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Sham Shui Po

Kenny X Li


art director

local hong kong

In Conversation: Kenny X Li’s YeP YeP Magazine Serves Hong Kong’s Underground Culture on a Steel Platter

by Charlie Zhang

Hong Kong photographer and art director Kenny X. Li wants to shine a light on Hong Kong’s underground creative community through his inaugural print magazine YeP YeP. The magazine gives voice to nine artists with no exposition. No words, bios or letters from editors. Just visuals. Hong Kong is home to Kenny, who’s spent considerable time in Singapore and New York.

“To me Hong Kong isn't just neon lights. That's so played out. I wanted to just walk around the streets and take photos of tacky posters and crappy billboards in Sham Shui Po.”

Kenny remains adamant on keeping his magazine purely visual, a daring decision as the world of print continues to struggle, not least in a city that rarely rewards creative entrepreneurs. Kenny is also foregoing seasonality with his releases. He notes YeP YeP is not much different from musicians putting out albums: he doesn’t feel the need to chase seasons as he gives himself time to let ideas brew. In a similar sense, YeP YeP’s visuals urge readers to pay attention to the side of Hong Kong that’s overshadowed by the city’s global commercial image: to appreciate the side that’s raw, industrial and fervently unkempt.

Our Founder Mandy Pao and the EQ team sat down with Kenny to discuss how he started the magazine and the creatives that fueled the pilot issue of YeP YeP.

What was your childhood like?

I was born in Singapore. I grew up and spent the first six years of my life there, then came to Hong Kong. I wouldn't say there was anything that interesting about my life. Throughout high school, I always thought that I was plain yogurt. My personality was like plain yogurt. I didn't have any cool interests. I wasn't super into art. You know, I was just listening to music my friends were listening to.

What were you listening to?

A lot of Cantopop. Everyone was listening to that. Then in high school, maybe 10th grade, it became more about like R&B, you know, like Baby Face. And then from there, around high school, I was maybe like 16 or 17, I started going to some raves in Hong Kong. Underground rave culture was actually pretty amazing back then in Hong Kong. You kind of had to hear about it and then go to these big industrial convention centers and listen to big techno Djs. But it was just once in a while. It wasn't like part of my normal life. My family was quite strict, like super tiger mom. So I grew up here with my parents and my younger sister. While I did have a tiger mom, she was nice enough to let me go out sometimes. But in terms of interests, I don't think I was really drawn to anything. You know how some people, they kind of have this calling and they're so attracted to one thing? I really wasn't. I was just trying different things.

At what point did you start getting interested in creative work?

I think it was in first-year Uni. I think most of us were kind of the same, right? You meet classmates who smoked a ton of weed, watch movies, listen to cool music, like discovering The Beatles for the first time, right? Like, Bob Marley posters and that sort of thing.

“Eventually, I got so bored doing production I was like, f**k it, I want to put together a photo shoot because I had all these ideas I wanted to try.”

Can you elaborate on your experience of first-year Uni?

I went to NYU and we had this special program where they put a bunch of freshmen kids in Florence, Italy on a small campus with International kids. At that time, I had come straight from the army. I had no personality. I didn't know what I would like and I wasn't really exposed to arts or anything like that. Then suddenly, you know, there were kids from all these different places, like Switzerland and Mexico, that I was meeting for the first time and tons of weed and art in Florence. Every corner you go, there'd be like this crazy palazzo with statues and tons of art. I think that really helped because the school really emphasized art history. We would go on field trips to Rome, to the Vatican, and then see the Sistine Chapel, and go to tons of galleries and museums in Florence. That really helped expose me to art and appreciate it. At the time, I didn't know how to really understand it. But I think it really just made me more aware that art is part of life and that it goes hand-in-hand with culture. I think that kind of sparks your curiosity: all these things came at once.

What's your background in photography and how did it inform Yep Yep?

So I used to live in New York. I went after undergrad with an Econ degree. I was like, "I don't know what the hell I'm going to do with an Econ degree." So I went to Parsons for a year to do a fashion marketing program. Then I worked for a fashion company. There, I was doing pretty boring production stuff, like costing, but then I was sort of working with designers as well. So those were like the cool creative people. Then I started making all these friends and hanging out with them. Eventually, I got so bored doing production I was like, f**k it, I want to put together a photo shoot because I had all these ideas I wanted to try. So I got the designers' clothing and then I got my photographer friends and then I kind of made myself an "art director." We kind of put together a photo shoot, which turned out okay. It turned out to be fun and I realized I really enjoyed putting ideas together. So from there, I kind of transitioned more into a marketing role where I would come up with things like social media campaigns or marketing campaigns for the brand I was working for and you know, research photographers whose work that I feel could work for the brand. From there I was introduced to the photography aspect. 

“I bought myself a camera, took some night classes and then I just started shooting.” 

I thought it was fun and that I kind of had something a little interesting to say with my work. So I just kind of kept shooting and came back to Hong Kong, did a master's in photography at SCAD and just kept shooting. Then I sort of transitioned into freelance photography. Even though I shoot a lot of commercial work, I really like shooting conceptual fashion. I'm not the most technically savvy photographer out there, but I try to make it work with what I can do to make my ideas come to life. Having said that, a lot of my personal work I find to be too weird for most publications in Hong Kong. So that's kind of one reason why I started my own magazine as well [laughs]. It's a bit selfish but I think it worked out. You know, I also realized that there are a lot of other photographers out there who make pretty crazy work as well and there's nowhere for them to publish their work, so why not just create a platform for people to showcase their stuff, the non-mainstream people to showcase their work.

How would you compare your affinity for music with your projects?

When I'm talking about this magazine, I'm always comparing it to music for some reason. Everybody's asking me, "When's your next issue?" I don't know when the next issue is. I mean, I'll try to release it once a year. But like album releases, if you're a band and you release this amazing album, you don't go work on the next one immediately, right? You're on tour promoting the album, doing interviews, etc. You need space for the product to breathe so that's where I guess I'm at right now.

Did you ever think about doing it cyclically, the traditional way?

I mean there are time constraints and budgets. I can't just print an issue every six months. I just don't have the money to do that. 

“I knew I wanted to make a publication that wasn't seasonal. These other magazines need to keep publishing because it's cyclical, but for me there's really no pressure to chase the seasons.”

How did you come up with the idea to start YeP YeP?

I think in the back of my head for the last few years, it's been brewing because I enjoy buying magazines. I enjoy being stimulated and finding new fashion editorials. So I would seek out magazines to buy. I collect them. I'm not like a hardcore collector, but I do buy magazines that are kind of more niche. Unfortunately, I always have to buy online or bring back a lot from New York. There's just no where to buy cool magazines in Hong Kong. There's no local magazines that offer these type of visuals. So in the back of my head, I'm like, "wouldn't it be nice if I could launch my own thing." Then COVID-19 came along and all of a sudden I had more time on my hands. So I just started researching, looking at cool photographers whose work I enjoy looking at and some other artists as well. Then I find out there's actually like a huge, really cool arts community in Hong Kong. So I thought it was time to start the magazine. I said, let's contact maybe 4 art people and 4 photographers. I don't think it's ever been done before where we have fashion and art kind of together in the same place. I would just put some sh*t that I like together in a magazine, something that makes me happy, something that I would like to read for myself.

How long did it take you to create it?

From conceptualizing to receiving my first copy, it took about a year and a half.

Which part did you enjoy the most?

The most enjoyable part was working with every artist, individually. I had to research the artists I wanted to feature. I gave them a brief and they had to come up with something. But with every single one of them, we kind of had to discuss a little bit, "what kind of work are you thinking of doing?" It really fit the vibe of the magazine. So there was a lot of back and forth. Then I realized and was like, "whoa, this is fun." They're talking about art and concepts and working with other artists. It was so collaborative. Also, working with a super talented graphic designer from New York, too, I learned a lot from him. The part that wasn't so fun was perhaps the production side. Trying to source the right paper, running into problems like taking two months to find paper, you know, and making the book dummies, finding the right staples, getting it done. That was pretty frustrating.

“We wanted to combine a thin magazine, like a sort of calendar paper, with a traditional glossy magazine paper — to have a difference in texture and have visual appeal.”

Can you elaborate on your experience working with the graphic designer?

I think he came up with an idea that was so out there. The magazine looks really simple, but actually it's quite difficult to make and not a lot of places could do it. It ended up being quite technical. Trying to communicate with each printer to see whether or not they could do it, getting the costing and then, getting a response a week later like, "oh we actually can't do this." Then finding another maker and them saying they could do it, but they can't find the right paper. A lot of roadblocks, but I'm glad that it's a good learning process. It's frustrating, but I learned a lot and I have the time anyway.

The magazine has a really glossy feel but there's also a mix of really thin paper. What sort of materials did you use to make this?

The magazine had to be a few things. It had to feel raw and it had to be inspired by Hong Kong aesthetics. So the graphic designer and I were researching, like street billboards, street posters in Hong Kong, whatever sort of visual language you would find on buildings or whatever. So then during the research we sort of said, "okay, let's do traditional Chinese calendars, like the red and green ones that you tear off. So he kind of took that and sort of emulated it while also making it feel cool and contemporary. That's why we wanted to combine a thin magazine, like a sort of calendar paper, with a traditional glossy magazine paper — to have a difference in texture and have visual appeal. We also decided at one point to use gray boards as the cover material because it feels raw and unfinished, and it gives the magazine this very tactile texture. Interesting. So we did that with a cover, but then it kept ripping. So then we were like, okay, let's try to give it a layer of lamination. So then we laminated it and then all of a sudden gave the magazine this very luxurious feel. Then we put the whole thing together with staples. And we just thought that was cool, industrial and it sort of had this mechanic kind of feel.

A lot of people think of neon lights and Wong Kar Wai when they think of Hong Kong. Did that ever spring to mind during the research process?

The process was finding what was uniquely Hong Kong, but to me Hong Kong isn't just neon lights. That's so played out. So we kind of took that and gave it a new life because I feel like it's something that we see all the time in Hong Kong, but maybe as a local you kind of take it for granted. So the graphic designer being based in New York, I think he kind of looked at it with fresh eyes.

It's interesting you do a lot of commercial shoots because YeP YeP is pretty left-field, like all the way at the opposite end of the spectrum.

“We can all have different interests. Maybe one day you're listening to Backstreet Boys, then the next day you might listen to Aphex Twin. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.”

Why do you think the creative community in Hong Kong is so underground?

Well, I mean, think about it this way. What sort of companies run Hong Kong? Banks, property, government things, Cantopop. Those are like the big pillars of junk permeating through Hong Kong, right? And that's all you see visually. You see slimming ads. You don't see anything cool in terms of advertising, right? You walk around New York and you might see a Calvin Klein ad that's, like really in your face, even though it's like a very popular brand, but you know their branding might be crazy. Then you turn a corner and you see some amazing five-story mural graffiti. There's so much of that going on, I think in New York where companies are willing to do something fun and interesting and maybe daring, whereas in Hong Kong, there's just none. So all those big companies are not really doing their part to make things cool. If Fashion Week in Hong Kong is still being run by TDC, you know you have a problem. It's not going to be cool. Having said that, I think there are a lot of old ideas still in power. The only ones who are able to do something different or cool are like the small mom and pop shops, small galleries, small businesses, small independent fashion designers. They're just kind of being covered by all this bullsh*t. That's why you just have to go so deep to find these creatives. I mean, granted, I don't really know the Cantopop scene so much, but then there are cool underground musicians as well, but they're not really getting the recognition or the big publicity that foreign artists get. That's my theory, but I could be wrong.

Inside the Creative Mind

From playlists and sketches to little notes that are marked down. A window into the processes that fuel each creative.

Could you share some photos you took while you were coming up with the idea for YeP YeP?

Here are some previous unpublished photos of some of the areas in Sham Shui Po that inspired me.

In case you missed it, check out our recent interview with Yeti Out's Arthur Bray.

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