"Culture Bureau" is an ongoing SmartShanghai interview series in which we take long, meandering strolls down memory lane with pillars of China's cultural community.
Launched in 1994 as a free local magazine for Montreal, VICE has ballooned over the past 20 years into a media company thought to be worth more than 200 million USD, along the way becoming the sardonic bible for a generation of hipsters.
There are now VICE magazines in 28 countries, dishing out a mix of drugs, sleaze, sex and danger journalism, all funded to amazing profit by partnerships with some of the biggest corporations in the world. Intel, Garnier, Toshiba, Scion and dozens of other blue chip firms have queued up to bask in reflected cool and sop up a bit of VICE attitude. VICE has been aggressively expanding in recent years, working with bigger and bigger corporate partners and throwing parties in all the world's major emerging markets (they're behind that Creators Project thing).
And so, inevitably, comes the launch of VICE China, a fully localized, Chinese-language web magazine. Wang Ge is the editor, the guy digging up the unseen angles and unbelievable stories that have made VICE the byword for Western hipster clout since the late '90s.
In China, that's no easy task. Here's Wang Ge on his personal cultural awakening, his coincidental travels through China's music underground, the anxiety attending his new gig, and the virtues of VICE:
Wang Ge: Yes, I was born and raised in Jining, a dusty, polluted, conservative city in Shandong Province. The city is known for [being] the hometown of Confucius (lots of respect to the man btw) and some dudes hijacking Japanese trains during WWII (there's a film called Railway Guerrilla based on that, not very impressive), being surrounded by coal mines and American paper companies producing poisoned air (yeah those guys are not cool at all)…Yeah sounds like a lovely place.
Anyway, after finishing my undergraduate degree in the UK in 2007, I moved to Beijing in early 2008 with the purpose of becoming a filmmaker. Beijing seemed like the only place you could do that in China. The reality was far from what I envisioned, since at the time I had no idea how the film business works in China, nor did I have any idea whether my personality fits the job. For the first few months, I was writing film and TV scripts for propaganda films (using an alias of course). The money was good, but then it didn't take long for me to realize that this is not the life I wanted. At the end of 2008, I applied for an associate editor position at [Beijing English-language magazine] The Beijinger. At first I was asked to look after the listing stuff. A few months after I was trusted to do some music writing, and have been working as a music editor / journalist till now.
WG: The job at The Beijinger got me into music journalism. As in a lot of situations in my life, it was totally a coincidence. I don't have any dream or goal, because I sort of believe that you could do the best you can but reality can still fuck you up, and the world is doomed… Anyway, music has always been a passion, and out of all the sections in the Beijinger, I could do best with the music section since that was the only area I had some detailed knowledge along with films. It went from there, I got to seeing bands in Beijing and have been a not-so-regular gig-goer since then.
WG: I want to work in Chinese-language media. It's my native language and I can definitely do more with that. At The Beijinger and Time Out Beijing, the readership is relatively small compared to Chinese-language media, because English-speaking people in Beijing is a very specific crowd ... my parents and friends back at home don't read [those magazines] at all ... At The Beijinger and Time Out, I only needed to finish my sections and leave the wrapping-up to others, whereas now I have the responsibility to oversee things. Getting a bit anxious as expected, but I think as time goes by I'll be alright.
WG: My name card says "Editor" so I would like to go with that. Basically I'm looking for contributors around the country and choosing what stories to publish. Also I work with my colleagues to come up with video shoot ideas and how to execute them. It doesn't sound like much but it's quite detail-oriented.
WG: I think youth culture in China is relatively less diverse than it is in the US or any part of the Western world, but the absurdity is our main focus. Besides having to be careful with the political stuff, we are trying to see what the consequences of politics have done to Chinese youngsters, or the society in general. You could always be there to witness a riot, but it's what has been left behind that fascinates people. Also, we are interested in people being passionate in doing whatever they are doing, could be an MC recording his mix with a webcam or simply going to absurd places to do stupid things. Whether you think it's moral or comprehensive enough is another question. It's the passion that matters.
WG: Strangely, politics is probably the only thing that is strictly censored these days in China, especially for online content. As for drug use and crime, I think it depends on the moral direction we choose. Say you could talk about drugs giving you ecstasy, but eventually it's the messed-up consequences you have to deal with. For sex content, man, take a look at any of those major websites in China, they are more explicit than we are.
WG: Yes, with a mix of translations and local ones, although the definition of humor can be massively different.
DO: I love it when white girls give the finger, I just do. This photo also reminds me of my first day in London in 2003, a girl who looks quite similar came up to me and asked if she could borrow my "ligh'er." I said I don't smoke, she then ran off in cute panic with her friends as if I just told her to take over my SARS virus cells. Anything can be fun with a memory filter.
DON'T: I'm getting quite confused — who's licking who(m) in this photo?
DON'T: "Oh, you know, the Chinese music scene, man, it's cool, it has exploded, man, there's this cool label called Maybe Ours, let's go study Chinese there, like, down with the locals, you know? Oh btw have you heard Owl City's playing Yugong Yishan tonight?"
WG: Unfortunately I wasn't involved in any of these projects you mentioned. I started this job last November and we have been working on the VICE launch since then. We are going to produce more local content for sure, but at this point we just need to launch the website first, establish our name and attitude in China with a mix of original and translated materials. We also have several local video projects going on at the moment, and some of them should be done quite soon.
Obviously events are determined by budget. Content-wise, we are trying to outline the video section on the site, so there should be quite a few original documentaries we will be producing. As for text, I think it could be difficult at first for Chinese readers to read "I-went-to-XXX" or "I-saw-XXX" stories on a "proper" website instead of forums, but we'll make it happen. There is definitely the need out there for this sort of DIY journalism.
WG: Those local video projects, and on my end it's more about producing more Vice-y local stories, and hopefully we could be the source for "enlightening information" for young Chinese readers. It's a brand new model for China and for us too, so there is definitely the insecurity of what the result could be, but we are doing our best. And a word to those Weibo haters without constructive criticism: we will send out photographers to get you into DOs and DON'Ts and give you a DO since that would prove WE are the bigger person.
WG: As with any newly launched website, our friends have been very helpful to re-post our Weibo and get the word out, and people are @ing their friends to follow our account, and we've only had two un-subscribers from our newsletter so far (I look at that as a good thing)…
As for hate messages, there is this middle-aged dude really disliking us — using the word "young people." He said he was in touch with [VICE co-founders] Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi back in the '90s and talked about getting VICE to China, and he thinks the magazine has way too many ads now. He says VICE China is becoming another hipster fashion mag (because we did a DOs and DON'Ts campaign at Strawberry Festival, he [called us a] "青年潮刊" ("trendy fashion magazine"), [despite] the fact that we are not doing any magazine for now…) and he claims he's young at heart. Maybe he was being friendly and just expressing it in a very unique way. I want to meet him.
The Vice Guide to North Korea and Cambodia Fashion Week videos have been generating lots of response since we posted them on Weibo yesterday.
Check out VICE China's beta site here. Keep up with the Weibo beef here.