Against the odds, the niche literary magazine Mekong Review finds its audience in Southeast Asia.
Despite distribution issues, money worries and the watchful eyes of authoritarian governments, founder Minh Bui Jones still believes in print.
In his three decades in journalism, Minh Bui Jones has found few episodes as fraught as the distribution of the current edition of Mekong Review, the quarterly magazine he founded in 2015.
“I check my email and there’s a message from…the printer from Penang saying the crate had overturned,” Bui Jones tells Splice over drinks in Phnom Penh.
“I knew that there had been a lot of rain in Malaysia that week and a lot of flash floods too, and the trucks in Malaysia, as they are here, are way overladen with stuff and the weight just tipped it over and it fell. We lost those copies—1,500,” he says, adding that the driver emerged unscathed.
After losing about three-quarters of his magazines, he had thousands reprinted, while friends “rallied to the cause” in order to help him redistribute new copies as far away as Los Angeles.
“It was all touch and go, but we managed to retrieve something from the disaster,” he says. “It’s been a pretty torrid few days and I’ve just started to pull myself together again.”
The @MekongReview is growing its audience in spite of distribution issues, money worries and the watchful eyes of authoritarian governments. By @GeorgeCambodia.
Burying the lede
Bui Jones, whose family fled to Australia from Vietnam in 1978, is no stranger to the stress of running magazines. He has helped to launch four other publications, most notably The Diplomat, after spending around a decade reporting for major mastheads in Australia such as the Sydney Morning Herald and producing at SBS television.
The veteran publisher used his life savings to launch Mekong Review after becoming uncomfortable with the way many websites in Asia were stacking their content full of commentary. The job of journalists is to report, he points out, in order to “let the readers make up their own mind.”
He saw a gap in the market for a literary publication that gave writers in the freedom to be more creative than standard news reporting allows. Each edition—which covers the Mekong countries of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar—blends essays, poetry, reviews, fictional stories and sketches alongside more traditional journalistic features and analysis.
“You can bury the punchline right down to the bottom as far as I’m concerned,” he laughs.
Finding writers wasn’t much of a hassle, he says, with plenty of “freelance refugees” floating around Phnom Penh’s bars at the tail end of 2015 after authorities in Thailand tightened visa regulations for foreigners.
“I didn’t know if there was a demand for such a publication but I knew there was a supply of writers who could easily fill a paper and hence we were able to do the magazine in three and a bit weeks,” Bui Jones says.
While column inches have been filled by some of the most recognizable bylines, such as in the region Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen and Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” Bui Jones says many of his favorite pieces have come from lesser-known writers.
One example is Pim Wangtechawat, a young Thai writer who has penned a piece about her country’s obsession with English football and another in defence of shopping mall culture.
“It is a rare thing to find a magazine in this region which is so focused on promoting the works of writers from such contrasting nationalities [and] backgrounds,” she says.
“I find it very refreshing and unique to get such raw takes on what’s going on in these countries from people who really, really care. It is always great to read the academic perspective on things, but Minh also makes sure there’s an emotional gravitas to the works he chooses.”
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Escaping from the internet
Despite his laidback demeanor, Bui Jones admits his “labor of love” takes a toll. As with many niche publications, cashflow is a perpetual concern. And when he’s not editing stories he’s lugging hundreds of magazines across five countries, sometimes in as little as eight days.
A cafe and a restaurant, along with an advertiser, pulled out in Vietnam after a New York Times profile on the magazine was published. Authorities have also contacted him directly “at least half a dozen times” about more sensitive stories.
“People are scared,” Bui Jones says, adding that Cambodian officials have been asking friends and family for information on his whereabouts, despite him being based in Sydney.
An assessment of him as an “old school” newspaper man with a romantic attachment to print would be “a nice way of putting it,” the publisher says, adding that most would consider him a “luddite.” And contrary to many in the industry he is predicting a resurgence in print.
“I, and I know others like me, have reached a point of tiredness with the internet. We spend far too much time on it, it sucks us dry and a lot of the things we read we don’t believe in. We are looking for ways to escape from that, and print is a natural escape,” he says.
“The industry has had something close to a Second World War, but like Dunkirk, we’re retreating and reforming to fight another battle.”
And in spite of overturned trucks, money worries and the watchful eyes of authoritarian governments, Bui Jones is aiming to shift 3,000 copies of the next edition—triple that of two years ago—and he remains as devoted as ever to his craft.
“I’ve gotten used to the idea of editing a paper publication because it has a lot of constraints and I love working under those constraints,” he says. “That’s the world I know.”