I remember reaching for the first issue of aMagazine when I saw it on a drugstore newsstand more than a decade ago. Here, I thought to myself, was a magazine unlike the others that I was reading–Sports Illustrated and Newsweek, at the time. Here was a magazine that purported to speak to and for Asian Americans. Here was a magazine that, well, was supposed to be for people like me.

In the years that followed, I became an on-again, off-again reader, never subscribing but also never failing to flip through its pages when I spied copies on newsstands. I don’t recall ever being thoroughly impressed by it. To me, at least, the magazine smacked of shallow materialism and appeared too preoccupied with pop culture; I thought it was nothing more than a glossy lifestyle publication stuffed with puff profiles of Asian American celebrities. But I always appreciated its existence and visibility. At the very least, aMagazine put a new Asian American face on newsstands throughout the country six times a year, not an unremarkable accomplishment when major news magazines rarely featured Asian Americans on their covers.

So it was with ambivalence that I greeted the news of the magazine’s demise last year. aMagazine had merged with Click2Asia, a website geared toward young, Internet-savvy Asian Americans flush with cash, and when the site shut down last February, it brought down the magazine as well. aMagazine issued its own public farewell. In a terse but heartfelt statement, the staff thanked its contributors, advertisers, and subscribers. I wasn’t sure whether to feel glee or gloom.

In spite of (or because of) my initial impressions of aMagazine, I spent a few days at the New York Public Library reading back issues. At first these sessions confirmed my suspicions about the publication’s editorial direction. Most of the articles left a saccharine aftertaste, but I came to realize that, as far as Asian Americana goes, aMagazine was the best thing out there.

Not just another pretty face

aMagazine arose out of a Harvard campus publication for Asian Americans in the late 1980s. Editor Jeff Yang would become a central figure at aMagazine as co-founder, editor, and publisher. The magazine’s original aim was to fill a void not addressed by either the mainstream press (which appeared not to care about issues pertaining to Asian Americans) or the various ethnic presses (which did not cater to an English-speaking audience).

In true plucky upstart fashion, the founders set up shop in a Brooklyn basement in 1989. A trail of offices maps its ascent: Chinatown, then Soho, then Midtown. Cheap paper and a crude layout gave way to glossy elegance, then a profusion of colors and graphics. The semiannual became a quarterly, and by early 1995, aMagazine had gone bimonthly. By 1999, it enjoyed a circulation of about 180,000 and advertising sales of around $1.1 million. By any reasonable standard, the publication could be considered a success.

A quick review of the archives shows that aMagazine emulated Vanity Fair‘s formula: reel readers in with a celebrity on the cover, then run news-driven or investigative articles within. aMagazine certainly wasn’t going to sell copies by showcasing Paul Igasaki, the vice chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or Norman Mineta, the Bush administration’s transportation secretary. (To be fair, it’s not like my mug shot could ever induce anyone to cough up $3.50 either.) So sultry actress Tamlyn Tomita, heartthrob chef Ming Tsai, and tennis standout Michael Chang would have to do the hawking. Of course, whenever the stateside celebrity supply threatened to run out, the overseas reinforcements could always be shipped in: Chinese actress Gong Li or Hong Kong leading man Chow Yun-Fat.

Yang, to his credit, understood the compromise. In 1996, he acknowledged the difficulty of achieving a balance between covering social issues that were important to Asian Americans and wooing advertisers. Furthermore, he recognized the opportunity his magazine had to shine a spotlight on people of political or cultural significance who otherwise may have gone unnoticed by the national press. “There aren’t enough positive, or at least interesting Asian American role models out there,” he told the New York Times. “We want to pull the shroud off of people who have achieved, not just people who have made lots of money but who are lifelong activists or artists.”

To this end, aMagazine brought exposure to such people as emerging playwright Naomi Iizuka, novelist Lois Ann Yamanaka, and politician John C. Liu, the first Asian American elected to the City Council in New York. It also opened its pages to Karen Narasaki, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, and Christine Chen, the eventual director of the Organization of Chinese Americans, who wrote about Congressional legislation mandating an English-only rule in classrooms and the national effort to increase voter participation among Asian Pacific Americans, respectively.

Always a bad sign: an awards show

Still, that precarious balance seemed to shift away from thoughtful articles about politics and culture as the magazine increasingly emphasized lifestyle. In its later years, aMagazine ran articles on food, travel, and health on a regular basis. An advice columnist and horoscopes popped up, and fashion and style dominated the publication more and more. The magazine soon resembled a catalogue; one issue touted cashmere pillows, linen pajamas, and flannel slippers. And nothing could encapsulate aMagazine‘s preoccupation with glamour and celebrity more than the Ammy Awards, an annual gala event started in 2000 to celebrate Asian America’s presence in Hollywood. The awards allowed the magazine’s readers to nominate candidates for such categories as “Best Hollywood Picture” and “Best Performance by an Asian/Asian American Female Actor in a Cinematic Production;” winners were selected by a panel composed of Asian Americans in the entertainment industry.

Yet, amid all this bling-bling and celebrity worship, I found some inspiring, truly insightful journalism. These articles investigated important issues and painted a richer, more engaging portrait of Asian America. One such article was written by Phil Tajitsu Nash, founding executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. His clear-sighted profile in the February/March 1996 issue of Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative pundit who first gained notoriety with 1987’s Illiberal Education, highlighted the peculiar role of Asian Americans in society. “Being neither black nor white in a society with a bipolar view of race, he personifies the dilemma facing all Asian Americans,” wrote Nash. “They, like South Africa’s infamous ‘colored’ class, must submit to and support a racially unjust status quo as the price of conditional acceptance as ‘model minorities.'”

In addition, writer Terry Hong offered an intriguing exposition of the ideas of Frank Chin, the controversial literary figure and co-editor of Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers, in the February/March 1995 issue. Chin claimed that literature written by mainstream Asian American authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and David Henry Hwang are rooted in myth. “These false books are great literary flaws that only work in the Western language, that only appeal to those who believe in the Western stereotype of the Chinese,” Chin told Hong. “It’s white racist text. I mean it .  . . . Their version of Chinese America wants to be white, to think white, to marry whites, and therefore become culturally and racially extinct.” What is so remarkable about Hong’s piece is that it allows Chin to undermine the very sort of figure that aMagazine lived to venerate.

Karl Taro Greenfeld, now editor of Time Asia, wrote an article that also deserves mention. In the August/September 1995 edition, he profiled the emergence of Asian American actresses in the adult video industry. In particular, he examined the lives of porn stars Asia Carrera and Annabel Chong. I was surprised to see that aMagazine didn’t flinch from covering such a salacious topic. (Could you imagine Carrera or Chong sashaying across the red carpet to accept her Ammy Award?) It was a glimpse into the shadows of the Asian American community that presented a more wide-ranging view of Asian American identity.

Another distinguished article, published in February/March 2000, investigated the plight of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist at Los Alamos who was jailed after being accused of passing along state secrets to China. Hindsight reveals that aMagazine‘s piece ran just as Lee’s fortunes began to subtly shift, though few knew it at the time. To bring attention to this civil rights case when it did showed editorial courage and a keen sense of timing.

Out of the ashes?

I couldn’t help but detect the distinct odor of irony when I noticed that both the last issue of aMagazine and the February 18, 2002 issue of Newsweek displayed ice skater Michelle Kwan on their covers. Then I recalled that baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki had not only recently appeared on the front of aMagazine, but also on several issues of Sports Illustrated. If figures such as Kwan and Ichiro graced the covers of prominent mainstream magazines, did Asian Americans need aMagazine anymore?

After reviewing the history of aMagazine, the answer is yes. Many intriguing political, social, and cultural issues were mined–and still could be. Call me greedy, but it’s not enough just to put Asian American faces on magazine covers. Ask yourself if Newsweek or Time would ever explore controversies in Asian American literature or probe the difficulties associated with possessing an Asian American identity in the political or intellectual arenas? Or just glance at Newsweek‘s puff profile of Kwan last year: “Look for a 21-year-old L.A. babe who’s an A-list celebrity, whose boyfriend is an NHL defenseman and who abruptly canned both her longtime choreographer and her coach last year–in short, a Kwan ready to kick ice.” The piece was thorough, but nary a word about the infamous–infamous, at least, in the Asian American community–headline on MSNBC’s website after the California-born Kwan lost the gold medal to Tara Lipinski at Nagano in 1998: “American beats out Kwan.” Now, I don’t think this issue should have dominated the Newsweek piece, but I would have liked to hear Kwan’s thoughts about it (or see if she would have been willing to talk about it at all). Shedding light on the gaffe could have prevented the same error in the Seattle Times, which ran this secondary headline after Kwan lost at Salt Lake City to Sarah Hughes: “American outshines Kwan.” Whoopsy daisy.

Well, aMagazine might be on its way back. A holding company called GC3 and Associates currently owns Click2Asia and aMagazine, according to Pierre Wuu, associate partner of GC3 and CEO of Click2Asia. GC3 recently relaunched Click2Asia as an online dating site for Asians and is reviewing plans to revive aMagazine.

Unlike its first launch, however, aMagazine will have to take a look in the rearview mirror. Publications such as Yolk, which reads like a dumbed-down version of Maxim, and Giant Robot, which covers Asian pop culture cool, have gained formidable followings. An upstart magazine called Hyphen, based in San Francisco, will release its first issue this March. In contrast to Yolk and Giant Robot, Hyphen will adopt a more generalist approach, mixing serious investigative reporting with light cultural fare. More like aMagazine, in other words.

If aMagazine indeed relaunches, if Hyphen overcomes the inevitable obstacles of starting up, and if Yolk and Giant Robot continue to roll along, the competition will be exciting. The editors of each will all have to keep close tabs on the others. They may also have to vie for the same advertising dollars, and they will certainly be vying for content. The struggle may not be pretty, but collectively, the magazines would cover the Asian American community broadly and allow Asian American writers to make themselves heard on issues long ignored by America’s mainstream media.

Let the battle begin.

STORY INDEX

CONTRIBUTORS >

The writer
William S. Lin, Inthefray.com Contributor

The artist
Marvin Allegro, Inthefray.com Contributor

MARKETPLACE >
A portion of each sale goes to Inthefray.com

Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers
Edited by Frank Chin, et al | New American Library | 1974 Amazon.com

Illiberal Education
Dinesh D’Souza | Free Press | 1987 Amazon.com

ORGANIZATIONS >

National Asian American Telecommunications Association
URL: http://www.naatanet.org/
Official website

PEOPLE >

Carerra, Asia
Filmography
URL: http://us.imdb.com/Name?Carrera,+Asia

Chen, Christine
Announcement and profile
URL: http://www.ocanatl.org/news/pr05222001.html
Organization of Chinese Americans

Chong, Annabel
Filmography
URL: http://us.imdb.com/Name?Chong,+Annabel

Chow, Yun-Fat
Filmography
URL: http://us.imdb.com/Name?Chow,+Yun-Fat

Gong, Li
Filmography
URL: http://us.imdb.com/Name?Gong,+Li

Iizuka, Naomi
Profile and catalogue
URL: http://www.newdramatists.org/naomi_iizuka.htm
New Dramatists

Lee, Wen Ho
Official website
URL: http://www.wenholee.org

Liu, John C.
Official website
URL: http://www.liunewyork.com

Naraski, Karen
Profile
URL: http://www.apa.org/ppo/issues/pnarabio.html
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium

Yamanaka, Lois Ann
Profile
URL: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0880669.html

PUBLICATIONS >

aMagazine
URL: http://www.aonline.com

Vanity Fair
URL: http://www.vanityfair.com

Yolk
URL: http://www.yolk.com

Giant Robot
URL: http://www.giantrobot.com

Hyphen
URL: http://hyphenmagazine.com

Click2Asia
URL: http://www.click2asia.com

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