She wants readers to be “well-rounded” and to better themselves spiritually, emotionally, physically and professionally. “It’s something that you read to feel good about yourself,” says Lan. “If you want to read some hardcore news, you can go to Newsweek, you can go to Maclean’s.”

In its spring 2004 sophomore effort, Jasmine flexes more editorial muscle. The issue includes a young woman’s account of visiting her ancestral village in China, depression among young Asian women and profiles of Asian-Canadian women in the arts, including playwright Nina Aquino. Law cites Marie Claire, which has published stories about female genital mutilation and cosmetic surgery scams, as an influence. While it looks considerably better than the first issue, Jasmine has a way to go before it can compete with Marie Claire.

Providing relevant, appealing content is daunting for any Asian-Canadian magazine, from the lifestyle magazines of Banana and its American counterparts – the now-defunct aMagazine and Yolk – to the specialized niche magazines Jasmine and Rice Paper. Both aMagazine and Yolk (a Maxim-like magazine for Asian-Americans) underwent significant shifts in editorial policy and were criticized for appealing more to advertisers than readers. The once hard-edged, political aMagazine, which started in 1989, dumbed down its content after a couple of years to attract more advertising.

Banana, on the other hand, mutated into an edgier, socially conscious magazine. Foo developed editorial that appeased advertisers without compromising journalistic integrity. In what was to be its winter 2003 issue, the magazine delved into the parent-child conflict of intra-Asian dating, the controversial 2002 Vancouver police-inflicted assault of an Asian immigrant and traditional Japanese erotic art. Foo says Asian-Canadian magazines can fall into two categories: trivial and mindless, or serious and pretentious. He mentions the arts-literary publication Rice Paper as an example of the latter. Initially created by Foo in 1995, the then-newsletter was published by the Asian Canadian Writer’s Workshop. A few years later – long after Foo’s departure – Rice Paper got a government grant to transform the newsletter into a quarterly magazine. It became a dry read, covering mostly “academic” subject matter. “You have to maintain a sense of humour about yourself,” Foo says. “Otherwise you’re going to lose your appeal to a broader readership.”

Foo believes there are enough commonalities among Asian-Canadians to attract a significant readership for a general interest magazine, despite differences in ethnicity, income, age, politics and religion. “People who come from Asian backgrounds have some common experiences in terms of relationships with their parents and values,” says Foo. “We’re a visible minority that’s not represented in popular culture, despite our numbers.”

While Asian culture has surfaced throughout popular culture in film (Kill Bill), music (Emm Gryner) and literature (Memoirs of a Geisha), these images offer one-dimensional and sometimes racist depictions of Asians. Hollywood has reduced us to the kung-fu fighting, sexually-repressed, overly passive computer geek. This only reinforces the need for a strong Asian-Canadian perspective.

o o o

In December 2002, upon learning of Foo’s resignation, Miguel and art director Dennis Chui handed in their letters. The feud between publishers Simon and Levitt escalated. When Simon tried to fire Levitt as partner, Levitt threatened him with a lawsuit. In July 2003, Simon filed for bankruptcy after losing $240,000 of his own money. In August, Masthead reported Simon was seeking “sanity and contemplating several new business ideas, including another magazine.”

Meanwhile, the editorial and creative staff channeled their bitterness into a positive outlet. Former Banana writers – led by Foo – started a new Asian-Canadian lifestyle magazine called Bambooda. Although partial to the aesthetic and tangibility of print, they didn’t have the financial resources to pull it off. After brainstorming for low-cost alternatives, they settled on a portable document format-based (PDF) magazine. The political, tongue-in-cheek humour of the lifestyle quarterly received an encouraging response from readers in the U.S., Asia and Europe. The second issue reached 16,000 downloads after its first week.

Foo says Bambooda is meant to be non-profit and volunteer-run. He’s still not sure whether commercial success is realistic for an Asian-Canadian magazine. “You’d have to scale back your ambition,” he says guardedly. “If you’re trying to be big, you have to attract major league advertisers. And you don’t get major league advertisers without the circulation. And you don’t get money to pump your circulation without the major league advertisers. There has to be something there that will appeal to more than just your niche market.”

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