Interview with Editor-in-Chief, Harry Mok

A month ago, I was given the honour to interview Harry Mok, Editor-in-Chief of Hyphen. It was an excellent opportunity to get to know more about the magazine through the eyes and experience of the current editor. Here is the transcription:

Harry Mok ( credits to Hyphen Issue 21)

First, let’s start out with you: I would like to know how did you first get started working with Hyphen?

“I found out about Hyphen when they were first getting started. I got an email from someone about Hyphen and back in 2003. The staff back then was looking for volunteers and I told them I would like to help out and sent in my resume. From there, they were planning a food section for the second issue. I grew up on a family business with a chain vegetable farm and they wanted an article about that in some form. At first, it was going to be a story about agriculturation but because I did grow up on a farm, they wanted me to write a first-person narrative. So that was my first thing I did for Hyphen.

After I wrote that article, I became a staff volunteer editor, in charge of the redux section for the time, which is the media section. When the time came that Melissa Hung, the previous editor, wanted to step down, myself and N __, the two most experienced people on staff were asked to apply for editor. Because it is a tough role, it is hard to recruit someone who hasn’t been within the organization already so I stayed on the job and N__ became managing editor for a couple of years as well.”

A little history: how did the name Hyphen come to be?

“From what I’ve been told, the creators went through a lot of options of names and they came up with Hyphen, partly as an idea of a hyphenated American. It means that somehow, you’re the other; you’re not a regular American; you’re an Asian American or African American. A lot of publications followed that connotation so I think that was one reason: take back the notion of being “the other”, the hyphenated identity, the notion that somehow you’re not fully American. One of the bases for why the magazine exists is the idea that Asian Americans don’t fit in with American society, we look different, we speak different languages, the whole idea of who is American and how do we define that?”

What are key parts of the mission that stand out to you?

“We fill a void within mainstream media. Mainstream media, for all its depth, does not always do a good job covering the niches, whether they be communities, racial, ethnic, or class. We want to fill that niche and portray Asian Americans with nuances complexities that are not seen in mainstream media. We want to tell the stories that are being told. Those are our main goals within our mission.”

Going off what you said about Hyphen covering what mainstream media doesn’t, do you see the role of the magazine as countering the dominant media? In what way?

“In cases of when something is wrong or offensive or perpetuating stereotypes, certainly that would be a role Hyphen would play. We did that in the past in previous issues pertaining to media as well as in our blog. That is where we can react to certain events in contrast to the print edition. We counter but we’re also a supplement.”

Photo by Myleen Hollero for 'I Enjoy Being a Girl' in Issue 20

How does content get chosen?

“We look for stories on Asian America that affect and interest our readers, something we think readers will connect with and we, as editors, can connect with. We’re finding something along thelines of: a “Hey, I didn’t know about that before” kind of story, no matter what it is, is a good story. It doesn’t have to do with racial issues but Asian Americans doing something cool and/or interesting are something that we will cover.”

The process?

“As for the process, like many publications, we have editors, we have writers. Editors get together every two weeks and during those meetings, depending on the production process, for print, we decide which stories we want to do or can’t do or want to pursue or which writer will get which story or which writer is doing what. A process like any other magazine.

But the process still differs from people who work full-time for a newspaper or magazine: we do not see each other everyday so we have to email each other. The biweekly meetings are the times we get to see each other. We are all volunteer staff so that sets its own challenges. People are volunteering their time on the side and takes up their free time.”

What are the obstacles with working with Hyphen on the side?

“Most of us are volunteers if we could work for Hyphen full-time and get the same salaries in our real job, we would be happy but the biggest obstacle, things taking longer and we cannot expect the same speed as someone who is working full time. We understand that and we are lucky that we have a stable staff. Lately, we have been going through a small turnover, people leaving, new people coming in so we have to get people up to speed. But it is good because we are getting people who are interested but at the same time, we are losing people who have experience and have a done a good job.”

Dalen Gilbrech's illustration for 'Science of the Wok' in Issue 20

The magazine and website is professional, high quality in presentation, design, and content. How did Hyphen come along to adopt this sort of design?

“The website has been changed about a year ago. We have been lucky to have great artists and designers that carry the look and feel and executed it. I’m always amazed at how great our art is, how great our layout and visual look is. Those are some people that are great to have.”

How would you describe the staff?

“Most people, on the business and editorial side, are in their 20s, young, eager, and full of energy. They are all here because they want to be here with the publication and see Hyphen thrive. There’s a mix of natives and transplants; some are locals, some are recent immigrants.”


“Roughly, most of our readers are of the Asian American demographic and live in larger cities: Bay Area, L.A., New York.”

How would you describe Hyphen’s relationship with its readers?

“With the advent of social media like Facebook and twitter, it’s been a lot easier to connect with people rather than they read an article in your print magazine, write a letter in response, and you

Hyphen's Facebook Page

publish the letter in the next issue. It’s instant interaction, especially on our Facebook page, which has more comments there than on our website, probably due to the nature of Facebook. It depends; if there’s a hot and controversial issue on the blog, we will get a whole bunch of comments. The Internet has definitely made it easier to build that connection in contrast to the print edition.”

From research, there are both positive and negative sides to ‘Asian-American identity.’ On one hand, it helps Asians in America band together in common cause against stereotyping and racial prejudices. At the same time, the term combines all our different ethnicities together and doesn’t differentiate us.

Do you think this is something that affects Hyphen’s work? If so, how do you guys address it?

“We do appeal to a variety of groups. If we are trying to encompass what we say what we are, we could do a better job of going beyond Chinese-American, Korea American, or Japanese American and covering south-Asian ethnic issues and communities (such as Vietnamese and Cambodian). The paradox here is that it is hard, not just for Hyphen but for any magazine, publication, or media to try to say, “We cover Asian America”. It means a lot: there are so many different variationsand from a media business standpoint it is a hard demographic to crack. In many ways, it does not really exist; there are so many different groups and they’re being lumped together but they’re not the same. A lot of magazines that came before us are not around any more because it is hard to market to “Asian American” because it is not a well defined market demographic from a business standpoint as well as a sociological standpoint.”

In what ways do you consider Hyphen as a magazine for a new generation of Asian Americans?

“I’d like to think we can appeal to most people, but our focus is generally on Asians living in the United States. Someone who is a newer immigrant who may still have close ties to their country of origin would probably have an interest in stories about their homeland, which we don’t cover so much unless there’s a tie to what’s happening here. So if there’s a delineation, that would be it.

I think our coverage reflects a reality for second and third generation Asian Americans who may not have close ties to their parent’s or grandparent’s countries of origin. They’re living in multicultural America, and we’re covering how Asian Americans fit or don’t fit into that society in a way that’s informative and fun.”

Mr. Hyphen 2009 (credit to hyphen on flickr)

Would you describe what you/Hyphen do/does as social activism?

“A good example of some community outreach we’ve done is via Mr. Hyphen. The idea behind that serves as a counterpoint to the stereotypes of Asian American men, who are often viewed as not masculine or not sexually attractive or stereotypically geeky. We want to turn that stereotype upside down but setting up this contest, celebrating the Asian male in a different way, not in America’s Next Top Model or beefcake way. Our contestants have to be affiliated with or within a non-profit or community group. If they win, a $1000 will go to their non-profit. So it is not a pure beauty contest; these are guys who have talent, who care about their community, and happen to be good-looking guys too. On the other end, Asian American women are stereotyped as exotic, sexual beings so we’re saying that Asian American men can be just as hot and sexy as Asian American women.

We have covered a little bit on politics in the past. It is kind of hard because we are covering international things but we’re also in the Bay Area and things are spread out. On the blog, that’s where we can pursue current events such as first Asian American politician that gets elected or big news highlights. A couple of years ago, during the last governor election, we did an article surmising who might be the first likely Asian American candidate for president? So we did an analysis on the up and coming Asian American politicians.”

What would you consider as Hyphen’s “competition”?

“I don’t think there is another magazine doing exactly what we’re doing: a non-profit, community-driven, not celebrity based, we have direct competition. There are other Asian-American magazines but we are all doing something different. There are probably more blogs out that are news-driven and community/social justice focused; kind of in line with what Hyphen does. We reproduce the magazine too and we try to get our blog to be more news driven.”

Let’s say I’m really interested in being part of the crew; what opportunities are available for me to work for or be involved with Hyphen?

“We’re interested in anybody, looking at what you want to do, what your experiences are, and what you can contribute. If you have some writing experience and we’re interested, we would definitely take a look. On the business side of things, experience in marketing and advertising, we would love new people.”

What would you consider as the most significant change Hyphen has undergone during your time?

“The redesign of the website has been a dramatic change in the ability to posts updates and blogs; it’s been easier as well as a much better user experience. The Mr. Hyphen contest has been a really good thing for the organization; it’s our signature event. When I came on, I tried to organize the editorial team into more of a ‘team’ so that specific editors had specific responsibilities. Before our editors were doing a little bit of everything without a really defined role, and now it’s been better with an organizational structure. Lisa Lee came on as a publisher about the same time I’ve been editor and she has been keeping things afloat, taking us to bigger and better places.”

What are your hopes/Hyphen’s hopes for the future?

“Number one, we want to keep doing great stories. We would like to, in the near future, to be self-sustaining, meaning that we make enough money to pay for itself. And maybe someday, we will have a full time staff, so that we’re not all volunteers anymore. Hopefully that will help Hyphen to continue to do high-quality stories that illuminates Asian America.”

Do you think that if Hyphen becomes self-sustaining and can pay for its staff, will those changes affect the way things are being done?

“There will be some change in the way they we would not be relying on volunteers so much. The change will hopefully be for the better with people who are dedicated to producing or running things full time, which is a plus. Hopefully, it wouldn’t change the overall mission or direction.”

Thank you so much Mr. Mok and best of wishes for you and the rest of Hyphen!

%d bloggers like this: