Giving voice to all generations

By Andrew Stone

Mandarin Times editor David Soh's paper has risen to a circulation of more than 10,000. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Mandarin Times editor David Soh's paper has risen to a circulation of more than 10,000. Photo / Paul Estcourt

David Soh is almost buried under stacks of newspapers.

Old editions of his Mandarin Pages are jammed into every spare cranny of his chaotic Hobson St building. Upstairs, a plastic bucket catches drips from a leak in the roof .

The 48-year-old publisher/editor/owner shrugs that he just doesn't have time to sort out the jumble, or the drip.

Deadlines for the next day are closing and he cannot upset the advertisers who cram the paper's columns - tradesmen seeking work, appeals for flatmates, ads for jobs, study help, migrant lawyers, Chinese foods and "hot Asian girls".

Soh is a survivor in a lively media market aimed squarely at New Zealand's Chinese community and, more broadly, residents from other Asian countries.

It is possible for Mandarin speakers anywhere in New Zealand to immerse themselves entirely in Chinese media.

They can get round-the-clock television, pick up Chinese radio online and, if they live in Auckland, read nothing but Chinese-language newspapers and magazines.

The World TV network pumps out 10 Chinese pay channels and two on free-to-air from its Penrose headquarters.

Sister stations Stratos and Triangle also screen Chinese programmes.

The on-line generation is served by Skykiwi.com, a Chinese language website run from an upstairs Queen St office where moderators keep tags on forums visited by as many as 60,000 users a day.

Soh's newspaper, now 20 years old, has weathered downturns, rival Chinese language publishers, the internet, Auckland's traffic and Beijing politics.

What started as an A4 sheet appearing twice a week has become a profitable, six-day publishing enterprise in which classified advertisers pay $12 to leave their copy on a 0900 phone line and news from China arrives courtesy of arrangements with the giant Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily.

For that reason, Soh steers clear of stories critical of China and its leaders and is careful with material about Taiwan.

So the Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual movement which opposes one-party rule in China and is active here, does not get a run in the Mandarin Pages.

Explains Soh: "I don't want to be the meat in the sandwich."

Besides, he says, Falun Gong adherents have their own mouthpiece, the Epoch Times , which can be found at outlets where Soh's drivers leave copies of his free paper.

The father of two didn't set out to run a newspaper. Born in Malaysia, he trained as a computer programmer and spent a few years in Canada. He came here because his brother was working in New Zealand and spotted a gap in the market.

From its modest start the paper has cracked 10,000 circulation. On Saturdays, the inky broadsheet runs to 36 advertising-rich pages.

Soh employs one reporter, uses rewritten material from English language sources and has a stable of bloggers who contribute their views.

He says he has survived partly by keeping his costs down - something which not doing sank rival Chinese publishers.

Sheer hard work is also a big part of it. Soh admits he spends a lot of time at his midtown premises, but does see his young son and daughter at Christmas when the paper takes a break.

Two blocks away from the Mandarin Pages, rows of flat computer screens shimmer with the bright shiny pages of Skykiwi.com, New Zealand's largest Chinese language website.

Fresh technology, young staff - no one in the room seems over 30.

But executive director Kylie Liu says she's 31, and operational officer Dorathy Li is 32.

The two reel off the Skykiwi numbers: 100,000 registered members, (you have to be registered to join online forums), 60,000 visitors a day to its homepage and other channels, growth as much as 20 per cent a year, 70,000 members of iHome, a social network channel similar to Facebook.

Ninety per cent of its users come from mainland China, and 80 per cent are under 35. The website offers a reassuring path for young Chinese heading Downunder: 11 per cent of users click online in China itself.

Driven by language students a long way from home, Skykiwi started 10 years ago when newcomer Justin Zhang opened an electronic window for thousands of young arrivals in a foreign land.

Zhang has moved to Sydney where he has started a similar portal, Snowpear.com.

Now it's the task of graphic designer and marketing graduate Liu to expand the brand. She too was a Chinese student and sees plenty of potential for the class of 2011 and beyond to hook up to the website.

Besides viewing its online news channel, website visitors can browse an education site about studying, living, and moving to New Zealand, another site dedicated to business and investment news, a web forum to chat with other users, a local business index and a channel for Skykiwi members to get discounts.

The website made the first Chinese online drama Sunshine Beyond the Rain about eight Chinese students in Auckland. The 20-part soap was about love, friendship and life.

It doesn't end there: the site links to Youku, the Chinese version of Youtube, and this year launched an iPhone application. Ties have been forged with mobile operator 2degrees and the site links to TV3.

On the business front, Skykiwi has completed a series of joint promotions. One featured the BNZ encouraging the use at its banks of China Union Pay credit cards. A hugely popular match-making promotion listed speed dating locations for a table for 10.

The startup company has moved from online into magazines, and soon will publish its fourth edition of Hakazone, a glossy 100-page publication, with dozens of tearout coupons for members at Auckland restaurants, fashion shops, cafes and a chain of pet shops.

The January edition featured two young Skykiwi members who photographed their wedding in Venice.

Liu thinks of Skykiwi as a "community" which connects through the website.

So how free is comment on Skykiwi? Users can express their views in its forums, she says, and to a degree be critical of their homeland. But they need, she cautions, to make their point.

Every night in a semi-industrial part of Penrose, several interpreters work feverishly translating TV3's 6pm news into Mandarin and Korean. By 10pm a subtitled bulletin goes to air on two World TV channels, one for Korean viewers, the other for Chinese audiences.

The WTV enterprise started from scratch 10years ago. Using money from a handful of investors, chief executive Henry Ho and chief operating officer Gary Chang have created a diversified media group catering exclusively to New Zealand's Asian community.

WTV runs 10 pay channels through Sky and, since 2008, Chinese TV8 on Freeview, a breakthrough deal which simultaneously broadcasts in Cantonese, the language familiar to those from Hong Kong, and Mandarin, the principal mainland China dialect.

The network also delivers FM and AM radio and wraps up its programming on an electronic magazine.

Top-rating shows from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are screened to 11,000 subscribers and a potential audience which WTV puts at 50,000. Popular locally-produced breakfast shows, which feature lively talkback topics, run simultaneously on radio, further extending the audience.

Each year WTV produces an Idol-type show from start to finish, even polishing the singing of performers. For the past few seasons the network has shown beauty pageants in a joint venture with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, a privately owned broadcaster watched by millions of Chinese.

The two executives say a big challenge for the network is capturing the generation of New Zealand-born Chinese whose first language is English. Subtitling shows is slow and costly, and shows from Singapore with Chinese faces and English-language sound lack appeal.

They also have to navigate their media business through the tricky currents of Chinese and Taiwanese politics. Ho says WTV is a New Zealand television company, screening material from Asia to an audience from a range of countries: "We have to be neutral."

Chang and Ho never thought they'd be running a broadcaster when they arrived 21 years ago. Both say they migrated to retire in New Zealand - fast-food importer Ho from Hong Kong and Chang, a video distributor, from Taiwan.

Their wives met at a video store - and a business idea was born. The pair spent two years negotiating with Sky to carry the Asian channels. Now they employ 120 staff, including a small news team. The network sent a crew to Christchurch last month where young Chinese students were among the casualties.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars has been spent on the Penrose studios, though Ho notes "we are not a Rolls-Royce operation".

The two managers say that immigration policy could have an effect on WTV's future but they are proud of what they've achieved.

Says Ho: "Every week we find we can do something more."

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 31 Jul 2014 02:09:48 Processing Time: 447ms