Welcome to the world of Mackerel. A new culture magazine in Singapore, it aims to tell great stories about the contemporary global world, giving what it calls a “deep-dive perspective” on places and people. Its name is derived from Old-French “maquerel,” meaning “go-between.” The ambition to be a broker of experience belongs to the founders Marc Nair and Carolyn Oei. The two redoubtable creatives kindly agreed to give SP the story behind the stories.
SP. Mackerel is a relatively new culture magazine based in Singapore but venturing far beyond. What makes Mackerel different from the many arts and culture e-zines now springing up in Singapore? Do you see Mackerel as filling a gap in the current publishing scene?
Mackerel: Thank you! We launched on 26 February 2015 and yes, we certainly do have our sights set quite far into the horizon. There’s always room for well-told stories. Mackerel fills that gap. Our content is contemporary although not necessarily news-based. We’re focused on deeper insights, fuller stories and zeroing in on issues, be they climate change, animal welfare or gentrification. We tell these stories through a mixture of media – poems, photographs, text, videos and soon, audio recordings. For added flavour, we tell stories through multiple voices and personalities. More than stories, too, is our book review section, Mack Books, which betrays our literary bent. And whilst we indulge in listings from time to time, they aren’t a content element.
SP. Mackerel covers topics from food to travel to books to personalities to a night’s stay in a hotel. What ties these disparate topics together in your view? I gather they are your personal interests, but do they speak to some wider trends?
Mackerel: A bit of both, actually. The different categories of our magazine reflect the key aspects of culture. What is culture? It is what makes us. “Us” as in the universal us. A story lurks in every seemingly plain situation, person or place. Let’s look at Braised, for example. It’s everything food and drink. Now, neither of us is a foodie, but food as a subject, as a concept, is integral to our lives. If you’re a curry rice fan, Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice in Tiong Bahru would certainly be a staple! But, Mr Loo is so much more than that uncle who makes the perfect plate of curry rice. He understands the industry and mourns the slow demise of the Mom and Pop shop.
Another example is our portrait of Loh Lik Peng, successful hotelier and restaurateur. He is usually featured talking about business and his next venture. But we interviewed him against type; we talked to him about music and Maria McKee! Which only went to demonstrate his flexibility and fullness as a person and our practice of diving for deeper insights.
Photo: Marc Nair
SP. You’ve interviewed many people for your Portraits, including a magazine editor, a drag performer, an award-winning novelist, a trousers maker, a hotelier, and a typesetter. How do you decide who to interview? What interest you in their stories? Are they representative in some way of the New Singaporean?
Mackerel: Our starting position in terms of editorial decision-making is that we have our eye on situations, places and people who stand out. But, one doesn’t have to have a mutant super power to stand out. Generally speaking, we’re exploratory; we talk to people. And as every responsible writer should, we do our groundwork, planning and researching our stories. But, and this is important, we leave room for wonder. When Marc travelled to Amsterdam in September 2015 to perform and collect material for four stories, he came home with five; the fifth being an extended, and quite remarkable, conversation with his Airbnb host, Oreste Papadopol. With regards to the stories you mention, trends were not (and are not) our focus. We are besotted with the return to respect for provenance, craft, technique, a sense of community and artistry that have been lost over years of mass production and consumption. But we don’t think that these qualities are necessarily unique to the “New Singaporean”. It’s a mindset and can be found in pockets the world over.
SP. What is your most popular article thus far? Any idea why?
Mackerel: In terms of traction, it’s “Becca D’Bus: Larger Than Life – In The Many Wigs of Eugene Tan” and quite possibly because Eugene is such an astounding personality! But we also think that certain technical elements of the story have contributed to its popularity. For one, it is a multimedia story; it has a video that features both the interview and B-roll, which was essential for a story like this. How would we make the colours and magnitude of RIOT! the drag revue otherwise?! Then, there was the very complexity of the story. We were working with multiple issues –drag per se, the LGBTQ community and Eugene Tan the man. Ostensibly, the story is about RIOT! the show. But, it’s really about Eugene. Adding to the complexity, in a very good way, was Amy Tashiana. We were fortunate to have had her in there as well. And, this is the “wonder” bit because we hadn’t planned for Amy; we didn’t know she was going to be in the 14 May show, but Eugene presented her to us. Thirdly and closely linked to its complexity is the angle of the story. There are enough stories that deal with the struggle of the queer person or the spectacle of a drag show. We wanted to explore the artistry of drag and were keen to obtain insight to the process of putting a show together. Finally, readers would have noticed that the story involves an active interviewer in Carolyn. She doesn’t dish out the expected Q&A but is very much integrated in the story having watched RIOT! for the first time in June 2015. We were well chuffed when Eugene, as well as several others, told us that the story was compassionate, incisive and insightful. Such a good feeling!
Photo: Marc Nair
SP. You are a husband-and-wife team. Who does what in producing Mackerel? How does your work call upon your previous experience and current passions?
Mackerel: Generally speaking, we both write and Marc is the photographer, videographer and gatekeeper of Mack Books, with support from Theophilus Kwek and Allee Koh. Carolyn is producer, researcher and de facto artistic director at photo and video shoots. Having said that, Carolyn’s been known to take the photos and Marc has had to helm the corporate discussions. It’s less about “who does what” and more about “what do we have to do”. Previous experience? Always comes in handy! Collectively, we have legal practice, PR and teaching. As for current passions, we’re always interested in travel, getting to know new people, getting a glimpse into different ways of life. It’s a big world out there and we’re convinced that we need to explore as much of it as possible.
SP. What is the hardest thing working with one another? The easiest?
Mackerel: We argue all the time when we work on projects! But this makes things easy because we resolve issues quickly and effectively.
SP. You invite collaborators to work with the magazine, and not just contributors (those are welcomed too, of course!). What kinds of collaborations do you have in mind?
Mackerel: We have a healthy respect for collaborations because they have the potential to bring out the best in people and their talents. We have three key collaboration models. The first is where we work with another artist on a story. Our regular contributor, Vikas Kailankaje, is of this model. We develop the stories together, synchronising ideas, concept, copy and images, such as “Secondhand Stories: A Book Crawl through Singapore” and “Walking the city: From beach Road to Ophir Road, Singapore”. For the second model, we take on commissioned work for publication elsewhere and, by mutual agreement, use the story also for Mackerel. We’ve done this with Asian Geographic where they commissioned us to write a story on environmental protection and animal welfare efforts on Gili Trawangan. We obtained further support from the Lee Foundation and were able to write a long in-depth piece. The third model would be the straight-up paid content where a collaborator is either looking to us to create content for them in our magazine or has such a business lead and will develop that content with us.
Photo: Marc Nair
SP. What are your plans for Mackerel? How do you sustain a very fine start?
Mackerel: You’re very kind! We have publications such as The New Yorker, VICE and Rolling Stone as role models. We want to continue creating good content – content steeped in character, function and opportunity. Generous seed funding would help us to build a team of international writers, publish quarterly print issues of Mackerel and create branded events. Until then, we’ll keep on writing them stories and, we hope, growing our readership.
SP. Our very best wishes! Thanks for giving the interview.
Marc and Carolyn are the co-founders and principal writers of Mackerel.
Marc Nair is a poet and photographer from Singapore. He has published six volumes of poetry and has performed spoken word for over ten years in more than ten countries. His latest collection is Spomenik, a series of poems and photographs from the Balkans. Marc was the 2015 Writer-In-Residence at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore and will be the 2016-17 NTU-NAC Writer in Residence (National). marcnair.com
Carolyn Oei is the founder and creative director of The Creative Voice, a company focused on arts and culture. Throughout her vibrant international career, Carolyn has been a commercial litigator, an IT and business features journalist, news editor for a state media agency in Beijing, a news presenter and social commentator on Singapore radio, as well as a PR specialist in Singapore, London and Beijing. She is also currently an Associate Lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic (School of Interdisciplinary Studies) and Festival Manager of indie music and arts festival, Neon Lights (www.neonlights.sg).