Helen Yeung (she/they) is a queer, Tāmaki Makaurau based, researcher, writer, community organiser, zine-maker, illustrator and founder of Migrant Zine Collective; which is an activist-based zine collective aiming to amplify, celebrate and share the voices of migrants of colour in Aotearoa. She is in the process of completing their PhD in Communication Studies with a focus on utilising digital media for feminist activism and storytelling. She aims to make critical issues such as feminism, identity and equality, more accessible to marginalised communities.
Migrant Zine Collective is an activist-based zine collective aiming to amplify, celebrate and share the voices of migrants of colour in Aotearoa. I feel like this is repeated in a lot of our media features so I’ll keep this one shorter! Founded in 2017, our collective is currently co-organised by a passionate group of women of colour. We publish community zines, host zine workshops and events, pop-up libraries and digital collaborations both locally and around the globe. Our goal is to offer a space that is critical of the oppressive power structures around us and govern our lived experiences as migrants of colour. We encourage anyone involved in our work to express themselves freely, through any medium, language, emotion or tone. Our work this year has mainly revolved around hosting community zine workshops, this included my personal favourite, the “Asian Women Talk About…” series with our friends at Creative Creatures, which offered a much needed space for the Asian community in light of Covid-19.
Looking back, I was first introduced to zines through Tumblr where I discovered DIY media making through the Riot Grrrl and punk scenes. Although these scenes celebrated ephemera that were mostly white-dominated, it was in this space where I first found voices from feminists of colour. Notably through Vietnamese-American punk, zine-maker Mimi Thi Nguyen, who not only talks about issues around migration, race and gender, but criticises the continued marginalisation of women of colour in the punk movement. I remember printing out the cover of Slant (issue 5) and pasting it on my high school diary for the longest time. Although I went to a relatively progressive or what you would consider a left-leaning school, I was surrounded by white arty kids, and the racism was real and traumatising to say the least. Seeing diasporic feminist voices out there, and from Asian women in particular, speaking up and resisting made me feel like there was a way out of the loneliness, frustration, anger and hurt I felt growing up.
Getting out of high school and moving onto university was one of the most liberating feelings I experienced in my late teens. It was there I met a group of wonderful feminists of colour who were all involved with violence prevention work for migrant women of colour. There, I was also introduced to Mellow Yellow Aotearoa, a zine and space for Asian feminists in Aotearoa to counter white feminisms and left-wing politics, challenge colonialism, racism, sexism and all forms of unjust social hierarchy. I was invited to collate issue 8 of Mellow Yellow, and that’s when I fell in love with zine-making. I’d always illustrated, made ceramics and painted prior to this, but the cut and paste style felt so accessible and community friendly that I decided to make my own zine. This was when I decided to create GEN M short for “generation migrant” where I collected the migration stories of my friends around Tāmaki Makaurau. Forming this space was significant for myself and many others because the voices of migrants of colour are often unheard, stereotyped or misrepresented in mainstream media. We’re often unable to express ourselves in fullness, in an uncensored and safe environment, so the collective was formed to address this gap.
Link to another piece I wrote.
This is a tricky question because there’s not inherently one “thing” I wished people knew about migrants of colour. Through the years I’ve run Migrant Zine Collective, we’ve always had white people coming up to us at events or send us lengthy emails to question how our zines will change the perceptions of “them” accepting us. They’re pissed off and upset about the seemingly explicit and uncensored themes in our zines, the swear words and confrontational statements our participants reveal in their experiences of racism and misogyny. But my answer remains the same: this work has and never will be for you. While we do have wonderful organisations in Aotearoa which run campaigns on anti-racism and inclusion, our collective’s priority has always been about truth-telling and capturing participants’ emotions to the fullest extent. It is for our communities by our communities, and we aim reject binary understandings of migrants of colour. This includes stereotypes and generalisations of our communities. It is a safe space for us to document and express our complex and nuanced stories to the fullest capacity.
Yes definitely! I’ve only started openly talking about queerness in relation to my identity as an Asian migrant woman in the past two years. I think queer Asian representation or spaces for folks to discuss issues around gender, sexuality etc. are generally lacking in Aotearoa.
Prior to this, while I did find a sense of belonging in the feminist of colour circles I was in through my early twenties, upon reflection, there was a lot of gatekeeping which stopped me from feeling like I was qualified or allowed to explore my identity freely. For instance, aligning with the idea that we all need to go through the process of “coming out” without unpacking how rooted the idea is within Western/white notions of visibility. But also, I had a great conversation with a friend (who identifies as non-binary) lately on the harm behind the term cis-passing, and how it continues to reinforce binary notions of gender. We both had shared experiences of being misgendered by our communities.
For myself, I thought it was interesting that I was “accepted” the most by QPOC when I presented as so-called androgynous or gender neutral, but less so when I was feminine-presenting. Upon discussions with a lot of queer women and non-binary folks of colour, I think a lot of us have similar feelings on whether we belong on the genderqueer spectrum. It feels like a never ending process of figuring things out while we navigate other layers of oppression.
So I guess what I meant to say is yes, would love to have more spaces to explore queer Asian identities in Aotearoa! I already adore what our friends at Red Pocket Press do. I have both of the Queer Lunar New Year zines, and we’ve showcased them at our Migrant Zine Collective pop-up library a few times. There’s definitely so much more room to explore queer Asian histories, and what this means in contemporary for those in diaspora. In our “Asian Women Talk About…” series which I talked about earlier, we had a workshop on love, sex and relationships, it was refreshing to be in a room full of Asian migrant women and non-binary folk that wanted to discuss their experiences around sexuality, gender and queerness in a raw and genuine manner. All of this means so much to me because I think youth of colour need to have the space and opportunities to connect and unpack these feelings together. It’s really important to have a strong support network, and I hope more places or collectives can provide them.
I think I’m at an interesting turning point in life at the moment, and I’d say a lot of my values and perceptions have changed over the pandemic for the past two years. As I’ve openly shared on social media, I’ve been experiencing post trauma for the past two years following the end of a long term relationship. As a survivor, this time has been a critical time to slow down and learn more about myself, as well as go through a mental health journey to maintain the shifts in my body. Surprisingly, this has also allowed me to revaluate a lot of my aspirations and goals, one of these being my relationship with activism.
As I mentioned in a piece for RUBY, lately, I’ve found solace in Kai Cheng Thom’s book “I Hope We Choose Love” in which she unpacks the intra-community violence rooted in social justice movements. She said, “The social justice activists that raised me to believe in the possibility of a revolution that would change and save the world? Sometimes it seems like the most painful cuts of all come from within my own community: Call-out culture. Lateral violence. Puritanical politics. Intimate partner abuse. Public shaming. We know so much about trauma but so little about how to heal it.” I’ve taken this time to re-centre accessibility, community and genuine forms of care and solidarity for both myself and those around me.
Whether this be my own research, workshops or zine-making, my hope is to build more accessible and safer spaces for communities of colour to navigate the struggles in their daily lives. I aim to navigate both my personal life and work with love and compassion, in rejection to the leftist movements I grew up around that operate solely on compliance culture, gatekeeping knowledge and selective forms of accountability and punishment. And that also comes with learning more to be forgiving with myself, showing myself love, care and unlearning a lot of the things I just talked about.
To be honest, I grew up being a perfectionist and quite harsh on myself. That carried on into adulthood, often making it difficult to cope with mistakes and failure in both my creative work and life in general. I think a lot of this has to do with my upbringing, and the narratives or models of “success” I had around me as a child. I grew up around a tight-knit Cantonese community where success was typically measured by material achievements. I think this definitely took a toll on my mental health over the years, fostering all kinds of anxiety and stress around ideas of productivity. But nowadays I’m trying to learn to be less harsh on myself, and give myself the type of compassion and forgiveness I’d give to others around me. It’s definitely not the easiest, especially in my academic career, where I am often the only Asian woman in the field, but I’d say all of this is a work-in-progress.
I struggled with this one, I’ve had my head stuck in work most of these days, and haven’t had much time to think about other things lately. But I’ve been learning to make all kinds of Chinese food, and tonight I made some Shanghainese style rice cakes in memory of my grandma. So I guess I’d have to say I’m proud of the effort I’ve put in to cook and connect with my cultural background in the past few years.
Migrant Zine Collective started off as a personal endeavour to encourage myself to discover more about my Hong Kong-Chinese heritage and cultural background, and I think it’ll forever remain this way. I think I often put a lot of myself, if not all into my zines, particularly those that discuss the nuances and complexities of being in diaspora. You can sort of find me in snippets in our zines, for instance I have a love letter to Tomato Pretz in our zine “Snack Zine Club,” and in “Have you Ever Been with an Asian Woman Before?” and “Asian Women Talk About…” which explores my experiences of fetishization and yellow fever in Aotearoa.
One of the zines I’m most proud of is “Unwritten Stories,” inspired by a high school project I did on my maternal grandmother’s migration story from Shanghai to Hong Kong in the late 1940s. It’s especially dear to me because I was actually able to show my grandmother the published version during a trip to Hong Kong a few years ago. I remember sitting on the couch with her, telling her about the amount of people who were inspired by her experience. She smiled and seemed proud in the moment, that’s when I knew the hours of phone conversations I had with her were worth it. Now that she’s gone, I know I’ll have a piece of her story I can pass on and share with future generations.
More recently, I discussed my relationship with food in the foreword of our newest publication Recipes for Resistance. As a first generation university student in my family, this piece provided me an opportunity to discuss my family’s histories in Hong Kong. There, I talk about how food for me will forever capture a multiplicity of meanings. This included celebrating my parents who grew up in working class families in a British-occupied Hong Kong. Growing up, they taught me the value of food, a means of self-preservation, survival and a symbol of resilience. I also discuss how my lunchbox in primary was one of the first experiences I had of interpersonal racism. I actually loved editing and putting this publication together with my talented friend Catalina, who is the graphic designer, because the essays reminded me how food in more recent years has taken on forms of radical healing, pleasure and liberation for myself.
So to answer the question is that a lot of myself goes into these Migrant Zine Collective, particularly in deciding the call out posts or workshop themes, these are almost always guided by the kind of life experiences, readings or critical issues happening around me at the time.
Definitely been the wonderful people and communities it has brought to me and others! It’s actually taken me an embarrassingly long time to finish up this interview (sorry Storyo team), and more recently I gave my first guest lecture with a zine-making activity for some students at University of Guam. I’m actually in Guåhan right now, and the demographics are completely different to what I’m used to in Aotearoa. Regardless, I was able to connect with a lot of the students on feelings of in-betweenness, diaspora and navigating between cultures, particularly how to express those in arts-based practices. On that front, I genuinely value the stories people share with me, and am always searching for ways to help them in continuing their journeys of self-discovery.
The first person that came to mind when I thought about inspirations from childhood was my mother. My relationship with art and creativity was brought to me by my mother following our migration to Aotearoa. There weren’t many children in our neighbourhood so we spent most of the time reading, going on picnics, drawing and doing arts and crafts together. It was my mother who taught me the power of creation, she had an amazing imagination, and was always patient when it came to making. She was the best at improvising when we didn’t have the materials for a project, she was always able to build interesting shapes and objects from scratch. I think this strongly relates to my love for DIY and zine-making, the rawness and aesthetics of collaging bring me back to memories of play in my childhood.
In a way, art also substituted the loneliness and isolation my mother and I felt while settling into a very much white neighbourhood. It was through a piece of paper and a pencil where I learnt I had the agency to create the worlds that I envisioned. I drew the friends I imagined, girls of colour with matching fringes and outfits, we would sit and eat together, celebrating our love for Hello Kitty. The idea of creating and building worlds has always stuck with me, and perhaps one of the reasons I’m so drawn to radical works by feminists of colour.
Speaking of inspirations, I’d love to read the interviews of all the amazing people I’ve worked with lately. Among this including my trusty Migrant Zine Collective team: Abigail Dell'Avo and Shivani Narsai, who are both incredibly passionate about urban planning and sustainable development; Anjuli Selvadurai who also co-runs Project Make (a collective that champions the role of design and design education in New Zealand); and Sammie Lee, who is also a fellow zine-maker and illustrator! And of course I can’t leave out some knowledgeable folks from Pōneke I’ve worked with lately: Grace Gassin, who is the curator for Asian New Zealand histories at Te Papa, and my long time friend Kerry Ann Lee who I’ve recently worked with for the “Anti-Racist Soup” publication.