In the first half of the 1990s, before the term “cultural appropriation” was a widely understood concept, a group of 20-something Asian Americans were seeking to improve their visibility. Gathering together in Los Angeles’ media capital with two Macintosh LC’s (those old solid beige blocks of computers,) and an edition of QuarkXPress (otherwise known as InDesign’s great-great-grandma), a magazine priding itself on expressing unheard stories from the East and South-East Asian diaspora in the US was formed. That magazine, was Yolk.
A one of a kind title in its celebration of Asian and Asian American identity, Yolk ran from 1994 to 2003. Since then, not a single publication has come close to rivalling its mantel for championing people of Asian descent. It was innovative in its art direction, experimental layouts and not to mention its original content. It featured interviews with highly visible film directors such as Ang Lee, to features on lesser-known creatives like Pedro Flores, the inventor of the Yo-yo. Yolk created a platform not only for Asian faces but for wide spanning editorial storytelling and cutting-edge graphic design, highlighting ten years of Asian creativity during a period of very little non-white representation in the mainstream media.
Over the past several months It’s Nice That has been working to uncover Yolk’s initial formation and almost decade long run. Through an extensive series of interviews with the publication’s visionary team, we’ve spent time revisiting the 90s with its co-founders, creative directors and staff writers; not to mention an avid reader of the magazine who has since started her own successful publication. In unearthing this nearly-forgotten publishing triumph, it also uncovered glimmers of LA’s sociopolitical landscape at the time, considering it was borne out of the aftermath of the 1992 LA riots. On one hand Yolk was a witness to some fraught hostility between the city’s ethnic groups, but on the other hand, the magazine’s plethora of stories also reveals how these communities have overlapped and interbred, producing new generations of hybrid cultures that now form a composite part of LA’s social structure.
For Tommy Tam, the lead visionary behind Yolk, the publication started as a way to “discover my own identity,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Growing up in Mississippi and Florida, I had a lot of identity issues.” Tommy shares this experience with many of his Yolk colleagues, not to mention millions of other ethnic minorities, assimilating into another culture as a way to feel less alone. “But when I had the chance to go to college in California in 1987, that really opened my eyes,” he continues. “I saw there was a Chinatown and a Koreatown and I started to accumulate more Asian friends.” With these new friends – including Yolk’s other co-founder-come-creative director Tin Yen – a group of passion-filled creatives attempted to find a way of catapulting Asian faces into the mainstream.
“I was magazine junkie,” says Tommy. “I would go to the newsstand and stare at tens of thousands of covers and I’d never see any Asian faces on any of them. Maybe only on stereotypical martial arts magazines, but everything in the mainstream like Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair never had Asians on their covers.” With this in mind, Tommy and Tin called a gathering, meeting their future colleagues that would become core members of Yolk’s team over the next ten years.
One of the first things decided was the magazine’s name. It was Larry Tazuma, Yolk’s managing editor, who had the lightbulb moment. He recalls: “I was thinking about the colour yellow and how we could use it to empower ourselves. I wanted to turn it around into something that doesn’t sound so negative.” Yolk’s name plays on the racial slurs that allegorise non-white people to food. There is a schoolyard slander of likening East Asian people to an egg – white on the outside and yellow on the inside – but Larry’s idea emerged from forgetting the white part completely in light of its vibrantly yellow yolk.
“When I came up with the name Yolk the room sort of froze,” adds Larry. “Cats stopped meowing and we all just went ‘hey, let’s hang onto that’. From then on, we couldn’t get past it and the name stuck.” Prior to the magazine’s launch, Tommy and Tin had also been circulating a self-published Asian men’s calendar as an alternative attempt to publicise the Asian image. “They were trying to promote the Asian male image, presenting them as good looking people that wasn’t seen in day-to-day life,” says Larry. And, after a decided focus on magazines instead of calendars, Yolk went onto further assess Westernised beauty standards through its editorial platform.
One particularly popular article detailed the urban fallacy around “the Asian penis: the long and short of it”. Published in one of Yolk’s earliest issues, this kind of article established the magazine’s agenda for breaking stereotypical taboos. “The article was very topical as here was a magazine that was willing to talk about things that nobody else talked about,” explains Larry. Another article delved into “the whole Asians eating dog thing” and though “some people were upset and disgusted”, others were relieved to read unconventional and unapologetic stories from a different culture outside the tenets of white Eurocentrism.
Despite different editorial angles, throughout Yolk’s run, it was playful in tone and layout throughout. If its witty article headings didn’t incur a slight internal chuckle – such as “For the new generasian”, “An Asian American woman’s response to ‘rice lovers’” and “Got rice?”, the publication’s outlandish design is sure to tickle readers’ design antennas. It is a credit to Yolk’s first one-man design team, Tin Yen, who started out his career as a graphic designer for the one-and-only Saul Bass. After four years under Saul, the designer brought his creative prowess to the spreads of Yolk, creating an iconic logo and masthead that could adapt thematically with every issue.
“We were all excited about how Yolk had a new look,” explains Tin. “We were constantly experimenting and pushing the envelope as far as photography, illustration and typography were concerned. It was just a really fun and creative time.” With the freedom to make the magazine anything they wanted, Tin emphasises: “We were free to just experiment. It’s one of those things where there was nothing to hold us back, everyone wanted to contribute something.”
Back then in the 90s “everything was much slower” as expected in the pre-digital age. Nowadays, designers comparably take the speed of digitalisation for granted. But when Yolk first started, “everything was either fed-ex’d or physically transported” as there was no email. Despite this slowness, Tin still managed to “push the bar… we broke some rules but it was fun,” he adds. And though some of Yolk is quite illegible with its overlapping variety of letterforms, it represents a part of design history that truly valued original eccentricity over accessibility – at times.
Even more astonishingly, Tin would proof the magazine through four layers of physical film separated into its individual CMYK components. During pre-press, the designer would overlay the layers of traditional colour separation to proof how the page would look once litho printed. Unsurprisingly, the design process “took a lot longer than it does today,” says Tin. “It was painful. We used to use Photoshop 2.0 and we’d do a few things in the programme, then walk away for a while, and when we came back after some time, it had rendered.” Slow beyond belief compared to today, Tin would pull all-nighters one or two days a week to comply with the pace of his Mac LC.
Regardless of being time consuming, Tin goes on to say: “What I’m most proud of is the mix of photography, illustration and typography that we mixed together. All the tools and talents of different people that made up the issues, along with the writers, created this synergy.” Drawing from a wide network of contributors, mainly other young Asian Americans that also wanted to be part of the conversation including art director Jeff Aguila and designer Ching Lau. As well as photographers Huey Tran, Shane Sato, and Jaimee Itagaki, the overall publication resulted into something bound to “no rules”. With “no bars” and an attitude of “just go with it”, Tin ensures: “We published our interpretation of a story” with unorthodox design decisions to match.
With utterly fascinating stories, Yolk’s strengths also lay in recording significant moments in history for Asians in high status positions. Take for example an interview from 1998 with a Disney character designer Chen-Yi Chang. In the interview, he discusses a new animation that’s soon to be released. It’s based on an old Chinese folktale that is little-known outside Asia: Mulan. Other articles delve deep into Hello Kitty’s headquarters, discuss Bruce Lee’s impact on Hollywood and explore mixed race identities; to name just a few.
Alex Luu, Yolk’s longest standing editor, also caught up with us to discuss his favourite editorial features. Back in 1999, “when the Star Wars prequel came out,” Alex recalls, “I did some research and found out that the main design director for all three prequels is this Oscar-winning, Chinese-American guy, Doug Chiang!” He enthusiastically remembers his favourite articles as if it were yesterday, recollecting microscopic details from 20 years ago. In short, after a lot of research and as the result of a cold call, Alex secured a day out on Skywalker ranch, living out a childhood dream at George Lucas’ secret location. “It was the holy grail of everything I loved as a kid, it was so great.”
As time passed, several Yolk employees, of course, came and went. On Tin’s departure as creative director in 2000, Max Medina took over the role, designing a new iteration of the logo for what is known as Yolk 2.0 or Yolk’s second generation. Upgrading from a Mac LC to a Mac G4, Max remembers the “family-like atmosphere” one that was “always very collaborative,” he says fondly. “I thought no one remembered us” he adds, a common thought shared amongst this article’s interviewees, one of which is staff writer Margaret Rhee.
Margaret wrote for Yolk towards the end of its run from 2001 to 2004. Now a college fellow at Harvard University’s English department, her time at Yolk coincided with the magazine’s wavering attempts to gain larger numbers in readership. This saw increasing amounts of half-naked women appearing on the front cover as the magazine endeavoured to “emulate more of a glossy sexy kind of magazine that catered more to men,” Margaret explains. “They were trying to have a reach and a style that was provocative in the same way as mainstream magazines… Looking back, I do question why there were so many Asian American actresses dressed in a certain kind of way, but I do think we were also really trying to promote the beauty of these actresses and actors.”
In its later years, Yolk succumbed to many pressures in order to look and seem a certain way to reflect its Western counterparts. Though its content remained fresh and hard-hitting, the magazine eventually folded in 2003 due to a lack of advertisers. “It’s not that the advertisers didn’t want to advertise with us,” explains Tin. “It’s just that if we wanted to approach Honda or any other kind of agency, they would say they’d rather advertise with an automotive magazine, why would you choose such a small Asian magazine?”
Tin reminds us that at that time, “Asians only consisted of 5% of the whole US population and in California it was around 8%”. With such a small demographic in mind, it was a struggle to entice advertisers to take a gamble, especially on a six-person-strong team. Although understandably described mutually as “heartbreaking”, Yolk’s disbandment was not all bad. Its ethos and legacy lived on to make way for a new generation of Asian voices.
In the last year alone, we’ve seen some profound developments in mainstream Asian representation. From the film Crazy Rich Asians (its significance was raised by every single one of the interviewees) to Sandra Oh being the first woman of Asian descent nominated for a best leading actress Emmy; it certainly seems as if things are advancing. And it’s not only in the film and TV industry, the founder and editor of Mold magazine LinYee Yuan [who was actually how we found Yolk, thanks to MagCulture’s At Work With feature] comments on how Yolk was “critical” in leading to her career in magazines. “Reading the stories of creative, successful, and brilliantly unapologetic Asian Americans was inspirational for me as a first generation teenager growing up in Houston, Texas,” says LinYee, recalling her teenage years over the phone from New York. “More than that, it showed me how magazines could connect people through the magical alchemy of storytelling and graphic design.”
Even though Yolk was nearly forgotten, remnants of its legacy are very much visible today. In terms of its design there are hoards of newly published magazines attempting to echo such a fresh, unbridled design. But more importantly, for Yolk’s readers, and for anyone else that came across the magazine, its very existence amongst all the other white faces on the newsstand, served a vital advancement in representation. By just being there, representing a marginalised group of mainstream society, Yolk improved the pursuit of fair representation to be what it is today. And though there is still a long way to go, LinYee sums up how one magazine can be everything: “It showed me how mere representation in a homogenous field can be both provocative, and empowering.”