So Long, and Thanks for All the Fishballs
After 25 wonderful years, HK Magazine is drawing the shutters on the ol’ dai pai dong of life. We remember the milestones… and some (minor) mistakes.
A New Voice for Hong Kong
1991: Starting Out
HK Magazine was founded in 1991 by three expats: Steve Freeman, Gretchen Worth and Greg Duncan. Frustrated by the fact that he was always finding out about parties the day after they’d happened, Duncan invited the other two to Hong Kong to set up the magazine. The founders claim the magazine’s initial budget was all of $3. It was run out of Duncan’s apartment for the first two years, heavy with the smell of industrial adhesive.
Issue 1 of HK Magazine dropped in June 1991. It was the first free-distribution English-language magazine in Asia, and the skeleton of the magazine you’re holding today was there—complete with event listings and restaurant reviews. It seems Al’s Diner, Grappas, and Tai Ping Koon have survived us… and that’s about it.
1992: Just the Tip
Ah, the early days. When the internet didn’t exist and so the best way to get information… was to call the HK Magazine events hotline. P.S.: We’ve tried to call this number. It doesn’t work anymore.
1994: Going Hollywood
After a few years in a dingy Stone Nullah Lane office, HK moved to an office on the corner of Hollywood Road and Possession Street in Sheung Wan. For the next 21 years HK Mag reported on the food, music and culture scene from the heart of the city. A stint at HK Mag as an intern became a rite of passage for many of the city’s most talented young people. And the monthly HK Mag balcony parties became legendary. The company—Asia City Media Group—spread to other markets, opening in Shanghai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.
2013: Sales Force
In 2013, the Hong Kong arm of the group was sold to the South China Morning Post, and a couple of years later we moved from our Hollywood Road offices to join the mothership in Tai Po.
2013: Now You are 1000
In July 2013, HK Magazine hit its 1,000th issue. We celebrated with an enormous bumper edition packed with 1,000 reasons to love Hong Kong, which stemmed from one hell of a spreadsheet (not counting the false start because not everyone on the team was great at spreadsheets).
To accompany that milestone we threw a party that’ll go down in history for (mostly) the right reasons. The theme: Hong Kong Hipster. The location: an alleyway next to the Excelsior Hotel. The time: Hong Kong summer. The cooling fans: insufficient. The whole city turned out and it was sweaty, glorious fun. There was even a splinter party which took over the air-conditioned furniture shop next door. Oh, and someone peed on a bus. In full view of the bus.
2015 Signs of the Times
Magazines need to be refreshed from time to time, and HK Magazine has seen a few changes along the way. In September 2015 we redesigned the magazine with an all-new look that put an emphasis on cleaner lines and more dynamic images. Our cover story that week went viral across the internet, as we looked at the how little Hong Kong’s median wage of $14,800 a month would actually buy you. The answer? 10,000 fishballs—or maybe you could rent a shoebox in Causeway Bay.
2016 Hot, Sexy, Internet Action
In early 2016 we redesigned and relaunched our website, and damn it looked fine. Thanks to some hard work from our web design team—and plenty of sleepless nights—we went from something that looked like a legacy of the 2000s (because it was) to a modern, sexy, image-friendly site. And we can tell you, the backend was SO much better there aren’t even words.
2016 Today & Tomorrow
In an interview for the 15th anniversary issue in 2006, founder Steve Freeman said that “What Hong Kong wanted in 1991 isn’t that different from what it wants today. It wants individual voices, voices to stand up for people instead of promoting the voices of government and other special interests. They want a free and open and democratic and fair society. None of that’s changed that much.” We’re honored to have been that voice for Hong Kong. We’re proud of the work we’ve done, and proud to have been part of the singular, amazing city we’ve celebrated and championed over the years.
Champions of the City
HK Magazine has always prided itself on being more than just a lifestyle rag. We don’t just talk about food and drink, gigs and parties—we’re also deeply concerned with the city. That’s why we’ve long been proud champions of heritage conservation, foreign domestic workers’ rights, the environment and the dangers of pollution, LGBTI rights and democracy. Through it all we’ve been a consistently proud, progressive voice in the city. This deep connection with the city is exemplified by what became one of our most popular covers of all time—Pierre Pang’s wonderful painting of Wan Chai’s Blue House.
Don’t Fear the Daft
Some weeks we decided that we just didn’t really want to work that hard, so we’d do a silly issue. As it turns out, these issues actually took way more work than the standard ones. You’d think we’d learn, wouldn’t you? Two particular favorites are January 2007’s Future Issue, set in the far future and written by robo-versions of the writers, and 2013’s Yo! HK Raps! Issue, in which pretty much everything was in rap form. Word.
We’re intensely proud of our independent political coverage of the city; we were never afraid to tell it as we saw it. From our documenting of the community that grew up around the Occupy site in Central, to our coverage of the new voices in the student movements, to our assertion that Hong Kong didn’t (and doesn’t) need a Chief Executive, but a mayor—we’ve been proud to criticize, to push, to provoke and to make fun whenever we thought it mattered. Most of the time—it did.
…and a Few Cock-ups
2012: May you Live in Dubious Times
HK Magazine has always prided itself on its Dubious Achievement Awards, our annual December roundups of what we called “The year in stupid.” Each year we reminded the city of its ignoble achievements… But it came back to bite us in the ass the time we, um, spelled the word “achievement” wrong on the cover. In two different ways. People noticed—and thought we were being deliberately meta. If only we hadn’t scrambled to fix it in the online version…
2009: Incorrectness Gone Mad
In his politics and humor column “Politically Incorrect,” columnist Chip Tsao said some things about the city’s Filipino population which were taken the wrong way. HK Magazine’s offices got picketed. Manny Pacquaio threatened to punch him. The magazine and Tsao both apologized soon after.
You Must Remember This…
HK Magazine’s current staff on the shuttering of a legend.
“My relationship with HK Magazine in a professional capacity only began in February 2015 but my emotional connection with it started way back in the halcyon days of clubbing in the early 90s. HK Magazine was one of the must-read magazines if you wanted to be perceived as hip. I’m truly devastated. All I can say is it’ll leave a noticeable absence in my life and everyone else’s.”—Luisa Tam, Editor-in-Chief
“My first ever job was at HK Magazine, 10 years ago. I was a 18-year-old intern with an ego the size of a planet. The editor said I could have the job, on one condition: ‘Don’t be a dick.’ I’ve tried hard to live up to that advice. (My ego? Still huge.) I’ve come back time and time again. It’s taught me to write and to love this amazing, implausible, phenomenal city. We’ve been snarky, opinionated, fiercely loyal to Hong Kong—and independent to the end. Long live HK Mag, in your hearts and minds. We aren’t going anywhere.”—Adam White, Senior Editor
“My first encounter with HK Mag was in 2001. I found it nimble and irreverent, never trying too hard to seem cool. When the chance came to work with them, I jumped at it. It turned out to be even more fun than I’d imagined, thanks largely to the team—a more talented, caring and downright hilarious bunch you could not hope to meet. Now, as we find ourselves scattered to the four winds, I wish them the best of all things. It has been a privilege.”—Dave Vetter, Editor
“6+ years, 324 issues, 180 covers, one of the most important periods in my life, a deep debt of gratitude.”—Pierre Pang, Senior Art Director
“I feel so privileged to have been part of a Hong Kong institution, a magazine that’s meant so much to so many people and has touched and transformed the community. Thanks so much to our readers, and to my colleagues for never compromising on the quality, integrity and creativity of the mag week after week!”—Leslie Yeh, Features Editor
“I’ve been reading this magazine since I was little, and I always thought how cool it’d be to work there. The journey still feels unfinished, but it has made some of the most amazing memories in my career—from interviewing celebrities to jetting off to London for just one night, to collecting the heritage of the best city in the world.”—Xavier Ng, Custom Publishing Editor
“HK Magazine seems like an unlikely choice of reading material for a schoolgirl dressed in a blue cheongsam—but I made sure to pick a copy up after school every Friday from the hair salon near my home. Going from reader to writer has been a teenage dream come true.”—Stephanie Tsui, Reporter
“Thank you HK Magazine for letting me catch Pokémon at work, yanking me into the world of nightlife and hangovers, introducing me to a whole new realm of sexual innuendos ('tossing off' vs 'tossing back'?), and, ah, the 4pm vodkas. Thanks for the memories.”—Sophia, Assistant Chinese Editor
“My first encounter with HK Magazine was at secondary school, when my English teacher would bring in copies for us to read (with the ‘Savage Love’ pages torn out, of course), calling it the only authentic voice of the English media. Little did I know that years later that I would be part of that voice, part of a team of awesome, dedicated people that made my first job memorable.”—Kate Lok, Contributor
“See you for Issue No. 2000!”—Kay Leung, Senior Graphic Designer
“ARRRR!! It is hard to say goodbye to HK Magazine. I am glad to be a part of this happy fun family! THANK YOU HK-MAGAZINE!! <3”—Wing Chan, Graphic Designer
“Will really be missing the days at HK… ‘bye bye your tail!’”—Elaine Tang, Graphic Designer
“I am the same age as HK Magazine and this is my first full-time job! It’s been my pleasure to work for HK Mag, for I truly love what I do. I will miss you all, my friends...”—Joyce Kwok, Graphic Designer
“Chairman Mao said, 天要下雨，娘要出嫁，由他去吧。 [‘Rain will fall. Widows will remarry. Why hinder [it]?’] HK Magazine 不再拋頭露臉了 [won’t show its face again].”—Kelly Cheung, Production Supervisor
“We are HKers. We love this city. Let’s continue to embrace Hong Kong!”—Pauline Wan, Senior Marketing Manager
“Goodbye? Oh no... please! Can’t we go back and press reset?”—Janice Fung, Marketing Manager
“Just because I let you go, doesn’t mean I wanted to.”—Ricardo Ng, Marketing Executive
Goodbye to All That
Former HK Mag staffers recall the good (?) old days…
“HK Magazine gifted me the best job I ever had. What other Hong Kong institution would encourage you to scrutinize the status quo and its injustices, try trendy restaurants and bars, and interview everyone from Cantopop stars to hawkers? Hong Kong is losing the voice of one loving yet critical auntie this week. I am devastated to see it go.”—Hana Alberts, Deputy Editor
“At our annual Christmas party, a drunk staffer railing against the world: ‘IT’S ALL FUCKED!!!’”
“I was managing editor when HK Magazine fought its way through the 2003 SARS crisis. We wore masks to work, held our own salaries and drew cover art with crayons. It was a true alternative weekly, one that was equally critical of both terrible restaurants and overbearing politicians.”—Joyce Lau, Managing Editor
“A staff writer locked herself in the conference room and refused to be fired.”
“Some quotes from [Founder] Steve Freeman on how to edit a magazine: When a reader looks at a magazine (or website) their first question is “what’s this?” Their next question is “What’s in it for me?” If those two questions cannot be answered in one millisecond you have lost the reader. Save readers time, effort and money and they will love you. Everything is for the reader. Our job is the delivery of joy. Use the word “fuck” once a month, just to wake readers up. Stop with the three star reviews. Readers want five stars or one star. A good magazine has a heart. it is kind. It cares. Hire whoever you like as long as they are very smart or very cute.”—Tom Hilditch, Editorial Director
“The intern who stole the Managing Editor’s phone at an office party, and didn’t wipe it before bragging on social media about his new iPhone. Intrepid detective work led to the editor’s spouse storming into a bar and pulling it out of a headphone socket—the ex-intern was using the phone to DJ.”
“My fondest memory is when we were just a scrappy group of alternative journalists writing about democracy while subsiding almost exclusively on free mooncakes and stockpiles of ArtWalk booze.”—Zach Hines, Editor-in-Chief
“One of the founders owed everyone a bunch of money and then skipped town.”
“We used to have a communal sharing table on the editorial side of the office, which had been piling up with months and months of press samples, gifts and long-overdue food. I had been at HK Mag for two weeks, and just before Christmas break I decided to take one for the team and tidy and wipe down the whole table once and for all. I ended up getting diagnosed with hand, foot and mouth disease over Christmas weekend through to New Year’s. Lesson learned: no more office hygiene martyrdom.”—Evelyn Lok, Film Editor
“An intern lived under his desk for a few nights because he was homeless, and no one knew.”
“When I interviewed neo-pop artist Romero Britto, I lamented about how I couldn’t afford his art in hope of getting a discount. But he did something better: he drew a portrait of me.”—Penny Zhou, Arts Editor
“We once ran a cover story titled ‘Hong Kong's God Problem.’ Religious groups threatened to sue, advertisers pulled out, and I thought we were going to be struck down by lightning. But we lived to sin another day. God bless HK.”—John Robertson, Features Editor
“Someone once applied for a job at the magazine, saying he really needed it because he was turning tricks to make ends meet. The interviewer felt so bad… they give him an energy bar.”
“I love how HK Magazine helped to shape Hong Kong’s popular lexicon - we coined NoHo, PoHo, K-Town and The Dark Side and, for a brief period, Cougar Alley (Wyndham Street) to name just a few. We also made ‘Asiapean’ happen, for better or for worse. I’m most proud of the stories that we did that actually helped to change things in Hong Kong. For example, our former Deputy Editor Winnie Yeung basically saved Wing Lee Street from being demolished after we ran her story on its inevitable (or so we thought) demise. I’m also proud of the fact that we never minced our words when it came to calling bullshit. I don’t think there was ever another publication that dared to be as honest as HK.”—Sarah Fung, Managing Editor
“One morning the Editor got to work to discover that someone had shat in his drawer. A far-reaching investigation was launched, but it took two years to track down the culprit. And no, we’re not telling you who it was.”
“We were there opposite Chachawan and 208 before Sheung Wan became Sheung Wan, working on a weekly that defined the city and its scene. Our theatrically tumultuous times at HK Mag involved cockroaches in phones, shit in desks, a basic bitch caught plagiarising in-situ—TWICE—who then still got hired at a competing publication. Oh how I miss the hot mess, hotter gossip, the fusterclucks and camaraderie.”—Johannes Pong, Dining & Nightlife Editor
“The weekly sphincter-clenching moment on Friday evenings as Steve Freeman meticulously closed an issue… him standing on a table before bemused staff screaming ‘I want sales… give me sales!’ … Every day was an adventure with balcony drinks to clear away the drama and more hangovers than the ‘Barfly’ column…”—Scott Murphy, Senior Writer
“The intern who debated libertarianism with the office—and then spent a lunchtime trying to sell the editor Herbalife.”
“There was nothing more Hong Kong than HK Mag. Now it’s gone and I fear Hong Kong is disappearing as well.”—Yalun Tu, “The Straight Man” columnist
“I spent 12 amazing years with HK Magazine. What made it work were the people that passed through its doors. There was a passion inside the company rarely seen. It came from the founders down to the editors, designers, sales and marketeers and every intern. We could tell the story, put it in perspective, yet add our unique touch of humor. We were successful because our readers were addicted to our content and they trusted us.”—Greg Crandall, Publisher
“An intern fell in love with one of the writers, and tried to get another intern who was sitting closer to deliver daily updates on what he was doing.”
“The immense feeling of relief after wrapping up a double issue—finishing two weekly issues in one week's time. A lightbox check [going through the completed magazine] without catching a single error. Weirdly themed Christmas parties. Seeing colleagues getting drunk at balcony drinks.”—Adele Wong, Senior Associate Editor
What Might Have Been…
Stories and stuff we wanted to do, but never got around to.
1. Water People. We wanted to go hang out with the people who live and work on the water, but we never got our ass in gear. Whoops.
2. The Expat is Dead. Hong Kong’s international elites are no longer the besuited, red-faced Englishmen of yore, and the entire notion of “The Expat” is woefully outdated. What’s wrong with “immigrants,” anyway?
3. Facing Off. Two famous people, two differing opinions, one amusing photoshoot.
4. What’s with all the French? Seriously, they’re EVERYWHERE. (OK, we know it’s all about the tax breaks, but this Frong Kong situation is off the hook.)
5. Naked Ambition. Interviews with famous people, naked, the idea being that they would bare their souls and bodies alike. Hamstrung by the fact that no one wanted to get their kit off.
6. At least 10,000 more jokes about CY Leung. Obviously.
…What Might Still Be
What if HK Magazine had stayed open? We’ve projected our covers forward into the future…
2017: New CE, new excuse for listicle about mustaches
2047: Did Hong Kong survive?