'Spike' pokes at Hong Kong

A new magazine mirrors a growing democratic spirit that fueled protests in Hong Kong last summer.

Capturing the spirit of the times, particularly if one is cursed to live in interesting ones, has been the inspiration behind countless small journals - from the famed abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, to the anti-Vietnam war rag, Ramparts. But to take a stab at contemporary Hong Kong in a time of protest, absurdity, and manifest contradictions, publisher Stephen Vines felt that satire was the only possible medium.

Hence the recent birth of Spike, Asia's first English-language weekly lampoon.

Hong Kong has gone through some rough seas of late: the SARS epidemic, five years of falling real estate prices, concern about jobs, and a lack of transparency in government. Critics blasted a city project to put on a Rolling Stones concert, and Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was pilloried for never visiting a SARS-stricken area (unlike Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who did). The situation in 2003 got so ridiculous by Hong Kong standards that a rogue crocodile - an elusive beast who lives in a small city estuary and who has evaded even an Australian croc hunter - was voted 2003's "person of the year."

Enter Mr. Vines, a well-known Hong Kong media figure, who says his weekly magazine is founded upon a democratic spirit that emerged during last summer's protests - when a half-million demonstrators, including bankers, lawyers, and doctors, marched against antisubversion laws that would curb free expression. It was the start of what now seems a political movement.

July 1 represented "an unexpected outbreak of good sense," Vines felt. He asked his friends if any English-language media was "capturing the feeling that is in Hong Kong today." The answer was "no," so Vines and a band of merry pranksters without deep pockets sought funds and put up cash for an irreverent weekly. A cross between Private Eye and the Spectator, Spike averages 48 pages with a staff of seven and about 40 contributors.

"The only way to preserve free expression is to test it on its margins," Vines argues, pointing out that while Chinese- language media are developing political humor, there isn't much happening in English.

"At Spike, we plan to carry on annoying influential people; we will cater to the interests of our readers," Vines says.

The cover of the first edition shows Chief Tung dumping a box of ballots, thinking to himself, "We won't be needing these, then." The content is a grab bag of goofy and spoofy, interspersed with hard-hitting pieces on politics, stuffed shirts, and corruption in Hong Kong and the region. One edition offered a profile of the diminutive Cyd Ho, a Frontier Party cofounder whose face made front pages in Asia when she defeated a venerable Tung ally in district elections last November.

Hong Kong has a British-born tradition of a relatively free press and is not subject to the prohibitions of state- controlled media on the mainland. That freedom has not been much tampered with since the 1997 hand over.

While Spike's editorial concept is decidedly "pro-democracy," Vines isn't interested in long treaties or didactic pieces. He wants to start a debate about Hong Kong's future, though after eight issues he says it's hard to find writers who want to defend the status quo. "No one wants to make the argument in print, but ... I'm trying to find those contributors," he says.

Columns include "Betty's Diary," an "intimate journal of the wife of a very important person"; "Expat TV," a chronicle of friction between ethnic groups; and a bit called "Shoeshiner," describing "acts of sycophancy above and beyond the call of groveling." There are media reviews and pokes at newspapers like the "South China Morning Post," and old New Yorker-style excerpts sent from readers in a section called "Gobble D Gook Award," which honors "murderous assaults on the English language."

One mostly has to be in the Hong Kong milieu to get the references. But not entirely.

One Chinese reader says she won't keep buying the magazine, because she feels it is written for the several hundred thousand expats living here. One expat reads a colleague's copies, but says, "I look at this from a commercial standpoint, and wonder how they will make any money. It looks like a labor of love."

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