Celebrating 100th edition, Big Issue keeps tackling social issues

2018/09/23 10:28:30 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
Chang Yue-mei

Chang Yue-mei

By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter

September marks a new beginning not only for students as they return to school, but also for 62-year-old Chang Yue-mei (張月美), a "Big Issue Taiwan" magazine vendor who is ready for the peak season of her job.

"I enjoy being with the kids and seeing the world outside. It makes me feel that I am part of them," said Chang, who sells the magazines at the National Central University in Taoyuan.

Like many of her companions selling the magazine, an overseas project from The Big Issue magazine, which was first published in the United Kingdom in 1991, Chang is socially disadvantaged and relies on the job to make ends meet.

Chang has suffered from polio since she was a child and is confined to a wheelchair.

She had managed to run a breakfast shop with her two children, but since she closed the store in 2014 after her children moved out, she decided that she needed a new job to support herself.

"I had seen someone selling 'The Big Issue Taiwan' on the street and thought it might be a good opportunity for me, too," she said.

Social enterprise

It is the opportunity of a stable job and social integration that The Big Issue Taiwan hopes to offer minority groups, said its editor-in-chief, Fines Lee (李取中).

(Fines Lee)

"Being socially disadvantaged is a status in life, not a label that defines who you are," Lee told CNA. "We want to remove stereotypes against the group and help them regain control of their lives."

Started in 2010 after Lee obtained a publishing license from The Big Issue during a meeting with its founder John Bird in the U.K., the Taiwan project follows the same "social enterprise" model, which is aimed at achieving social well-being through an economic vehicle.

The Big Issue Taiwan magazines can only be bought from qualified vendors -- who must be homeless or have disabilities -- at NT$100 (US$3.20).

The vendors purchase the copies for NT$50 and can keep the profits and return unsold magazines to Lee in exchange for new issues each month.

Lee said his company, which has seven full-time staff, currently employs about 100 vendors aged between 55-60 years across the island except for Hualien and Taitung counties.

"The job opportunities we provide are aimed at supporting the disadvantaged to deal with difficult times, but eventually we hope that they can find more productive jobs," Lee said.

With the magazine celebrating its 100th issue in July, Lee said he hopes The Big Issue Taiwan could have a greater influence in society, both from the social welfare and media perspectives.

100th edition

The magazine, which targets people aged 20-35, currently has a circulation of 30,000 and makes a slight profit, Lee said.

Ting Tan-ping (丁潭平), a vendor outside the MRT Songshan Station in downtown Taipei, said he sells about 10 copies a day.

Like other vendors, Ting is able to describe the highlights of the magazine for his customers, thanks to a briefing on each edition by Lee at the beginning of each month.

The vendors are asked to participate in the briefing at least once every three months, during which they pick up new magazines, network with one another and even celebrate birthdays.

They are also given an opportunity to learn about what is happening around the world and what interests the general public -- another aspect of social integration, Lee pointed out.

At the September briefing, many vendors cheered as they learned that pop singer Hebe Tien (田馥甄) is cover star of the month.

"It's Hebe's third time on the cover. Sales are always good when we have her," Ting said.

While Lee said he hopes to further introduce the magazine to eastern parts of the country, the company is also recruiting young volunteers to work for the project.

Starting in September, the publisher will send some 100 volunteers around Taiwan to help local vendors promote the magazines, Lee said.

The Big Issue Taiwan is also looking forward to taking root and blossoming on campuses, as students are not only the magazine's target audience but also the future power to spur the growth of social entrepreneurship, he said.

(Big issue magazines. Photo courtesy of The Big Issue Taiwan)

A broader worldview

On the other hand, Lee said, he hopes readers, regardless of their age, can develop a broader worldview through the magazine, which focuses on a wide variety of issues around the world through very unique interpretations by its freelancers.

For instance, he told the vendors, the feature story of the September issue is a photo project titled "In Search of Frankenstein," by photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews, who traveled to the snow-covered Alps that inspired Mary Shelley's classic novel "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus."

The shots in the alpine landscape provide not only a sense of aesthetics but give readers an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between humans and science, as well as the consequences of humans trying to play God, said Lee.

"Everyone is an independent individual and sees the world differently," he said. "We hope to offer our readers, particularly young people, different projects to experience the world with an open mind."

To sum up, Lee said, the magazine is all about people, no matter its content or the way it is sold.

"We are happy to see that both the vendor and the buyer experience something very special when the magazine changes hands," Lee said.


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