Writing the wrongs
Volunteers are working against the odds to produce a magazine that gives disadvantaged women a voice, writes Katie Lau
It's a women's magazine with a difference. There are no pages devoted to fashion, beauty, horoscopes or celebrity gossip. Instead, they deal mainly with topics such as discrimination against ethnic minorities. Nuliu is an unusual publication in Hong Kong: not only is it a feminist journal, it's still going after more than 20 years.
No ideological mouthpiece, the bimonthly magazine aims to provide a vital platform for alternative opinions and cultivates contributions from housewives and disadvantaged women. 'Feminism is also about making space for others to express themselves. It's a way of showing care towards society,' says Mabel Au Mei-po, a feminist organiser who joined Nuliu's editorial team in 1996.
But being entirely reliant on volunteers, the magazine launched by the Association for the Advancement of Feminism has always had to struggle to survive.
'It's incredibly difficult to keep producing something on schedule when people are coming and going all the time, says Au. 'Volunteers bow out for different personal reasons. They might go for further studies or get married.'
Run by a succession of like-minded academics, social workers and journalists, Nuliu was twice forced to stop publishing - in 1992 and 2002 - because there weren't enough volunteers. Each time it led to a four-year hiatus.
'It takes a toll on you to keep at something like this non-stop. So when there was no new blood on the horizon, we just had to give up,' says long-time volunteer Wendy Hon Siu-wan, who joined Nuliu just before the second break.
However, the volunteers' determination and passion revived the publication, which will hold a sharing session with readers on Sunday to mark International Women's Day. 'I couldn't stand to see it end like that,' says Hon, a social worker. 'Whenever we get everything done for the new issue and see it go to print, we're just relieved and happy beyond words. It's what keeps us going.'
Long-time reader Linda Wong Sau-yung is particularly impressed by the gritty and realistic stories that expose social injustice and exploitation of the disadvantaged. 'It's very powerful in the way that they reveal the humanity and struggles involved,' says Wong, executive director of the Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women. 'I like theoretical discussion but as a pragmatic feminist, I'm keen to find out what's happening to the people.'
Her work with victims of sexual violence gives her a rapport with the magazine, Wong says. 'It cheers me to think I am not alone, as women's organisations are seldom recognised for what they do.'
The magazine has been something of a trailblazer. 'There are many women's groups in Hong Kong, but most do not care to advocate feminism because they are too comfortable,' says Ip Iam-chong, a cultural studies lecturer at Lingnan University.
'Nuliu is groundbreaking for its time. Feminism has yet to be a major movement here, but its survival is no mean feat. The social climate for such a feminist journal is less than accommodating and alternative publications usually find it very hard to survive in Hong Kong.'
After years of distributing for free, the magazine began charging in 2006 to gauge interest and help cover production costs, and now sells for HK$20. 'We're not hoping to make money. We'd be happy just to break even,' says Au.
Lacking government support, however, the editorial team must work to ensure the magazine has the funds to carry on. Fortunately, a fund-raising dinner held last October brought in more than HK$50,000, which will cover costs for the next two years. 'As long as we have enough people on the team, we'll get the money somehow, no matter how hard it is,' says Au.
Recalling Nuliu's first revival a decade ago, when the magazine was at its liveliest, Au says: 'It was a crazy time. We were highly productive and never got tired, expanding the content to include topics like film, art and culture.'
The team is keen to increase the magazine's circulation and raise its print run from 1,000 copies, but says there will be no compromise on editorial integrity. 'We won't change our direction for the sake of raising our profile,' says Hon.
But their approach has changed to reflect the team's varied interests and a new outlook gained from each forced hiatus. From the initial theory-driven slant, the magazine now incorporates profiles and slice-of-life features as well as fiction. The editorial panel of about 20 volunteers takes turns to edit and decide on features for each issue.
'We approach issues from a feminist perspective whenever we can,' says Au. 'Of course, not everything has to carry that meaning, but we hope to provide different perspectives that are not available in the mainstream media, which tends to be narrow-minded and repetitive.'
Since resuming publication two years ago, Nuliu has built a corps of about 30 citizen reporters, mostly housewives. 'We might be good at writing and social observation, but who knows better about what goes on in the communities than these housewives? We also want to reach out to more grass-roots readers with content they can relate to, rather than material that's too scholarly,' says Au.
Tuen Mun housewife Polly Luk Sin-king is among the contributors nurtured through the magazine's workshops. A mother of two, Luk says the workshops on topics such as writing, photography and field observation enabled her to fulfil her dream of being a reporter. 'I gave up many personal ambitions to raise my family.'
A member of the Green Women Current group and a volunteer at her local community centre, Luk says she prefers writing about community issues than going for dim sum with other housewives. She has contributed personal accounts of the events she joined, including a drive to advocate environmentally-friendly detergent and protests against plans to build an incinerator in Lung Kwu Tan.
'I'm not just concerned about women's issues; I also want to expose the situation in our community,' Luk says. 'I'd care about the community even if I weren't reporting.'
Reflecting on the magazine's endurance, Au says: 'We're still here because although women's income and social status has risen over the years, it cannot solve many of the problems they face today. It's easy for the new generation, who enjoy better material comforts, to forget that the situation for low-income women is not improving. It's important to remind them of the growing complexity of the issues now. For example, gender inequality no longer manifests itself in an economic context but in sexuality and culture.'
But Au and her colleagues are encouraged by the more vibrant feminist scene, citing organisations such as now-defunct anti-slimming pressure group Gutsy Women, rape crisis centre Rainlily and Ziteng, a sex worker concern group. 'Over the last decade many women's groups of different orientations have formed. Women are more inspired and it's exhilarating,' says Au.
I read Nuliu; Nuliu reads me: reader sharing session (in Cantonese). Kubrick (next to Broadway Cinematheque), 3 Public Square St, Yau Ma Tei, Sun, Mar 9, 3pm-4.30pm. Inquiries: 2720 0891