‘Muse’ was Hong Kong’s answer to ‘The New Yorker’. Then it died

Every great city deserves a great cultural magazine—or does it?

Seven years after the demise of Muse 瞄, one of the city’s most ambitious cultural magazines, it remains a mystery what its founder, Frank Proctor saw in Hong Kong.

He never planned on staying: originally from North Carolina, Proctor spent his early career in New York as a marketing executive for Newsweek, before coming to Hong Kong in 1997 to be the magazine’s general manager for Asia. It was meant to be a temporary move, but soon after arriving he had a change of heart.

“There was a particular excitement about Hong Kong culture during [the 2000s], and it just felt to me there was something in the air,” Proctor recalls. “I became more interested and connected.”

Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Muse publisher and founder Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud

Expats tend to find Hong Kong fascinating—after all, it costs nothing to be fascinated. But few would actually invest in local culture, and fewer still would go to the lengths Proctor did. In interviews, his former colleagues would struggle to explain his endless enthusiasm for Hong Kong: some understood it as generosity, others naiveté.

Muse was born out of this fervour, a passion project that—in Proctor’s own telling—also represented a business opportunity. Proctor came from the magazine industry of the 1990s, led by proud institutions at the height of their influence: The New Yorker, with its power to steer American culture, was his holy grail. At the time he felt Hong Kong had no equivalent.

“I really thought Hong Kong deserved a magazine like The New Yorker,” he says. “One thing I felt was missing was an authentic coverage of local arts and culture, that was accessible to English-speaking readers, but without becoming a cliché or watering down its authenticity.”

Then in his late thirties, buoyed by his new family life, Proctor decided to take a leap of faith.

I didn’t want to just produce another gweilo-oriented cultural magazine.

In 2005, he quit Newsweek and founded East Slope Publishing, which devoted a year to marketing research and conceptual design. The goal was to create the “formula” for an English-language publication that local readers would find comfortable. Even the name was calculated: the bilingual wordplay tested well with focus groups.

“My aspiration for Muse was always that it would be equally loved by both Cantonese speakers and English speakers, because I didn’t want to just produce another gweilo-oriented cultural magazine,” Proctor says.

Perry Lam and Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Perry Lam and Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud

To ensure Muse had the cultural bona fides, Proctor turned to Perry Lam 林沛理. A local Hong Konger, Lam cut his teeth as a film critic in the 1980s, and by 2005 he was a well-known commentator with regular columns at Yazhou Zhoukan, Ming Pao, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He was also one of the rare writers who felt equally at ease with Chinese and English.

Lam’s immediate response was disbelief.

“When Frank first approached me, I told him that doing The New Yorker in Hong Kong was destined to fail, because Hong Kong was not New York. The logic was that simple,” Lam says, pointing to the lack of a viable market.

Lam found himself in the curious position of telling the business side of the company that the plan made no business sense. “In a way Muse was very un-Hong Kong, because only an idealistic American would propose such a thing,” he says.

Perry Lam. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Perry Lam. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud

Despite his misgivings, Lam signed up to be Muse’s first—and only—editorial director. He was also a diehard fan of The New Yorker, and the opportunity was too tempting to pass up; he felt he was just along for the ride and had little to lose.

With Proctor it was a different story. Most of Hong Kong’s cultural magazines enjoy some level of government support, typically through the Arts Development Council—but not Muse. Proctor estimated that the magazine would be profitable in five years, so he decided to fund the magazine all by himself: when time was up, he would either have created Hong Kong’s answer to The New Yorker or his cash would run dry.

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Muse first appeared on newsstands in February 2007. A quick glance would reveal that no expense was spared: in retrospect, art director Jowie Chan brags about Muse’s preference for film photography, premium binding and original artwork. (Every single cover illustration was created by local artists on commission.)

The magazine also became famous for its longform journalism—feature articles were up to nine thousand words long, something virtually unheard of in Hong Kong. Writers recall that they were given near infinite freedom, and compared the production process to “burning banknotes.”

Muse Magazine. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Muse Magazine. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud

Staff writer Joyce Choi grew up watching the performances of ballerina Faye Leung, and in 2009, she profiled Leung right after she was controversially fired from the Hong Kong Ballet. The article, charting Leung’s career from childhood to stardom, took nine months to complete.

“My strength was writing profiles, and I found journalism to be most satisfying when I can get to know a person, starting as strangers and then becoming friends,” Choi says. “[At Muse] I could actually apply the techniques I learnt in university.”

Another staff writer, Sylvia Chan, capitalised on her architecture degree and wrote about Mei Ho House 美荷樓 and the history of Hong Kong’s public housing. The article later received an honourable mention in the 2009 SOPA Award for Excellence in Feature Writing; for Chan, this proved that Muse could tap into socially relevant issues.

“To me [Muse] was a place full of light. At the time, there were many happenings in the cultural scene, with publications like 文化現場, so people had opportunities to discuss the meaning of Hong Kong culture. [Muse provided] such a platform,” Chan says.

For many former employees, one lasting frustration was that Proctor never got the credit he deserved.

The late 2000s happened to be a good time for cultural reporting. The magazine 文化現場 C for Culture—a Chinese-language counterpart of Muse—was established in 2008, and frequent headlines about the West Kowloon Cultural District and education reform put Hong Kong culture under public scrutiny. For a while, the Muse team felt they were part of a larger conversation.

As editor, Lam took charge of Muse’s commentary and critique: he wrote editorials, reviews, and curated an impressive list of guest contributors (which included academics like Leo Lee Ou-fan 李歐梵, Koon Yee Wan 官綺雲 and more). But even with an all-star roster, Lam could never resist the temptation to jump in.

Reproduced with permission. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Reproduced with permission. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud

Lam saw himself as a professional critic, which basically means he loved to fight—Proctor notes, with glee, that “Perry would criticise anything.” His personality was everywhere in Muse: he made a column for contrarian opinions (called Oxymoron 怪談), and once wrote a review panning Ann Hui’s Night and Fog the same time Muse was sponsoring the film’s opening. Over the years, many readers came to identify the magazine with his argumentative flair.

But Lam had another, deeper ambition: a self-styled linguist, he wanted Muse to become an experiment in bilingualism. He would arrange Chinese and English into “jamming sessions”, where English passages would be interrupted by pull quotes (i.e. chunks of text) written in Chinese. The function was to “add perspective and provide commentary”, like a reader scribbling in the margins.

Despite its overall strangeness, Muse showed signs of growth in its early years. The team spoke of getting feedback from a community of grateful readers who felt they were “being recognised for the first time.” Prominent cultural figures, including members of the government-run Arts Development Council, declared themselves fans.

Proctor took it as a sign to redouble his efforts. The Muse team recalls him proofreading drafts, and handing out subscription cards at events; he also upped his investment, allowing Muse to sponsor cultural events, which raised some eyebrows—usually magazines in Hong Kong were the ones asking for money.

“When I told people about the magazine, often they would say, ‘I would read it, but there is not enough [general] interest,’” Proctor says. The first part of that statement felt like validation, and filled him with hope. The problem was the second part.

Perry Lam and Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Perry Lam and Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud

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Reading Muse was not meant to be easy. Self-consciously highbrow, the magazine was dense with references to literature, philosophy, and Hong Kong cultural minutiae. Some of its writers described their job as “bringing together high and low”: they wanted to write with the sophistication of The New Yorker, but also report on local stories that resonated.

This tension did not pass unnoticed by its readers. Some took issue with the bilingual presentation: one reader wrote in, saying he was “intrigued” to see “roughly 60 pages of English text and about 10 of Chinese”. Another praised the magazine for its “insight” but noted a disconnect, saying he only found out about Muse in a Chinese-language newspaper.

Lam acknowledges that Muse’s high standards limited its appeal. However, he defends his experiment with bilingualism, stating that it was central to Hong Kong’s identity: “Muse was a challenge and embarrassment [to local readers], even a source of resentment, because it was a reminder that they never learned English or Chinese properly.”

Proctor doesn’t say how much money the magazine lost, but one employee puts the figure at around 30 million dollars.

If Muse’s niche readership was a time bomb, it detonated with the 2008 financial crisis, right when the magazine was poised for expansion. And Proctor, who was once Newsweek’s top man for attracting international advertisers, found himself struggling to retain big-name brands—ironically, advertisers considered Muse too bohemian and doubted if its readers could afford luxury.

Those who worked there largely remember 2008 and 2009 to be “business as usual”, though that speaks to Proctor’s success at maintaining composure, rather than the magazine’s financial health. By early 2010, it became clear that Muse could not continue. The plan was to keep up appearances until the end with no compromises or downgrades.

Proctor refused to cut costs, saying that Muse should retain its value and seek last-minute investors. Lam, characteristically, had a more romantic interpretation: “It was all or nothing. Either it was Muse like this, or Muse does not exist. [Proctor] would rather turn off the life support and let it have a peaceful death.”

Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud

Muse ran for 47 monthly issues, from February 2007 to December 2010. At its peak, it had less than 3000 subscribers, and a circulation of about 15000. Proctor doesn’t say how much money the magazine lost, but one employee puts the figure at around 30 million dollars.

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On their last day, the Muse staff went up to the roof. The eight-person team was working out of a Causeway Bay apartment, and for dinner they ordered dim sum from The Excelsior next door. Perched atop the old building, they sat, talked, and watched the harbour. It was important to stay elegant.

“Hong Kong didn’t deserve Muse,” says staff writer Choi, who has since left the industry.

A decade after coming together, most of the Muse creatives have gone their separate ways. “I can imagine they went back to their work and their past lives,” Lam says. “But there is an intimate and important side which is lost. This is tragic, for them and for Hong Kong.” (Lam still pens columns, but he confesses that, after Muse, he has “no reason to give his best.”)

For many former employees, one lasting frustration was that Proctor never got the credit he deserved. In interviews, they would invariably mention how the magazine’s demise took a personal toll on its publisher, and how “Hong Kong owes Frank Proctor a debt.”

Perry Lam and Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud
Perry Lam and Frank Proctor. Michael CW Chiu, Still / Loud

Looking back, Proctor doesn’t see Muse as a tragedy but admits it was a bit naïve. And now the world has become a different place, with a publishing ecosystem radically altered—even The New Yorker reads differently, he says. Muse belonged to another time.

“When the magazine ended, I’ve stayed connected to the culture, but maybe I don’t see the same potential there, because my dream of being a part of it has kind of dissipated.”

Proctor still works at East Slope Publishing, the company he founded for Muse, though now it is a one-man operation. He specialises in finding translators for local authors and bringing their works into English. Lately he is also learning to code.

“You know, there are still new dreams.”

All 47 back issues of Muse magazine are available for public viewing at Asia Art Archive in Sheung Wan. Editing by Still / Loud’s Wilfred Chan and Arthur Tam.