After 12 years of publishing every month, this is the last print edition of AsiaLIFE. Like many publications have discovered around the world, print is becoming less and less commercially viable. And so the AsiaLIFE management team have decided to focus on our successful website. Director Jonny Edbrooke looks back at some of the highlights of AsiaLIFE. Photos by Angeli Castillo.
AsiaLIFE: The Start
AsiaLIFE in its current form hit the streets in early 2007. We had a few hiccups along the way but when our first edition burst onto the scene, it was groundbreaking, far ahead anything else in the marketplace in Vietnam.
Our founding editorial policy was to move beyond being a “what’s on” guide, to publish a lifestyle magazine packed full of quality content and imagery.
Heading this innovative new publication was Fiona Stalker, possibly the youngest managing editor in the world at just 19 years of age. I found Fiona at the Bangkok Creative Circle. She was perfect — young, dynamic and full of ideas.
Team of Creatives
When we first started publishing AsiaLIFE, our company was called 365 Day Advertising, a full service advertising company with a team of about 10 energetic creatives.
One of our art directors at the time, Darra Conlon, took up the challenge of making AsiaLIFE one of the best-designed publications in Vietnam. He did a great job, and we’ve used his design for the magazine ever since.
Ironically, Darra was also responsible for our first big blooper, in our first story about the arts. As he was laying out the page, Darra realised he didn’t know the name of the conductor of the Ho Chi Minh City orchestra, whose photograph we were using. In his rush to get everything done, Darra wrote “some old bloke” as the caption, intending to insert the correct name later on. But then he forgot, and all our proofreaders missed it. Luckily we noticed after before we started distribution, and the staff spent a long night going through every copy of the magazine with a black marker to cover up the faux pas.
The larger-than-life Fred Wissink and the then fledgling-photographer Christian Berg were responsible for the quality imagery that made AsiaLIFE stand out from the pack. “The people at AsiaLIFE, while not the first to really focus on photography, were undoubtedly the some of the most important,” Fred said.
Tom DiChristopher came in as editor on issue nine and brought with him a more serious style of journalism, paving the way for future editors to push the boundaries of what was published.
Changed the Landscape
“Being part of a team that chronicled the transformation of Ho Chi Minh City and the broader country during a time of rapid transition will always be a highlight of my career,” Tom said. “That team redefined what people expected from an expat magazine — in the quality of design, photography and journalism — and I will forever be proud of what we accomplished.” Tom went on to become an energy reporter at CNBC.
With Ginny Paige and Tom Merescca as deputy editor and staff writer this team worked tirelessly to ever improve the quality of editorial every month to deliver content that our readership lapped up.
One of my favourite memories was when Nam Quan dropped into the office one day while I was in reception. “I want to be your photographer,” he announced, in his hands were a couple of shots he had taken. Then Fred walked in. I said: “well, you’re in luck, meet Fred”. And so we had a photographic assistant who went on to become one of Saigon’s rising photographic stars. The first of many!
There was a whole team on that startup crew, who worked tirelessly worked behind the scenes. My sister-in-law, Xui, who made sure the magazine was printed. Trinh was the office manager, keeping everything sorted. And there was also Super Long, who is still with us, as the distribution man and Jack-of-all-trades. What started as a humorous nickname has become reality. Super Long really is super.
The early years of AsiaLIFE were exciting and incredibly creative. It was a great privilege to work with such a young and dynamic crew and I have watched proudly as they’ve moved onto great careers in the industry.
The last word on AsiaLIFE’s beginnings goes to Fred. “I owe much of my career and ability to Jonny and every other person I worked with,” he said. “I made some of the closest friends possible while at the magazine. People who opened my mind and unlocked abilities all the while letting me be who I am and letting me help define a look that no one else had at the time. The magazine defined my time in Vietnam for close to eight years. And for that AsiaLIFE will always hold a special place for me.”
Former editor Brett Davis reminisces about his time at the helm of AsiaLIFE.
I was pleased to know there was some expat-focused street press in the city, and the issue was full of information useful to someone fresh off the boat, such as myself.
I had been a journalist in Australia and China, so I sent off an email enquiring about the possibility of contributing to the magazine. Tom DiChristopher, the editor at the time, responded and we arranged that I would write a few pieces. A few months later a position opened up as contributing editor, and not long after I was fortunate enough to become managing editor.
Shaping Every Issue
For someone like myself, who has always loved magazines and the journalistic possibilities they offer, it was pretty much the best gig imaginable to have a magazine to play with and shape every month.
I loved the process that began with ideas kicked around in an editorial meeting kicking ideas around with team, and ended with holding something tangible in your hands a few weeks later, the completed magazine. There was a lot of hard work in between, but for me there was also a kind of magic to it.
One of the things we decided to do early on was shift the focus a little from expat life and dig a bit deeper into things going on in the country we were fortunate enough to live in. We still covered the food scene, travel and other subjects relevant to expatriates, but we also wanted to shine a light on subjects like cultural trends and social issues happening in Vietnam in general.
In one of my first issues we ran a cover story on the often untold scourge of domestic violence, and over the next couple of years we would also produce cover features on issues such as international adoptions, people trafficking, what it is like being part of the gay and transgender community here, and the almost endemic rate of abortions in Vietnam, to name just a few.
Some of these topics might not have made for comfortable reading, but we felt that it was important and they were stories which needed to be told. It wasn’t all so heavy though, there were also great stories on local artists, musicians, designers and filmmakers that highlighted the creative energy that is everywhere in this city.
We may not always have knocked it out of the park, or been able to execute what we had envisioned, but when we did there was a feeling of great satisfaction. And for a few years there, we did just that. Of course, I was fortunate enough to have around me some great people with the talent, imagination and drive to get the job done.
Learning On The Job
In my tenure with AsiaLIFE, between 2010 and 2015, I worked with a great many outstanding people, too many to list here. However, there are a few folks I would like to pay special tribute to. Beth Young was my first deputy editor, and I leaned on her heavily in my first months in charge. Full of easygoing humour and a ready smile, she is a seriously talented journo and remains a great friend to this day. Madeline Adamson and Chris Mueller, a serious man and a seriously good reporter, later adroitly filled Beth’s shoes and Chris would later go on to succeed me in the role of managing editor.
One of the things I enjoyed most about my time at AsiaLIFE was the opportunity to work with writers who had limited experience or no formal journalism training. It was always great to watch them find their voice and grow into themselves as writers. I take very little, if any, credit for their development, but I hope I was at least able to offer some useful advice from time to time that helped them on their way.
One such notable example was Dana Filek-Gibson, who was teaching English and writing a sometime blog when I hired her to write our back page column. She would later go on to become contributing, deputy and finally managing editor of the magazine and something of an expat journalistic powerhouse in Saigon.
AsiaLIFE also built much of its reputation on its visual style, and this was the work of some great art directors and photographers. My first art director, Johnny Murphy was about as inventive and ingenious as they come. Sarah Joanne Smith and Kendra Bernard also took the seat to keep driving our signature style forward. We were blessed when it came to photographers, with stalwart Fred Wissink there from the magazine’s first day, and Christian Berg and Vinh Dao were others I was lucky enough to work with.
It is a little sad there won’t be that thing to hold in your hands at the beginning of every month anymore, but such is the media landscape around the world as readers move to almost entirely digital platforms.
Fond Memories Forever
But the great stories we did will live on, as readers continue to find them online. We were a family of sorts at AsiaLIFE, and like any family we had our moments of disagreement or frustration, yet we made this thing every month that we could be proud of and hopefully provided some insight and understanding about this place and the people who live here. And because of that, and the people who shared that endeavour with me, it will always be one of the best jobs I ever had.
A NEW BEGINNING: AsiaLIFE Director, photographer and sometimes writer Jonny Edbrooke outlines what’s next for his media company.
The decision to halt the print version of AsiaLIFE was a very difficult one, one that took a lot of soul searching and researching future options. But it was becoming more and more obvious that traffic to asialifemagazine.com and our YouTube channel was exploding while the readership of the print magazine was static.
I could no longer ignore the fact that we had a much larger reach online. And so we decided to dedicate all our efforts into an online future.
In coming weeks, our website will be relaunched. We are planning a massive revamp of the site to make it easier to navigate, and we will have much more video content. Already 80% of traffic to the site is organic, meaning that the site is being found directly from Google searches, and we are going to fine-tune our SEO to further increase our traffic.
Since we launched the website seven years ago, we have steadily increased the video content. We investing heavily (much to my wife’s annoyance) in production equipment, including cameras, drones, gimbals and audio.
As video content has a much larger appeal to today’s online viewer, our focus will be to continue delivering editorial content, interviews and reviews in a video format instead of print.
Commercially we will be offering packages for clients wishing to promote their services through content marketing. With AsiaLIFE Media’s background as an ad agency we can work with and advise customers on methods that will be most effective.
I see this as somewhat an end of an era, with a lot of my career being in print magazines, I will miss the excitement of holding a physical publication in my hand every month.
But also I see this as an exciting new beginning and the next stage of the growth of AsiaLIFE, with many new opportunities for creativity and solid editorial.
A Big Thank You
I can’t finish without a big shout out to the current — and last AsiaLIFE — editorial team.
Barbara Adam came on as managing editor in mid-2017. A former reporter and editor with the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Australian Associated Press, Barbara has done an excellent job overseeing production and producing interesting and insightful articles, and the occasional photograph.
Editor Peter Cornish has also made a major contribution to AsiaLIFE, with a finger on the pulse of what’s happening around the city, especially the growing vegetarian scene, and a focus on community development, he has used the magazine as a platform for promoting those doing good works.
Photographers Romain Garrigue and Angeli Castillo continued the AsiaLIFE tradition of providing strong images to make the magazine visually stunning.
And then there’s Leo “The Sofa” Pham, our art director, who has spent the last three years forgoing a desk to oversee the layout and design from the office’s big red couch. He is also a talented singer who has provided frequent (mostly unwelcome) renditions for other members of the team.
Lastly we would all like to thank the Information and Communications Publishing House and Itaxa Printing House for all their support over the years.