The person behind new UK magazine for Asian women? A man

One of the covers of the first issue of The Wow, an independent magazine launched in the UK targeting Asian women.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

"Although Asian is one of the largest ethnicities in the world, diverse images of Asian women are rarely included in Western mainstream magazines," writes Wei Liu in his editor's letter for the newly launched The Wow magazine. "Hollywood waited for 25 years to see another all-Asian cast in the film Crazy Rich Asians, so how long should we keep waiting to see a magazine for them? It's about time, so here we are."

Liu is exhausted when I meet him in a cafe in London's Victoria district. "I'm working on the magazine all by myself at the moment," says the 31-year-old recent graduate of the London College of Fashion (LCF). "I had one classmate who helped with contacts before, but she went back to China."

Liu's publication was born out of his final project at university. It debuted this month on the shelves of WHSmith, Selfridges and various independent newsagents across the UK, with international delivery available too. The plan is for it to be a twice-yearly publication.

Despite being self-funded, The Wow does not look like a magazine done on the cheap. Inside the first issue there is an interview with British-Chinese actor Jing Lusi (Crazy Rich Asians, Stan Lee's Lucky Man), a photo shoot with Instagram model Lovisa Lager, and personal essays exploring different aspects of race.

While starting a print magazine in today's media climate is no easy task, Liu was surprised at how many Asian and Eurasian actors, photographers, and models were eager to help. Perhaps it's a sign of how few opportunities they get in Western media, he reflects.

Born in a small town in China's Hunan province, Liu became interested in fashion magazines when he was 18. He was studying Korean literature in South Korea and didn't have many friends, so he watched a lot of America's Next Top Model and Ugly Betty. "I was fascinated by those images they created," he says.

Wei Liu, founder of The Wow.
Photo: South China Morning Post
A shoot in the first issue of The Wow.
Photo: South China Morning Post

Liu returned to China after five years in South Korea to study a degree in mass communication, thinking that might help him get a job in fashion.

"Then Weibo came out and I started posting pictures of Chinese models working overseas," he explains. "Because I got into Weibo quite early I started getting many followers, including models and editors."

He hands me his phone to show me his Weibo account. It takes me a moment to register that the 1,388,644 figure I'm looking at is his follower count.

For a while, Liu rode the wave of his social media popularity. Through his Weibo contacts, he began contributing to the Chinese editions of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Throughout all this, his dream was to study at LCF.

"After years of working in China, I finally had enough savings to [attend LCF]. I came here aged 29. My friends, my family - they weren't so supportive," he says.

Instagram model Lovisa Lager in the first issue of The Wow.
Photo: South China Morning Post

His major was fashion journalism. "To be honest, I was really disappointed in the first year," he says. But he was inspired by a guest lecture from Penny Martin, the editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman. He did some research and discovered a gap in the market for a magazine aimed at Asian women. "There are so many magazines, but no magazine exists for the Asian community."

Asked why he's not launching a men's magazine, his pragmatic answer is that "the market is dominated by women's magazines and you will get a big audience." He does hope to do a men's special though, if everything goes well.

He admits that he will need some female help in future. "As a man, there are some subjects that I won't be able to 100 per cent relate to, so I really hope for the second issue, or the future, I can get a woman to create the magazine together."

Seeing The Wow next to the likes of i-D, Vogue and Love is enough to make you wonder why it has taken so long for such a magazine to be published. How did the UK have a magazine for modern witches before one for Asian women?

The answer is complicated. Steven Watson, founder of magazine subscription service Stack, puts some of it down to technology.

"It's way easier now for somebody with a passion to turn their ideas into ink on paper and produce a high-quality magazine," he says. "That's why we're seeing this incredible explosion of independent publishing, with magazines exploring niches within niches and becoming ever more specialist and specific."

One of the covers of the first issue of The Wow.
Photo: South China Morning Post

Watson also points out that it's not right to say The Wow is the first magazine for Asian women. "Daikon is a magazine made by and for Asian women and non-binary people. And Banana magazine, while it's not exclusively aimed at Asian women, is all about the Asian/Western experience - it's run by women and features lots of women in its pages."

A layout from The Wow.
Photo: South China Morning Post

Perhaps, then, it is fairer to say that The Wow is the first Asian-focused magazine to be targeting the high-end fashion space in the UK. Its pages are filled with recognisable luxury brands - Stella McCartney, Gucci and so on - while also championing Asian designers such as Rejina Pyo.

Inside pages from The Wow.
Photo: South China Morning Post
Pages from the first issue of The Wow.
Photo: South China Morning Post

"I want to reach all the women with Asian heritage and also the Western people that might be interested in Asian culture," Liu says.

He is planning a launch party soon, but he's so tired. He hasn't been sleeping. There's the next issue to plan and starlets to appease. He's poured his savings into this project and by his own admission, he's not rich. What drives him?

"I want to do something meaningful," he replies. "So that many years later when I look back, I can feel proud."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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