Junfeng is one of those people that you see on TV or read about a lot on newspapers but that you never get to meet. We had crossed paths a couple of times, since we share some common friends, but I'd never had the chance to get to know him. I have, though, been watching his films and noticing his work since the start of his career, from his short films Katong Fugue to Keluar Baris to his first feature film, Sandcastle. And of course, his second and latest feature film, Apprentice, which was recently announced to be representing Singapore's bid at the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
His work always struck me as being quiet, calm, layered. And these were the same qualities I noticed about Junfeng when we finally met. He actually feels like the physical manifestation of his films, which is interesting. These qualities made me feel instantly at ease with him.
We had met a day after I'd arrived in Tokyo. He was living here for awhile. The sun was out - deceptively so, since the weather would prove to be terribly gloomy the next few days - and we were sitting at a cafe in Daikanyama, his dog Peanut waiting restlessly by his side.
It was a perfect day to be in Tokyo.
It's interesting that we are meeting here in Tokyo! How long are you staying here for?
I'm only here until end of October. I've been here since the start of August. My partner works here - He's Singaporean - so I come and visit as much as I can, but I don't live here because my commercial work - my bread and butter - is mostly in Singapore.
You don't seem to talk about your commercial work much.
I don't usually post about them [on social media] but sometimes, because the kind of commercials that I do tend to be more narrative driven, the clients like to identify the director, so that's when I am identified. But most of the time I'd rather be anonymous, because it's not technically my work. I'm just commissioned to do it.
I still see myself first and foremost as a filmmaker. If I want to be known for anything, it would be for my own films and not for what I'm commissioned to make.
But do you enjoy doing commercial work?
Yes, I think they allow me to try different things. They tend to be stories or messages that I wouldn't usually explore myself. And sometimes stylistically they also allow me to try something more conventional. It also always helps if the ad agencies have come to me because they appreciate my work. So they understand what I do and that makes working together easier.
So let's talk about Tokyo, since we are here. What do you enjoy about living here?
I can't say I'm living here - I think I'm just a long-term visitor, but I like that the weather changes and shifts. It makes the year feel a little shorter, and it's more comfortable, but of course it's been a very long summer, and only now is it starting to be a little cooler. I'm going back to Singapore soon, but I'll be here again in December.
That's nice. What's life like here?
Usually what I do here is, I come here and I do my writing. So what I like about being here, apart from the typical stuff that most people like about Japan, is that when I'm here I disconnect from Singapore and all the distractions there - people calling me out, people giving me things to do.
Are you bad at saying no?
Yes, quite! So when I'm away I can concentrate on work, on writing my own films. Sometimes when I get jobs, I can also work from here. In fact, one TVC that I did in May was mostly done via video-conference and I only went back for pre-production and the shoot. So it works quite well for me. I also need to be in Singapore for post-production, for editing, but towards the tail-end I don't need to be there.
Are you constantly writing for your next film?
I'm constantly... thinking. I have a few stories in mind, but I'm deciding what's the next immediate one. Being away, having the time and space to think is also important. I hardly socialise here. If I go out it's just to meet some closer friends that I have made here, but my social circle here is really, really small. Whereas in Singapore my social circle is very big, so I have a lot of distractions.
Many people must be curious. What's one day in your life like?
I typically wake up around 6.30am, because the sun rises very early here. I walk the dog, then I go out for breakfast, usually at a cafe or at T-site, sometimes at Ebisu, and I will sit there until lunch time, doing my work, clearing my emails. Around lunch I will go back home and usually I'll get a salad from the supermarket. In the afternoon, if there's a film I want to watch, or if I want to go to the museum, read a book, I will do that. But this is my life here. When I'm in Singapore I'm a lot busier, things are a lot more hectic. So I won't have that time and space to think, whereas here I have a schedule that allows me to do that.
How did you achieve this kind of wonderful balance before coming to Tokyo?
My partner used to be based in Sydney, before that New York, so it's been like this for 9 years already.
Let's talk a little about your creative process.
I think I tend to control a lot. I write my own films. I work with my producer while writing it but I write most of it. So when it comes to writing, production design, cinematography, sound, most of it I tend to be quite involved with the decision-making. But nowadays I'm trying as much as I can to let go and allow my collaborators to surprise me. Because sometimes when you hold on to it too much it ends up becoming just you, and not collaborative enough. But it's a process.
So you're learning to let go?
I think with Apprentice I have learnt to let go quite a bit. I tend to be quite obsessive about what and how things are done, so the films have been very "me". But I realised there is something very limiting about that, because if a film is just that, I get tired of it. When I watch it, I'd wish that there were something else that adds to it. That's why with Apprentice, a lot of it was in finding collaborators who can add sparks and allow the film to be bigger than what I'm able to do singularly.
Can you give me an example?
Like music. The first composer I worked with is a French composer. His name is Alexander Zekke. He's a cellist and he's worked with Pina Bausch. So a lot of it was in asking him to interpret the moments in the film. He then gave me the themes that were necessary for the film. The second composer, Matthew James Kelly, he provided sounds that were a cross between music and sound design. If you've seen Apprentice there are moments in the film where there are these very low frequency type of sounds and sounds that pull you in - those were done by him. So it's two very different purposes and two different types of music.
What do you love so much about film as an art form?
I like that I'm able to affect people. A film takes people on a journey. The audience comes and is willing to suspend their disbelief to sit with you or a story that you want to tell. That is a privilege. That's what I have always tried to work towards, to be able to engage people in a story that I care about enough to spend a few years of my life working on.
So not to give you pressure, but when can we expect the next film?
Apprentice took five years, hopefully the next one won't take so long. Hopefully in three years? I'm working on it now, but it's still in the germinating stage. I'm quite excited about the next story.
Since you spend so long working on a film, do you ever get bored of it?
Not really. I don't think I have ever gotten bored of my personal films. Precisely because I am the one who wants to make them. And at every step of the way, until it is finally shown, it's a work in progress. So even if I finish a draft, I always want to add things to it. I don't ever feel like I have arrived at a destination until the film is completed. It is when the film is completed and I show it and I show it again and again, that is when I start to feel like I should move on. That's the current phase that I'm in, although I also enjoy traveling a lot, so now I'm going all over the world with the film. It's something that I'm looking forward to. I also enjoy hearing different responses to the film, and once in awhile there will be a response that will be refreshing and that's nice. But if it tends to be the same, then it becomes a bit boring.
Would you describe yourself as an introvert?
I think definitely an introvert (laughs).
So as an introvert, how do you deal with working with so many people? As we all know, film productions concern a whole lot of people, and you are right in the center of it.
I don't see being the director as necessarily needing to be someone who is outgoing. I am blessed to always have a good team that supports and protects me. That gives me space to do my work. The kind of films that I do tends to be author-driven, so I tend to need to be the one publicizing it or to be the face of it. And I do it because I want people to watch the film. I know there is a value in me fronting it and promoting it, so I'd do it only because of that.
Do you enjoy all the photoshoots then?
I don't mind photoshoots and interviews. If it's meaningful and it brings people to the cinema and creates awareness for the work that I do, it's fine. Once in awhile it gets a bit too pompous, fake or pretentious - and in the film industry there can be many occasions where things are a bit unnecessarily pompous - then that's when I don't enjoy it. But I know sometimes I still have to do it, because walking a red carpet means I get photographed, and it means people will be more aware of my work. I accept that as part of the job.
What has been a memorably tough moment in your career?
There have been many tough moments, but I have been very fortunate in my career so far and people have been supportive and I have received attention for my films. But naturally that also comes with pressure.
And it came early. You made your first short film when you were in school, and that immediately garnered you awards at the Singapore International Film Festival. And you were so young then.
Yes, but I got used to it. I remember one of the more memorable tough moments was when I was making my first feature film Sandcastle. I was only 27. Two days before the shoot, I had a bit of a nervous breakdown. Everyone was already prepared for it, I was prepared for it, I also had a known sales agent, Fortissimo Films, backing it. There was a lot of pressure. If I screwed it up, it wasn't a film that I could hide. I knew there would be significant attention on it. And this was my first feature film. At that time I remember being very uncertain about whether I could pull it off, but my producer at that time reassured me, "We are all on board, and we are on board because we trust you, and you have us on board because you trust us right? So it's time to let go and trust that everyone will do their best." In the end it turned out well. It was just jitters. Anyone would have jitters before a performance. So for me it was before the shoot.
Did you have that kind of pressure for the second film?
Less so. Because it was so long drawn out, I was like, I can't wait to get it finished!
Are you a filmmaker who is inspired by actors?
For me I'm inspired by filmmakers and stories, not actors or actresses. I look for actors to fit a role or character. Maybe eventually I may have a muse, but not now.
Are you playing with any other art forms apart from film?
I have been venturing a little bit into visual arts. I had an exhibition earlier this year - it was a two-artist exhibition - and a few years ago I was part of the Singapore Biennale. They were still film-related because that is still my area of interest, but to bring it into a gallery space and to have a work in a form that is more interactive and less restricted by a frame of cinema, I think that was very liberating. And I enjoyed that very much. I wouldn't say there is a particular form exactly, but other modes of expression and representation are things I have always been very interested in.
I've been very curious about working with lenticular printing. It's a very old-school technology. Sometimes the final product looks 3D, and sometimes you can create the illusion that it's stereoscopic. I find that very interesting because it's also an optical illusion that can exist in a very different space. It doesn't require a video or a screen but it still falls into the realm of a moving image. I hope to be able to explore that. And it can be very tacky sometimes, like those postcards, but also because of how tacky it is, I'm quite attracted to it (laughs).
So apart from making films, you also are part of Pink Dot, the non-profit movement that advocates for LGBT rights through a very well-attended annual event in Singapore. Can you tell us about that experience?
I was part of the organising committee from the start and I was there at its genesis. To me Pink Dot came about in order to change hearts and change minds for LGBT people in Singapore. It was actually tailored for a society like Singapore to hopefully try and steer the conversation in a slightly different direction, so that we can look at it in terms of love and family rather than always being so obsessed with the sex part of it. In trying to focus on these universal themes, hopefully society will be able to have a better entry point, and perhaps that will inspire more empathy for the community. So that's how it started and that was its purpose, but Pink Dot should never be the be-all and end-all of LGBT rights and activism. There are so many other areas that need to be explored. But to a lot of Singaporeans who were previously unaware of some of the concerns of LGBT people, it's a good starting point.
It will need to constantly evolve and it will need to continue to keep the conversation going in the mainstream consciousness. I think that is one of its key roles. So for as long as that conversation is needed, I think Pink Dot is needed.
A big question next. What do you think is the meaning of life?
I am quite an agnostic. For me now... I think there are a lot of problems in the world and there are a lot of people who are being denied their rights to all kinds of things. I care, and I care enough to have some of these subjects and topics in my films. To me I think that's what I try to keep my focus on. At least when it comes to according someone else the dignity in life, that's what I try to do. I try to inspire some conversations, and hopefully people will watch a film and be able to contemplate some of these issues.
Last question, what are you working on right now?
I am working on the idea for the next film; I am also working with my producers and sales agent on trying to get Apprentice to as many territories around the world as possible, to do the effort behind the film justice.
I got to know Aron many years ago, back when I was still running my cafe. I think it was through our blogs that we met. At that time, Aron was an extremely popular blogger, and his writing and photographs of Japan already revealed the light and airy sensibility that I love very much about his work today.
Sometime last year, while on (yet another) visit to Tokyo, I decided to meet with Aron. He seemed like he would be a really cool guy to hang out with, and I was right! On the day we met, he came all the way to the train station so he could accompany me to his apartment. And when he opened the door to his apartment, I was blown away. It was like stepping into another world.
Enjoy our little conversation below. We talked about a lot more (in fact we talked for about 3 hours, I think, because there was just so much to talk about - it was so comfortable it felt like we had been friends for a long time) but here is an extract, and I hope it, together with the photographs, gives you a sense of the life that Aron has so lovingly built for himself.
Hi Aron! Can you tell us a little about what you do? What is your job in Tokyo?
Hello!! I came to Japan with a working visa and teach English to adults. It's a conversation school and all my lessons are one on one. It's for working adults and also some teenagers and university students, so I don't actually teach children. Even though my hobby and love is photography, my job as an English teacher is quite fulfilling and I love my job as it's different everyday. My students are fun and also have become my friends in some cases!
How long have you been living in Tokyo? Also, what made you decide to move to Tokyo? (Since you were originally from Hawaii!)
As of March 2017, I've been here for three and a half years. I've always wanted to live in Japan since I was a young child and I thought after I graduated university and worked some years and saved up money, I'd finally make my move. And it was the best decision I ever made! I will always love Hawaii and I'm so proud to be from Hawaii, but my life there was quite small. I take after my father, so I'm quite adventurous and wanted to see what else the world had to offer me!
Let's talk a little about your photography. You have so many followers on Instagram. Do you think of yourself as a photographer?
I do... but not so professional in any sense. It's become my hobby that I so happen to be "good" at, with the validation of an influx of Instagram followers. But there are so many other photographers out there that are much more seasoned, with all the latest equipment, and also pure professionalism, but they may not have as many followers as me and that doesn't make them any less of a photographer. And more so, just because I have more followers than the average person, doesn't mean I'm a photographer as well. I'd like to think of myself as a "budding photographer." I have so much more growing to do.
What do you look out for when you shoot?
That's so difficult to explain because what catches my eye can vary in lighting, atmosphere, subject, space, etc...I couldn't say one specific thing qualifies as "photogenic" because that wouldn't be fair. But I guess a reoccurring theme I have in all my photos is bright light. A well lit and spacious environment is always pleasing to me.
Do you have any favorite spots to shoot at in Tokyo?
Not really, no. Hahaha! I actually don't venture around Tokyo as much as I did when I first moved here. It's actually the chances I have when I travel OUTSIDE Tokyo, to do most of my photo shooting. But I do have friends and loved ones by the ocean side in Kanagawa, so I always bring my camera when I'm out there.
Can you share with us what you love about living in Japan?
Japan attracted me from a very young age, growing up in Hawaii. Specifically, movies like "Megane" really grabbed my attention to the soft and quiet side of Japan living. Sure Tokyo is fun for shopping and eating, but the more simple and quiet home and country life of Japan is more beautiful for me. And now that I live here, the things that make me so appreciative to call this place my home is: quality, courtesy, safety, and cleanliness.
Your home is really beautiful. What inspired you to design in this way?
Thank you Rebecca! I've always had a passion for interior design. Even looking back at my rooms in Hawaii growing up, I was always proud of the way I set up my personal space. Again, going back to Japanese aesthetics, I would watch a lot of Japanese films and also buy a lot of Japanese interior magazines that helped shape my interior preferences: Simple, white (but with pops of ethnic color), plants, wood, and sunlight. That's my room in a nutshell.
Do you have a life philosophy?
Deep question! Hmmmm... I guess the number one thing my parents always instilled in me, above all is: kindness. They always told me it doesn't matter how rich or successful you are; if your heart isn't good, then nothing will fall into place. During my early years of living in Japan, I found God through some very rough times in my life. So prayer saved my life too. I always try to count my blessings and not my problems. Also, I love the quote from Toro Y Moi's song 109: "Nothing is the worst and no one is the best."
What do you love about photography?
I love how it shows every photographer's individual eye and aesthetic. You could give 10 photographers one subject to take a picture of, and everyone's end result will be completely different.
I love how it's a form of art and history. Documentation for visual minded people.
I love how accessible it is to most people.
And I love how permanent it can be. Literally capturing time.
Do you have any current or future creative plans or projects you can share with us about?
I'm actually a huge procrastinator, I'll admit. So my ongoing goals are to make a photo book (hopefully to be sold in stores one day), and also a little gallery / exhibition in Tokyo. So we'll see!
With this photo project (just as in life), you never know who you are going to meet next. I mean, sure, you know they’re a cafe-owner or a designer or an artist or a photographer, but often you have absolutely no idea what kind of a person they are going to turn out to be.
When I first met Maygo – and by this I mean the first few seconds of me encountering her for the first time in my life – I was taken aback by her uniqueness. I can’t really describe how unique she is – you might have to meet her and have a conversation with her in order to fully understand what I mean.
Before running Megane, Maygo was one of the co-owners of Zabu, a popular cafe/bar in Taipei. Zabu had a great cult following and was my favorite haunt in the city. When I realized she was the one who had started the place, I became even more entranced by her. So we talked. For three whole hours. In the coldness and wetness of November’s Taipei, while sipping a cup of hot tea that never seemed to lose its heat.
After our conversation – during which we talked about our cultural differences, things and people we like, etc – I took up my camera and looked through it, this time realizing that I was not looking at a place but at a person. Maygo had said that she runs the place alone. She is used to working alone. The cafe employs other staff, of course, but all the big decisions are made by her alone. As I photographed the lights, the flooring, the utensils, the food, the books, and finally the people who fill up her cafe, I began to see Maygo reflected in all of them.
And I thought to myself, how wonderful it must be, to have a place that is a perfect mirror of yourself. You must never feel alone then.
It was a rainy Wednesday the day we met Ding Dong and his wife Cheese. My memory is vivid because I remember Ding Dong had wanted to bring us for a walk in the woods near his home, but the weather had spoilt his plan. So, instead of trudging through the muddy woods, we found ourselves back in their lovely home, huddling warmly by their window with the perfect mountain view. Cheese kept herself constantly busy by making tea and feeding us with every snack in her kitchen, while Ding Dong showed us his work – colorful, spontaneous, heartfelt photographs that burst with life – and we laughed and talked and laughed. It felt like we’d been friends forever.
All the time I could feel the day slowly winding down. The gentle Taipei light was fading away, until we finally lost sight of the mountain through the window. The night had arrived quietly. It’s strange to say this now, but at that very moment I felt extremely… at peace. In my head I wondered to myself: How amazing that our lives have converged. How amazing that the world is so huge, but also often so small.
If I hadn’t found Ding Dong’s work on the internet and emailed him out of the blue for an interview; if I had been too busy with work to travel to Taiwan; if one random click had brought me to another person’s website instead of Ding Dong’s, then I wouldn’t have met these two kind, intelligent, warm, affectionate human beings. I would not be so thoroughly inspired by Cheese’s fight against cancer; I wouldn’t have had the chance to witness Ding Dong’s immense love for his wife; I would have gone on living without having known that it’s possible to be able to face some of life’s hardships with such optimism and humor.
I love Ding Dong’s work (and as a book editor Cheese is extremely talented as well), but I am even more in love with the kind of people that they are, and the way they choose to live their lives. This is clear in so many little clues scattered across their home. On their fridge are photographs taken at their little Summer garden wedding, Cheese in a simple white dress and Ding Dong in slippers, their wedding photographs comprising of a number of polaroids. On another wall are more photographs, this time of Cheese in a wedding gown. You don’t see Ding Dong anywhere because he’s the one on the camera. In these photos Cheese is smiling. She shines like the sun. The grass is a sharp green and the sky is so blue it’s like we’re looking at the ocean.
And all I see is love.
Karen Wai and Jean Paolo Ty are two of the gentlest souls I have ever met.
This gentleness extends to their home. It's a beautiful space, not large at all, but quite perfect in its own way, from the home-grown plants to the exquisite light that spills into the house every afternoon to the cello sitting quietly by the wall. Everything is perfect and... right.
I know Karen from her days at BooksActually. She had co-founded the bookstore when she was barely out of her twenties. She knew nothing about literature then, selecting books only based on what she had read and liked. Over the years, through a mix of sheer hard work and clever marketing, BooksActually has grown to become a powerful cultural force in Singapore and also the city's best-known bookstore.
In 2011 Karen made the decision to leave the bookstore, after six full years, to start a new life.
As for Paolo, he spent seven years himself at a small local advertising agency doing digital and print work before quitting his job.
This year they will be starting out on their own. Interested in storytelling and its power to change the world, the two will be focusing on making documentaries about issues and people that they are interested in.
I cannot wait to encounter the beautiful stories that they will inevitably tell.
A bookstore is a special thing. I remember the first time I climbed up a few dingy flight of stairs and stepped into Mackie Study in Hong Kong - in that moment everything around me seemed to fall away, and soon I was surrounded by this magical feeling of being among books that might change my life.
It was my favorite bookstore for awhile but soon it too disappeared, like so many important but under-appreciated cultural spaces of a city too busy to slow down.
That was many years ago.
David and Monique, who run Shimokitazawa Generations, must have felt what I did at some point in their lives. Maybe that's why their independent bookstore, which started as a humble online bookstore and has since amassed quite a following among lovers of magazines and independent publishing, feels like it is more than just another store.
It feels like a place with soul.
The afternoon I spent with David and Monique was filled with talk of magazines and people who make them and Tokyo and how in Tokyo people care about such things. I went away from our conversation with the feeling that it's not easy to care about magazines anywhere in this world where most people care only about making money. And people who publish magazines don't make much money.
But out of love and passion the ones who do it keep trudging on. And that, to me, is special.
There is a pureness about PINMO that I cannot really convey to you through mere photographs. Or words. But I will try.
There is a glass wall next to the entrance of PINMO, which lets in just the right amount of mid-day light to illuminate the store. Wooden fixtures exhibit PINMO’s self-manufactured goods, which includes notebooks, journals, bags, pencils. They also put out their own publications – these, too, you can browse and buy at the store. The atmosphere is comfortable and relaxing. A stairway outside the store on the ground floor quickly leads you into a basement. There you can find more goods, and a space where exhibitions are held.
On the day of my visit, Xiao Fu (PINMO’s founder) is busy trying to rearrange the layout of the store. He is meticulous about it, moving things here and there, changing his mind, adjusting angles. He barely notices me. I am left alone to wander from the store to their office. Usually I am embarrassed about interrupting other people at their workspace, but the camera in front of my face renders me invisible and I become free to explore their world. I morph into a pair of eyes, an observer.
The office (connected to the PINMO store by a small door) is dim and messy. It feels like where good ideas are born. I can imagine humid days when designers and creative directors sit together chewing cigarettes and throwing ideas around. You can see books and notes everywhere. They have nice chairs. And towards the end of the rectangular-shaped office is a dining table, followed by a kitchen. A few young employees sit having lunch.
After I photograph the office, I go back to the store, this time without my camera. I hold each product in my hand, weighing it and feeling its texture. Excitement rises in me. It’s the excitement that comes to me whenever I come across something “pure” and authentic, something real. Every PINMO product seems to me to be highly functional and minimalistic, rather than merely pretty. This pureness also extends to the attitude of Xiao Fu, who emphasizes that PINMO allows people time to find out about them, aiming for true connection rather than fast consumerism. The brand has given up opportunities to retail its goods at big-box malls, and is satisfied hiding in a small physical location at Yong Kang Street. Xiao Fu is not worried.
Good things will find their audience, he believes.
Even in these modern times we need an anchor to a time when things were simpler and more meaningful. In Singapore, one of these anchors is The Gentlemen’s Press, a letterpress studio that defies our expectations of how a modern business should be like, by being slow, deliberate and thoughtful.
Hanging around the studio, one gets the sense that here, the limelight is on the tools. They are simple tools, the exact opposite of the expensive and mean machines commonly used in factories, but they do their job. The simplicity of the tools means that more time is needed to get a print done, but in letterpress printing, it’s certainly quality above quantity. No two print is the same, since each one is hand-pressed, and therein lies the strange allure of this archaic form of printing.
Two quiet and polite girls run The Gentlemen’s Press. They are young and fresh out of school. It takes some courage and a good amount of smarts to build a sustainable letterpress studio in Singapore, but being young helps one to stay focused on the possibilities. You don’t think about failure. Instead you ride along with your dream, going wherever it goes.
And The Gentlemen’s Press, I think, is going to bring us back to the past. The good old glorious past.
I absolutely had to photograph Timo and Priscilla. It wasn’t that anyone specifically asked me to, but having seen their work I felt an incredible urge to meet them in person, to see if they were as delicate and beautiful and extraordinary as their work.
And of course they were.
The thing about Timo and Priscilla is that it’s very hard not to like them. They smile easily and there is an easy sense of camaraderie between them. While photographing them there were many moments when they would tease each other gently, and this casualness made things a little easier for me, the photographer who had so rudely intruded upon their private world.
Their studio in Paya Lebar is small but choked full with things – books, prototypes, furniture. The afternoon I was there, the mid-day light spilled into the studio, illuminating everything. After a short chat, Timo and Priscilla went back to work as I explored the little space, training my camera on the details.
The details, I think, will tell you something crucial about these two wonderful, talented designers.
And so here you go.
I've always wanted to meet Lucas. His work with the travel magazine Papersky had inspired me greatly, so two years ago, having bought a ticket to Tokyo, I emailed him to see if there was a possibility of us meeting. I hadn't started Creative People + Projects then and so I didn't have a good excuse, but the kind Lucas quickly agreed. Unfortunately the earthquake in Japan happened, and I rerouted to Seoul instead.
A few weeks ago I finally managed to find my way to Tokyo. When I pushed through the door and stepped into Knee High Media's office (the creative agency founded by Lucas), I was surprised at how down-to-earth it was. I had expected, I guess, to walk into an entire building - after all, Knee High Media is scarily busy: besides publishing Papersky, Lucas is also the brains behind kids' magazine Mammoth, the yearly kids' music festival "Mammoth Pow-Wow", countless bicycle tours across Japan; as a creative agency the company also works with clients to, among other things, design shops and create publications.
Very quickly I found myself face-to-face with Lucas. We shoke hands and I noticed that his grasp was firm but gentle. It was a cold day in Tokyo, but I was immediately comforted by the warmth of Lucas' personality. And so we talked, and as his story unfolded, I began to understand why he is able to do what he does.
How did it all begin? Why did you decide to come to Japan?
I was originally from California - born in Baltimore, in the East Coast. I graduated from college and the next day I came to Japan. It was the first time I'd ever been outside of America. In school I had a friend from the Netherlands, a friend from Pakistan, a friend from Wales... they all spoke other languages and they would always go back to these countries and tell me about all their adventures. So when I graduated I was like, I'm going to go somewhere exciting! In Japan Town in San Francisco, there's a bookstore called Kinokuniya, they had lots of Japanese magazines and I'd always be amazed at the design, the photographs. So I said, I'm going to Japan! That was my only reason and I only had a very small backpack and I just got on the airplane. I had no plans. I had about $1,000 on me.
I know at that time you began making the youth/fashion magazine TOKION, which later gained alot of popularity.
In about two weeks or so I figured out that I really liked Japan and that I wanted to stay here, so I found a job teaching English to kids. I also started writing for some publications here. Time Magazine used to have an Asian office in Tokyo, so I used to write for them. I also wrote for Wired Magazine and Japan Times. So I would write articles, then I remembered that I kinda like making magazines, so I started making the magazine TOKION in 1996, three years after I had arrived in Japan. Once I had the idea, I gathered a group of people I thought it'd be good to work with - about 5 of them.
TOKION was about street culture, youth culture, music, fashion. Every issue had a different theme. This was new at that time. Not many magazines did that. Another thing new was that we did lots of collaborations with other brands. On the first issue of TOKION we had Nigo (the founder of fashion brand A Bathing Ape) on the cover. It was his first. He had never been on one before. It was a very big deal in Japan. He liked Star Wars alot so we gave him a pink light saber! We also did different versions with a green one and an orange one. Depending on what shop you went to, you got a different cover.
So did TOKION become your full-time job? Was it successful enough for you to make a living out of it?
When we first started, I was still writing. It took about a year or so before it became a full-time job. The income came through advertising and sales, and we also did alot of parties, because there were lots of good music bands.
Why did you eventually decide to stop publishing TOKION, especially when it was still very popular with the readers?
I started TOKION when I was 24, 25 years old. You get older as the years go by, so it got more difficult. The quality of TOKION was very good, but the topic was very young. The readers were very young too - lots of energy and they always wanted to know what's new. As I got older, I had less energy and I didn't know about what's going on. It kinda creates a gap. You can fake it and pretend like you know but it's not real anymore. Obviously the readers read magazines like that and they know it right away. So I couldn't make what needs to be done anymore. So I thought if there're other people who could do something with it, then it might be better.
Do you think one day you would stop making Papersky, just like you stopped publishing TOKION, and do something different at another stage of your life?
We kinda do alot of different stuff, so I don't know what else to do (laugh)! We have Mammoth, the kids' magazine; Paper Sky is about travel, we also do events now all over Japan where we visit rural prefectures in Japan. It's called the Papersky tour in Nippon. Each time we go to a different place and we ride bicycles, and we appreciate the place through the ride. We just opened a store two weeks ago. We used to run a rather famous bookstore called Book 246. We have a clothing store in Kyoto, the Globe Walker, commissioned by the North Face. Every 3 months we make a different map for them, and in each of them we choose ten places that Papersky recommends in the city. We also create monthly exhibitions about the city in the shop. We also recently opened our own online shop!
That is alot on your plate! How many people do you have in your company?
5 of us. Myself, my wife, and 3 other people. It's a small team. At one point we made three magazines, and we also made Metro Min, a free magazine (another publishing company asked us to make it) - we were doing all of these at the same time and we had 12 people. It was too much. The last four years or so, we have gotten down to a smaller team. We also make these bicycle maps that are distributed at the places that we introduce. For Mammoth magazine, we have a 2-day music and camp festival. It's basically a music festival but geared towards families and kids.
Although you do so many different things, your main focus seems to be on magazines. What
do you think is the magazine's role in the world? Do you think it still has a place in these digitized times?
Definitely. Magazines are special because they are printed and on paper - they are alive! Paper is literally living - holding itself together via fibers. Magazines are held together through inspiring ideas and visuals. Magazines are printed matter and printed matter at its best is collected and saved and passed on through time. It's referenced and loved both in the heart and mind - magazines at their best, like good music and good art, have a soul and the ability to inspire - so yes, in an increasingly digitalized society, magazines definitely still have a place. While they dwindle in number the publications that do survive become more and more precious and important.
I am quite curious: What is the creative process like at the office of Knee High Media, with so many creative projects running at the same time?
It's like juggling. We've got lots of balls up in the air and we've got to catch whichever one is going to hit us in the eye first. It's good because each publication has a focus but at the same time all of the projects we work on inspire one another.
We have a list of ideas but sometimes things happen, like the Tsunami, and the mood and the timing is very different, so it's always very important to look at our old notes but also to be in the present and the future. Magazines are very live, which is why I like magazines. For us it's always trying to figure out what's the right thing to do at the right time and place. We always have Monday meetings and we talk about different projects, and through that we usually come up with a theme. We also always have a keyword. The upcoming issue's theme is New Zealand and the keyword is "Long". In Japan it's very popular to go to the mountains and ride bicycles around town. It's good that people are doing both of these activities, but we think that the next step is for people to realize that it's not just a fashionable thing to do - because if you ride a bike it's alot better than if you ride a car, as it does a lot less damage to the earth, and you have better communication because people say hi and you say hi back, and you can feel if the air is dirty or clean. It's the same with walking. It's interesting also that it's a very healthy thing mentally, but you don't feel the effects if you just do it for a day or two, but if you take a walk or ride a bicycle for 4 days or more, you are no longer in the "fashionable" zone. It's more of a commitment. It automatically affects your mentality. It doesn't matter who you are, but when you do that it's going to change you in someway or another. In New Zealand it's not such a rare thing. There they do this as a lifestyle. It changes the whole mentality of the country, so we want to introduce this concept into Japan.
What is your philosophy towards your work?
"Play to learn". If you're not interested in what you're doing, it's not fun and you're not learning anything. The reason travel is exciting is because you're always meeting other people and learning something new. The travel might be faraway or a walk down the street, but if you're constantly being exposed to new stuff, it's exciting. It's like how you get people excited in things - it's a very editorial thing. Many people can make a magazine, but not many can make one that people are interested in. I think that's a skill that we have as a company. For instance, when we started a magazine about plants, we didn't know anything about plants. The company who hired us wanted to just make a gardening magazine, but we thought we can't do that because we don't know about plants! But what we can do is get people engaged in plants, excited about plants, so that kinda opened up different doors. So once people - whether about culture or kids learning things - are engaged, you don't have to teach them anymore, they do it themselves and they learn more. Like our tours - everyone comes to the cities, but no one goes to the rural communities. If no one goes there, no one can make food, you can't function as a country anymore. You also lose a lot of your culture. So our concept was - how do you get people excited about the rural communities?
How has living overseas changed your worldview and the way you work?
I've become an Earthling. Which has definitely given me the view point that we all live on the same island - Earth. Once this happens you can appreciate your locality with a widescreen perspective of being both one and simultaneously a part of a whole.
You are always trying to keep things different and provide new perspectives. That's very inspiring to me. What, on the other hand, inspires you?
think the cycle of being inspired and inspiring others is ultimately
what makes life so precious and delightful. I'm constantly curious
about things and always striving to know more, but not through an
'intellectual' type of knowledge but rather through a hands-on type
of knowledge that is only gained by experiencing people, events and
places on your own.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a magazine?
Don't do it! Making a magazine is tons of work - usually doesn't work out, costs lots of money and makes no money. But if you have a voice inside you that says, make it and people will be inspired, make it for the sake of creating a better world, make it in the name of creativity and happiness, then go for it! You'll love it, because magazines, when they are good, will open doors to anywhere you want to go.
How important is work in your life? Do you consider yourself to be a workaholic?
Life and work are pretty much the same thing. I am inspired by life and the natural world, as well as by people and the amazing amount of love and creativity that people hold in their hearts. I travel the world and Japan looking for people, places, things and ideas that inspire me and I try to share what I've found with our readers.
What do you do on your off days from work?
Pretty much the same things that I do on work days.
Hang out with my wife - we work together, so actually I'm very lucky in that I get to be with the person I love everyday.
I also do a lot of walking, hiking and biking, which I also do on work days. Our magazine Papersky has created a series of clubs that bring readers together to participate in hikes and bike trips throughout Japan. We currently have 5 clubs: a bicycle club, a mountain club, a book club, a Japan culture club and a food club.
I've got lots of free time I'll read - it takes me about 2 months to
get through a book. What
I probably do most of the day is day-dreaming. Definitely hard to
keep my mind from wandering about.
TY and Jason make up ACRE. Their studio name reminds me, inevitably, of mathematics. Precision. Accuracy. Attention to detail. I would apply these same descriptions to their work. But mathematics, like poetry, like a piece of painting, like an immaculately-directed film, can also be extremely beautiful. And so that is what I think ACRE's work is all about - beauty in the midst of rigorous logic. (For an example of what I mean by "beauty in the midst of rigorous logic", check out the wildly popular "Units of Measure" calendar poster they designed some time ago.)
ACRE is a young studio, but looking at the quality of their work it's hard to believe that they have only been around for about 2 years. Perhaps it's the youthfulness of TY and Jason. Perhaps it's because it's hard to believe that a studio this young could put out work this beautiful and well-thought-out.
So this is what I have to say: If you want a taste of what's to come in Singapore's growing and fast-maturing design scene, look to ACRE. They will guide you there.
Supermama is many
things at once – a store, an artist residency studio, a platform
for designers, a space for people to escape to – but it is at its
core a labor of love. Named “Supermama” as a tribute to Meiling,
Edwin's wife, the store began its life when the couple quit their
respective jobs, sold their four-room flat and dreamed up the idea of
taking a one-year sabbatical. Like many other Singaporeans, Edwin and
Meiling were sick of the tediousness of a life without a bigger
And what is this elusive "bigger purpose", you ask?
No one can say for sure really. Everyone has his or her unique path. The roads diverge and we each embark on the route of our choice, and for better or worse, that is our journey.
Supermama is Edwin and Meiling's journey. The flagship space at Seah Street is an oasis of peace and quietness. Hand-picked products from around the world are displayed on beautiful shelves. Bowls. Ties. Notebooks. Plants. A disparate catalog of things that, you suspect, are made with heart. And love.
Unlike most shops, Supermama is not out to make money. It sounds strange whenever you hear something like this - it feels elitist, pretentious, naive - but when I talk to Edwin, I understand fully what he means. Surely there are things that are far more important than money. Like good design. Like beauty. Like life.
Just as Edwin said, "There are alot of decisions to make [in design]. After your last decision, a chair becomes a chair. So to me, design is like life. If you are able to make your choices in a beautiful way, you can come up with a very beautiful design."
Just as in life.
Yanda is something of an accidental designer. He’s self-taught, independent, quirky and extremely shy. He also hates being photographed. I understood, standing there with my camera, that I was hurting him with each click of my shutter, but he was kind enough to let me do my job. Our conversations were of course about design. And beginnings. He chugged his cigarette by the window as I listened to his stories of meeting people like John Clang and Zhang Jingna. They were his earliest clients, even though at that time he knew almost nothing about design. And yet merely a few years later here he was, the owner of a busy studio and already itching to do something else.
Nick is a poet and a thug. He defies expectations. His music is soft and gentle – he makes rainy day songs, some people say – but when you meet him in real life he feels tough. Real. Raw around the edges. And all of these in a good way. He tells funny jokes and looks good with a cigarette. On the day I photographed him we talked alot about music and he kept grinning like a child, his eyes lighting up again and again. I was so obsessed with his face that I forgot to photograph anything else. It’s an intriguing face that is capable of containing both seriousness and frivolity at the same time, even if it sounds impossible. Before I left he kindly gave me a copy of his album, and for two weeks after that his songs accompanied me as I drove from one place to another, the slowness of his music juxtaposing brilliantly with the high speed at which I travelled into the future.