Reaching Out

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Reaching Out: Asian Culture

By Dennis Chung

There’s a Tim Hortons in Scarborough that is packed every evening. On an average weeknight, you can find a hundred customers chattering away about politics, sports, entertainment, and their daily lives, while nursing their double-doubles and apple fritters. It’s similar to the classic sketch from The Royal Canadian Air Farce. You cannot get more Canadian than that.

One key detail to note: of the hundred customers on any given night, over two thirds will be Asian. This too is becoming a very Canadian picture.

Asians make up an increasingly large percentage of the Canadian populace. The 2001 census reported over a million Asian Canadians, easily making them the largest visible minority group in Canada. The 2006 census is poised to confirm that.

The Canadian mosaic is changing, and a significant portion is made up of mahjong tiles. Asian Canadians represent a large and potentially lucrative market.

They are a group with interests and needs that mainstream Canadian magazines have largely been unable to fulfill. Look across magazine racks and the only Asians you see on the covers are the models straddling the hoods of modified racers. Unless Lucy Liu has a movie coming out, that’s the extent of Asian representation in most magazines.

Magazines have to be active participants in this evolution. To do this, the mainstream can learn from niche magazines that already target Asian Canadians. Jasmine, which launched in 2003, and BananaCafé, a Toronto-based electronic ‘zine are two such publications.

Another example is Ricepaper, which is an arts and culture publication based in Vancouver.
“When we started 10 years ago, the Canadian and Asian market was very different,” said editor Jessica Gin-Jade. “You didn’t have as many Asians out there, so our magazine was mainly literary. On top of that we didn’t have events such as Asian heritage month, another project that our founders spearheaded.”
Ricepaper  first started out as a newsletter with an activist sensibility but has become more of a showcase for Asian Canadian culture.

“Ricepaper was more about a political message saying that we need more Asians in the media,” said Gin-Jade of the magazine’s roots. “The media now has more Asians, so we … promote Asians and make sure there is a meaningful context.”

Both Ricepaper and the community it targets have changed. In the past, Asian Canadians sought validation from the rest of Canadian society, an attitude Gin-Jade calls the “angst of fitting in”. To be an Asian and Canadian meant having to define how to fit into one group or the other, and the tension between the two worlds created a lot of anxiety.

“People would assume that we wanted to write about identity,” Gin-Jade said about Asian Canadians. “They said: ‘Oh my God, there’s another person in Kelowna who thinks the same way I do!”

The Asian community has grown past the need to carve out their own space in Canadian society. They have moved into a new phase, one whose mantra, as Gin-Jade wrote in a recent issue, is “no cultural compromise.”

Their place in the Canadian mosaic has been established, and the need for angst has passed. Instead, they can be both Asian and Canadian, without having to compromise one for the other.
Ricepaper has taken that approach, and the feedback from its readers has been

“At trade shows, they tell us: ‘I see Canadian, but at the same time you aren’t telling me that I’m Canadian from the world view that I’m used to’,” said Gin-Jade. “And that’s the same for Asians and the same for non-Asians.”

To tap into the Asian market, the mainstream magazine industry needs to start thinking with an Asian perspective, and one important step they can take is to hire more Asians.
“If you look at all the mastheads of every magazine, newspaper and media in Canada, how many Asian names do you see?” Gin-Jade asked. “It’s very sad, especially when you look at the top positions.”
The busy Tim Hortons in Scarborough is yet another example. The managers have adapted their approach to attract Asian customers with one simple change. Their key strategy is to let people stay for hours on end.

Teahouses in China are social hubs where people like to congregate and relax for the evening. Customers aren’t in a hurry and enjoy a leisurely drink with friends.

In most Tim Hortons franchises, staff will tell customers not to stay for longer than 20 minutes. This particular restaurant in Scarborough allows its customers to stay for longer periods of time. The restaurant has appealed to its predominantly Asian customers by filling the role that teahouses play in Asia. As a result, the place is packed night after night. The Asian teahouse has combined with the Canadian coffee chain to create a popular hang out for Asian Canadians.

Magazines need to take a similar approach and make themselves relevant to Asian Canadians or risk making themselves irrelevant.