Open Sesame Magazine is Curating “Weird Taobao”

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3:00 AM HKT, Fri May 25, 2018 7 mins read

If you’re not already familiar with Taobao, China’s preeminent online marketplace, it’s somewhat difficult to describe. The go-to comparison would be “China’s Amazon,” but it also features a robust, eBay-like secondhand trade, and both comparisons fall short of describing the overall feel of the thing.

Taobao has spawned an entire culture, one that transcends mere consumerism. It means something entirely different to say “Taobao addict” than it does to say “Amazon Prime Member.” Perhaps because of the strangely intimate seller-to-buyer relationships that are facilitated by Taobao’s chat feature, or the nimble acrobatics that vendors go through to skirt bans on sensitive or less-than-legal merchandise, Taobao is as much an activity as it is a website.

Open Sesame, a new (physical) magazine in Beijing co-founded by Russian designer Sasha Fominskaya and American editor Aaron Fox-Lerner, aims to showcase the weird, wonderful underbelly of Taobao. They’ve just released their first (offline) issue, and plan to get it up on the internet later this summer. In the mean time, here’s a look at their thinking behind the mag, as well as some exclusive excerpts of its content:

RADII: Where did the initial desire to create this zine come from? How did you select Taobao as the theme?

Sasha Fominskaya: I moved to China from Moscow in 2014 to work at the Beijing branch of the graphic design studio Lava, both because I wanted to work with them and because I was interested in China after having grown up just over the northern border from it in the far east of Russia. My hometown was across the Heilongjiang river from China, and I saw the country as this big, exciting place with a lot to offer where everyone went to shop — kind of like how I see Taobao now.

I knew about Taobao before, and when I moved here I thought it would be very easy to use, but actually found it quite difficult to figure out. Once I did and got over asking Chinese friends to order stuff for me, I became a very obsessive user. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I’m into amateur graphics and photography, and Taobao is obviously full of that because it’s full of ordinary people who are trying to communicate their products’ qualities through crazy layouts and photography.

Sasha: I was always into print and publications and always wanted to do some kind of publication, but was never sure of the subject. Then over the past year I went back to Moscow temporarily for school and was doing a lot of research on Taobao, so it came naturally from there. I was actually surprised that there was no publication about Taobao already, since it’s such a rich subject visually and socially, with all these crazy stories about how it’s growing and the things you can get on there.

How do you describe Taobao in one sentence to someone unfamiliar with it and China?

Aaron Fox-Lerner: Taobao is a huge online marketplace unlike anything people have in the West, a corporate behemoth of a framework that allows small vendors to ship just about anything to just about anywhere in the country.

Can you talk about your process for discovering interesting, strange, noteworthy, or “underground” regions of Taobao?

Sasha: Through spending too much time on Taobao! Just browsing related items and finding more and more things, or through friends, someone would tell me about something strange on there and then I’d find even stranger things.

Aaron: Some of the stuff I found for this issue was deliberately sought out based on previous topics I’d read about, like virtual girlfriends and boyfriends you could pay to chat with you over WeChat. That was something Taobao tried to crack down on after journalists started covering it a few years ago, but I discovered it still exists on the site, just in a slightly different form and with a name change to avoid being automatically flagged.

Aaron: We didn’t want everything about Taobao in the magazine to just be about gawking at weird things, though, since in many cases it’s actually providing a genuine service for people. So another thing we did is interview the editor of Special Comix, probably China’s biggest alternative comics anthology, and one that’s mainly available through Taobao. In some ways, Taobao has been a boon for underground subcultures, but that’s also threatened by the site’s tightening crackdown on content.

The design aesthetic of the magazine is very special, in a way it references the visual overload of some Taobao storefronts. Was this an intentional choice?

Sasha: Before starting the design I had to really carefully study the visual language of Taobao, its graphics and the strategies many vendors use in their roles as amateur designers. A lot of nice independent publications will have similar looks and feel, and even if they have crazier elements those will be balanced with clean, nice layouts. I think following that trend is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about how to make a magazine, but it didn’t fit the subject.

So for making a magazine on Taobao I had to just focus on the visuals of the site itself, and not really look at anything else. A lot of visual elements will be stacked on top of one another, there’s a lot of layering with many Taobao graphics, so that was my main strategy for the magazine design. There’s no system, really, but they tend to use a lot of banners, effects and gradients on the site, so I wanted that for the magazine too. It was actually really hard to achieve this kind of look! Every time I made something and showed it to my friends, they said it wasn’t enough, so I had to keep adding more.

Aaron, you were also involved in a previous magazine in Beijing, Concrete Flux. What do you think a small-scale, print magazine offers in today’s digital-dominated media environment, especially in a place like Beijing? Do you think the culture around or interest in DIY print magazines has gone up or down, or stayed neutral, over the last several years?

Aaron: I think people still like to have things as objects that they can actually hold. Just having something as a physical publication instead of only online gives it a sort of heft and permanence, even when the print run is really small. For me personally, I’m obviously more likely to go read something if I can access it for free, but it’s usually the books or magazines that I’ve bothered to buy and keep that have left the bigger impression, and the fact that they have a real presence reminds me of their contents more than something digital.

Sasha: Yeah, an actual magazine is more tactile. To be honest, I never thought it would be just a digital thing, I always wanted to make an actual magazine. But it’s a very personal thing, because I just like publications.

Aaron: Concrete Flux was put together with a really close-knit scene of friends in Beijing, and many of the people who worked on it (both Chinese and foreign) ended up moving to other places. I think because of this my first instinct was to say that interest in DIY print publications has gone down since then, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s the opposite. Beijing being Beijing, some of the nicest places for independent publications like Wu Jin and Yan Shu shut down, but they’ve both reopened in new forms, with Wu Jin just moving to a new hutong after a temporary absence and Yan Shu now having some kind of place out in Chanping.

Since the last issue of Concrete Flux, though, I think there’s been real growth of interest in DIY publications in China, especially more from Chinese artists. In Beijing alone, there’s a whole new shop in [art district] 798 dedicated to them, not to mention a big fair for zines and minicomics that happened a few months ago with lines out the door. Loreli China and Spittoon seem like they’ve been very active with zine fairs that draw in more expats in the city as well. It seems like there’s a lot more happening outside Beijing too, although I’m really far from an expert on the subject.

Can you share one or two interesting things you learned in the process of creating this zine? For example, I know that it was somewhat of an adventure to find a suitable printer, and you ended up putting the printer’s business card/advertisement on the back cover to get a discount…

Aaron: For all that we talk about wanting to make a physical object, getting things printed is super hard, and not cheap either! True to the form of the magazine, we went with a printer we found off Taobao, but dealing with everything over text message and mail was pretty damn frustrating. The quality turned out well, but until all the issues arrived, I was really afraid it was going to turn out to be a mess.

Sasha: Ordering print off Taobao is like ordering anything else off Taobao: you never know what kind of quality you’re going to get. Orders also get messed up, so for example with this one they forgot to print the posters that were supposed to come with the magazine.

For the publication itself, it was interesting how a lot of the submissions really complemented each other. They were either related somehow in subject or dealt with similar segments on Taobao or products on Taobao. At first I was afraid that I wouldn’t get enough submissions, but by the end we had too many good pieces, so I think the interest in it was a lot stronger than I realized.

How has the reception been so far? What are some of the most interesting comments you’ve gotten from readers?

Sasha: The reception so far has been really good! Before it was finished I had this image in my head of what the magazine would be that not a lot of other people did, so when I was describing it to them they couldn’t really picture it. Once it was finished, though, they said then it was really clear to them what I was talking about. Someone bought the magazine from me in Moscow the other day, and said it makes more sense than the last Russian election in March, haha.

In China people think it’s funny we did a magazine about Taobao, but everyone’s familiar with the site. In Russia, though, people think it’s interesting and weird, like they’re not sure if you can actually buy all these things on it or if it’s a real thing.

What’s the future of the magazine? Do you have other themes in mind?

Sasha: I keep on already talking about doing a second issue, so that’s obviously in the works. I think it would be cool to do it with a larger group of people putting it together this time, so I’m looking for more Taobao addicts. We’re thinking it would be interesting to explore the theme of loneliness and how it intersects with Taobao. That’s something that already came up in this issue, and it seems like there’s a lot more about it to be explored.

We’re also planning to fully launch a site for the magazine, including the content from the first issue, this summer. We hope to make the magazine an annual publication — I don’t think we could handle doing it more often than that!

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