Zines: The Rise of Hong Kong’s Underground Publications

Holly Callaghan works as a liaison librarian at London’s Tate Modern, the stern-looking, power plant-turned-art gallery that houses some of the world’s most prestigious works by Dalí, Magritte, Miró and Picasso. But when she travelled to Hong Kong this year to speak at the launch of a new collection in the Asia Art Archive (AAA), it wasn’t for fine art—it was for zines.

Zines can be traced to the homespun booklets that were produced and printed by science fiction fans in the 1930s, a time of great economic upheaval and political instability. Science and technology were reshaping the world, and fanzines became a way of responding to, rationalising and questioning this fascinating yet disturbing period of transformation.

They maintained that purpose over time, becoming an outlet for any number of subcultures, from punk rockers to gay rights activists to cartoonists who chafed at the mainstream comics industry. There are no set standards as to what defines a zineit can be anything from stapled-together photocopies to a more carefully printed and bound publication.  “People’s impression of zines is that they’re cheap,” says Callaghan, a zine artist—“zinester”—herself. “In general, they don’t have ISBNs or ISSNs, are not for profit, promoting an artist’s name, require no skill or publishing experience in the making, and not concerned with structures or formats.”

AAA collection manager Elaine Lin says zines “make the invisible visible.” In an article that explores the history and significance of zines, artist-researcher Elaine W. Ho and writer-researcher Ming Lin from Display Distribute give credit to the punk rock scenes in Europe and the United States for pioneering the rough-hewed aesthetic that most people associate with zines today. Armed with newly affordable photocopying machines, punks in the 1970s channelled their anti-establishment views into underground publications. Similar to the earlier generation of sci-fi fanzines, punk zines were characterised by what Lin calls the “‘fandom’-binding attribute” of blending news with band reviews. Thanks to “the socio-politically charged nature of punk subcultures,” she writes, “zine production became a mobilising and unifying medium for sharing outspoken political commentary and anarchist allegiances.”

Asia Art Archive zine collection. Photo courtesy Stephen Lam.

That tradition continues today. One recent example is Fear Brown Queers, published in 2014, an 18-page collection of art, quotes and poetry by London-based Queer, Transgender and Intersex People of Colour (QTIPOC) and other artists of colour. “It has become a way of communication between the zinesters, zine workshop organisers and the community that subscribes to it,” says Callaghan. Unlike published titles available to a wide readership in bookshops, public libraries or other established institutions, zines are often sold in small quantities directly from zinesters to readers, or circulated on a non-commercial basis within various social subgroups.

Given their counter-cultural roots and improvised nature, zines are prone to vanishing into the ether. Now the AAA wants to preserve them for posterity. The two-decade-old archive, which houses documents and artefacts related to contemporary Asian art, recently announced the launch of a new zine library, the first of its kind in Hong Kong. Tucked away on the tenth floor of the AAA library, overlooking a bohemian enclave of Sheung Wan, a whole shelf of zines—yellowed and new, varied in height and thickness, and some positioned askew—blends in with the other neat sections of glossy, elaborate magazines and thick, well-bound titles.

“The idea of creating a zine archive was conceived back in 2016,” recalls Lin. “Our library collections consist of a lot of donated items. Three years ago, we began receiving more and more zines. As an archive, AAA must evolve according to the times by updating its library collections.” In the light of this, Lin travelled to a number of British libraries in 2017 to observe how they collected zines, which helped her build up the AAA’s zine library. Focusing on contemporary visual art in Asia, it currently contains 250 artist-made zines, zines made by art spaces, as well as zines about contemporary art in Asia. Aside from digging out zines from AAA’s existing collections, Lin and her team also visit local zine fairs, bookstores and pop-up zine shops to find new acquisitions.

One advantage of building up a collection of Asian zines is being able to understand how they differ from their international counterparts. The history of zines is dominated by Western narratives, but Asian zine culture is more independent of the United States and Europe than you may think.

“The etymology of the term ‘zine’ is very Western,” Lin explains, “but if you look at the case of Hong Kong, a lot of propaganda pamphlets were made by homosexual communities before the decriminalisation of private, adult, non-commercial, and consensual homosexual relations in 1991. These materials were made for communicating with their members, and airing their frustration. These were definitely not products of the Western punk culture, and weren’t exactly called zines. Yet they do share the same function of channelling suppressed messages. Therefore, Hong Kong zines aren’t a hundred percent introduced from the West.”

Hong Kong’s own social and political particularities have taken local zines down their own path. Lin says the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, protests against the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link and resistance to the hegemony of land developers have been fertile ground for zine creators. As the mainstream political sphere grows ever more restrictive, and dissenting views are purged from establishment spaces, zines are becoming ever more relevant as a way for marginalised voices to make themselves heard. “This explains why nowadays in Hong Kong, there are a lot more zine groups like Zinecoop, zine festivals and even collaborations between zinesters, political activists and established organisations,” says Lin.

That raises some tricky questions. If zines are intended to provide a voice to the voiceless, what happens when they are collected for posterity by an organisation like the AAA? “Unconventional voices may be assimilated into the mainstream when broadcasted to an unexpectedly wide readership,” says Lin. “For these reasons, we face the ethical dilemma when housing them as we house meta-narratives. Yet I believe zines always serve their function as the medium of the marginalised before they are being collected. Our role, as a third party, is to record how zines have acted on their causes. Moreover, going back to the intention of creating this zine archive, we wanted to collect a diversity of narratives, and maybe through us, the Hong Kong art ecosystem will finally hear what these undermined voices have to say.”

Hong Kong isn’t alone in dealing with this question. Five years ago in Durham, North Carolina, a community of librarians and archivists published a zine called Zine Librarians: Code of Ethics. Naturally enough, it consists of a few sheets of paper stapled together, but those pages are meant to provide a lasting guideline for zine collectors. The zine states that, in order to respectfully engage with and represent marginalised communities, it is crucial “to give creators the right of refusal if they do not wish their work to be highly visible.”

That advice is being followed by London’s Wellcome Collection, whose zine library is documented in an online catalogue. In order to protect the rights and safety of zinesters, a note is included in every record that allows zine authors to contact the collection if they want their content removed. So far, public institutions seem to have built up enough trust with zinesters that the AAA, Tate Modern and Wellcome have not received any objections from zine creators.

Reading Kitsch: Bulletin of Fine Arts. Photo courtesy Stephen Lam.

The zine section of the AAA library is only one month old, but Lin says it has already been visited by local zinesters and groups such as the Queer Reads Library, who hope to find inspiration for new works by seeing what has come before. Overseas academics have also visited the library to conduct research. But Lin still isn’t satisfied. For her, a shelf of zines sitting high up in a 20-storey office building isn’t nearly accessible enough. “The archive has definitely made zines more visible, but we want to further reach different and new types of readers, educators and individuals,” she says. Along with public talks by zine librarians, AAA’s upcoming programmes include zine-making workshops, some of which are held in conjunction with exhibitions by artists such as Lee Wen.

Lin says zines will only grow more and more important to Hong Kong. “Recently, the Chinese government has started banning more ISBN books,” she says. Books focusing on cultural issues in particularly are being restricted on the mainland, and there is always a risk that this growing climate of censorship could spread to Hong Kong. “This is why zines are more significant now than ever in resisting authoritarianism,” says Lin. In dark times, zines have always shone a ray of light: a blank page to sketch diverse voices, identities and new possibilities.

See. Saw. Zine? Publish Yourself, a zine exhibition co-organised by the Taipa Village Cultural Association and Zinecoop Hong Kong featuring Hong Kong and Macau artists, takes place from 17 April to 12 July 12 2019 in the Taipa Village Art Space, Macau. Please click here for more information.

AAA will also organise two zine workshops, on 25 May 2019, led by artist Verina Gfader on Lee Wen’s engagement with paper as foundation of his development as a performance artist, as well as on 29 June 2019, by Elaine W. Ho on the theme of seriality by means by making a publication and performative reading in conversation with Lee Wen’s works. Please click here for more information.

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