Artist, researcher, and visiting lecturer Michael Leung reflects on the significance of collective zine-making and alternative publishing.

I am writing from my new apartment (rented), sitting cross-legged on a raised DIY platform that supports stacks of fiction on each side. The plywood platform is raised by four well-used industrial plastic boxes that once transported soil from farms to different rooftop gardens in Hong Kong. It bows under the weight of the books but seems stable. In the centre of the blanketed platform, I write my first essay in this new home using an etherpad, an online text editor introduced to me by anarcho-communists in Europe.

This essay shares my zine publication projects that traverse across different spaces, social relations and methods of collective publishing. However, I would like to focus on three aspects: artist collaborations during the pandemic; publishing as a critical praxis; and the beginnings of an unintentional press.

Between 2 March to 14 April 2021, I had the opportunity to exhibit 53 publications, the majority being self-published zines, in an exhibition called Publishing (to Find Each Other) at the artist-run collective space Floating Projects in Shek Kip Mei. The words contained in the parentheses are borrowed from a small orange book called Instructions for Autonomy by Inhabit, that was included on the ‘Recommended Reading’ table, located under three risograph printed posters on the inside wall of Floating Projects [1]. The exhibition programme included Cantonese and English zine sharing sessions and zine workshops, with the first sharing joined by two Hong Kong Sign Language interpreters (an attempt to make the exhibition more accessible). 

In the 250-square-foot exhibition space were folded tables, borrowed tablecloths, wooden benches and a green blanket that was gifted to me as a participant in the Tokyo Zinester Gathering in 2019. Every surface was marked with dates and information of each publication. Scattered across the exhibition were a selection of A6-sized zines that are part of an on-going series of 43+ fictional stories that I have been writing since 2014.

In March 2020, I was in Grenoble during the French state’s sudden enforced confinement, which restricted people from leaving 1km from their homes. It was relatively early on in the ongoing pandemic and I wrote a few questions on my website, one of which was, ‘How are we sharing our resources today such as isolated forms of transport, an underused room and the money in our bank accounts?’ It was then when I started to contact illustrators to see if they would be interested in creating commissioned artworks for the front, back and centre pages of my fictional stories. I planned to distribute them freely on my website as PDFs, print and bind them, and eventually sell them at Hong Kong’s shockingly low statutory minimum wage of HKD $37.50 per hour.

To my delight all the artists agreed: Singapore-based artist Li Shan (張麗珊) contributed graphite illustrations for Before the Typhoon (颱風前夕); Wong Mei Yan painted the sea with watercolours for Plastic Beach (塑膠灘); June Wong (黃小玲) used pencil to draw two distant characters in Kimberley Road (金巴利道); Lin Ling Xin painted an abstract otherworldly piece for Dreams & Destitution; and wongmeiyin digitally-painted an abandoned airport runway in Our 3.7-month Journey

Following the Floating Projects exhibition, and through new encounters at a Chinese New Year market in Mong Kok and a visit to a zine exhibition by high school students at the School Of Creativity, the fictional story collaborations extended to other artists: Siusiuyuen, Ka Tin Sam (加田心) and little cloud (小雲). 

The aforementioned collaborations invited artists to interpret the stories in a medium that they choose, and brought an element of surprise and accomplishment through the creation of visuals from words and the speed in which self-publishing affords. There is a design consistency through the zine collection in that I reuse the same design templates, typography and print locally with readily available paper supplies. Hong Kong artist Siu Ding once highlighted the frugality of my A6-zines, in that they are roughly cut and only bound with one staple (which differs in position so as to not disturb the cover and centre page artworks).

A second aspect to my zine practice relates to academia and publishing as a critical praxis, that is positioning the zine and the creation of its contents within and alongside systems of oppression, domination and inequality. In the book Critical Praxis Research scholar Tricia M. Kress writes, ‘Learning to breathe life into education and educational research involves embracing and amplifying our own humanity so that we may be better able to dialogue with others’ [2]. The neoliberal university, its perpetual pursuit for academic excellence, and costly access to journals and local/global conferences puts the critical researcher in an awkward position. My three-year PhD studentship, which is now expired, privileged me with conducting fieldwork in autonomous spaces in Europe and participating in conferences locally, online and abroad, as well as taking innumerable trips to Wang Chau in the north-western part of Hong Kong—a green belt village that was once home to over 500 people. They were evicted in April 2021.

After the presentation of conference papers, journals, commissioned texts and editing of field notes, I then turn them into A5-sized zines (available at free pricing) and small books (affordably priced), and also upload them to my PhD blog (https://insurrectionaryam.tumblr.com/zines). I work with several English-to-Chinese translators, often paying them with my PhD studentship, which then leads to a second edition that is bilingual, which I gift to villagers, land activists, and a non-profit organisation Asia Art Archive, to create further dialogue. The academic zines are disseminated in book fairs and farmers’ markets that I participate, and on a self-built wooden rack located in a shared studio space that has monthly open days. I hope that these zines can contribute somehow to land resistance movements, share stories that are often unreported, and support different communities and their autonomous ways of living.

The third aspect of my zine practice is more recent and relates to the physical production of the zine. In June 2021, towards the end of the academic year and my studentship, I decided to purchase a risograph printer (riso), which uses soy ink and releases relatively low levels of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). For the first two months, the high-speed printer was used by artist friends and for the collective production of 110 zines that was part of a psychoanalysis-social practice project and exhibition called An Individual As the Society (一個人的社會). Later, after clocking a 17,675-page print count, in August 2021 the printer was then shared more publicly on that month’s open studio day.

During August’s open studio, five people visited to use the printer for their different creative projects—from a thread-bound illustration zine to a farming-related zine made from a single sheet of A3 paper. That day I became a printing technician, showing people how to use the riso and troubleshooting when necessary. I showed the zine makers the print logbook that also lists the start-up costs of the printer and informed everyone that riso printing is free pricing, in other words, they can pay what they want. I spoke about the plan to eventually be reimbursed for the start-up costs and in accomplishing that, the printer will be co-owned by everyone who has used the machine. Co-ownership of the printer aims to bring people together and give everyone a choice to move the printer elsewhere, say to another studio, and collectively decide on which colours to purchase—perhaps leading to further collaborations and even opportunities to invest in other costly publishing equipments.

Next week the studio will welcome a friend that I met at the 2020 Land School [3] to print on the riso, as well as use three new manual machines: a paper creaser; a paper cutter that can cut through 4cm of paper; and a perfect binding machine that can glue and produce thick books similar in size to Inhabit’s book. The equipment, in addition to the yellow colour drum, were all purchased using the printing budget from the An Individual As the Society project. I said to Nanxi Liu, the curator, that I did not want to “cash in” so soon [4].

Anticipating more printer and equipment technician duties ahead, I relish new encounters that share resources and create new possibilities for publishing—whether it’s sharing the studio space for large-scale collective publishing projects, expanding the zine format within and alongside academic publishing, and/or building something towards an unintentional press—that is always with, and hopefully finding others along the way.


[1] ‘Cut through the bullshit. Turn to those closest to you and say you need a life in common. Ask what it would be like to face the world together.’ Inhabit, Instructions for Autonomy (America: self-published), 30. 

[2] Tricia M. Kress, Critical Praxis Research: Breathing New Life into Research Methods for Teachers (New York: Springer, 2011): 18.

[3] The Land School is an annual four-day camp organised by Land Justice League who are a Hong Kong activist group that focuses on sustainable development, preserving the natural environment, agriculture, housing, and democratic land planning.

[4] After ordering the yellow colour drum, a friend who is already using the riso kindly contributed HKD $1,000 towards the drum. Thank you S.

Michael Leung is an artist/designer, urban farmer and visiting lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University where he teaches social practice (MA). He was born in London and moved to Hong Kong in 2009 to complete a Masters in Design. His projects range from collective urban agriculture projects such as The HK FARMers’ Almanac 2014-2015 to Pangkerchief, a collection of objects produced by Pang Jai fabric market in Sham Shui Po.

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