Asia Undercovered Journalist Q&A: Brian Hioe, Taiwan

Welcome to the first Asia-Undercovered Journalist Q&A. One of the goals of this newsletter is to highlight the work being done by outlets and reporters on the ground, in Asia. These interviews will allow reporters to share their experiences directly, including what it’s like to cover stories that are often under-or misrepresented in the global media, and what their work means in the broader context of the issues and trends in Asia.

In our first journalist Q&A, we speak with Brian Hioe, journalist, editor and activist based in Taipei, Taiwan. We’ve shared Brian’s writing several times in past Asia Undercovered issues, along with articles from New Bloom, an online magazine Brian co-founded, covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific.

Here’s a few of his recent stories.

Daniela: What has led you to do become a journalist, and how would you describe your goals as a reporter, or activist?

Brian: I never expected to go into this work, it was mostly due to being a student activist during the Sunflower Movement in 2014 and being caught up in this large, massive event, and the fact that the international world was not really covering it, as Taiwan [was] overshadowed by the disappearance of the Malaysian Airline plane. It opened my eyes... large events shaking up society and transforming political discourse could take place in Asia and just be ignored the world. I found my role in ensuring the world knew what Taiwanese young people think and feel and what their political stance is.

As someone who became a reporter after participating in a political movement, I'm very clear about my political stances. It's about honesty as a reporter, because nobody does this work without ideology or political values of their own. To me journalism is about trying to inform people without distorting the facts, in the faith that people will come around to your viewpoints if informed enough.

Tell us a bit more about New Bloom. How has it evolved since its founding in 2014?

The aim of New Bloom was to get local perspectives out there, but also to take part in the international commentary on Taiwan and joining in on the increasing dialogues between different parts of the world. It was initially established as being an entirely bilingual publication, Chinese and English. But eventually the Chinese side of it grew smaller, partly due to capacity limitations of our solely volunteer-based translation team, and because the English stories enabled us to get into much larger outlets which have a broader reach, and to audiences who weren’t usually hearing these commentaries.

But it’s still important to keep up the Chinese language side of our work. So now that the magazine is quite stable, we’re keen to boost the Chinese side, and bring back more of the arts and culture section. We started an imprint called ‘No Man is an Island’ recently, and opened a physical event space in Taipei. That's our attempt to build a local community, connect with the readers and get more people to participate in the publication. We found that just as an online media outlet, it's very difficult to interact with readers. Events are a way to have a better sense of who your audience is, how to develop yourself, and accomplish this aim of creating dialog more in a more concrete way.

You work/write for many different outlets – how do you balance that, and in the end, are you able to make a living as a journalist?

It's definitely a challenge being a freelancer while running something that doesn't pay – New Bloom is all volunteer run, including me, but it’s still like a full-time job. So I do other stuff to survive, such as writing about various things including politics, arts and culture, sometimes working as an NGO researcher, as well as doing translation of all kinds of things, from museum content, academic theses, movie subtitles, scripts, all over the place.

A lot of the work I do ends up being complementary actually. For example, recently I translated a report for an NGO, about housing prices for young people in Taiwan, and the lack of social housing. It was full of facts and interesting information, so it helped me in my journalism. Or recently I worked on a project about migrant workers, doing interviews with all these government officials, and companies that are transporting migrant workers here. It allows you to come in contact with people that you don’t usually speak to as a journalist, and ask question you don’t normally ask. Writing about different things, whether it’s arts and culture or political things, that all just adds to my knowledge.

What do you find are the main challenges in getting your stories out to a wider audience – especially people who traditionally may not listen or care about Taiwan, or Asia?

There is a challenge in getting stories out beyond a niche audience. In general there’s not a lot of English news sources on Taiwan, and the ones that do exist have limitations in terms of resources, the topics they cover, or the way they cover them. We’re trying to get around that, offering something between journalism and academic writing. So it’s really about that balance between offering in-depth insight whilst maintaining conversations with general audiences.

But it’s always about striking a balance. New Bloom for example focuses on hyper local news, or the insider baseball of politics. A lot of that detail gets lost in international discourse because you have to contextualize the stories, and the audience would not find the insider details too relevant. We found that that kind of nuanced focus is lacking. But when we do offer detailed knowledge of Taiwan, we often end up reaching only limited number readers. It’s difficult.

In that sense we’re hoping to reach out and connect with different publications and people with similar agendas in the Asia Pacific region, linking with people or products that we find interesting, and so on. It’s a work in progress. Recently we did a joint online conference called Transnationally Asian, with Lausan (Hong Kong) and New Naratif and invited a few other publications and speakers too. It lasted for about a week, and we had sessions every day. Working together as three publications with overlapping audiences helped us make people aware that there are others out there doing the same kind of stuff. We are hoping to do more of that in the future.

What are your thoughts on how mainstream American/English language media covers Taiwan, or Taiwan/China relations? Any criticism? What do you wish they would do better?

There’s always the kind of boilerplate text, like that Taiwan is a renegade province. The way stories about Taiwan are framed, it’s always about cross-strait relations, for example in terms of provoking China. Unless it’s about China, nobody is really paying attention. When you pitch stories about Taiwan, it becomes really difficult, because people are always looking for ‘what does it have to do with China?’. I wish this would be improved upon, for people to take Taiwan into consideration in its own right.

Lastly creating dialogue between local writers, or news publications who are focused on Taiwan, and international media who aren’t just focused on Taiwan, is important. Creating this dialogue between domestic and international media will help improve the coverage of Taiwan in a way that makes it more reflective of local perspectives. I think it’s a challenge getting them to talk to each other, as they often operate in parallel universes. But with New Bloom, by having that kind of attention to detail, we want to be part of creating dialogue.

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Asia Undercovered: In-depth round-ups and analysis of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.