eugene kan
Culture

Influential Voices: An Interview with Eugene Kan of MAEKAN

I met Eugene Kan over a decade ago, when we were both working in the street fashion industry. I was designing graphics for a brand called 3sixteen and he was working for a sneaker culture blog called Hypebeast. After working there for eight and a half years, Eugene left his managing editor position to start his own thing.

In 2016, Eugene and his close friend Alex Maeland created MAEKAN, a unique platform focused on sharing the stories of creative people (many of which are based in Asia), and whose audio stories regularly blur the line between podcast and magazine. The story Sounds of Tokyo for example, has no voiceover and is told through 35mm and 120mm film photography and ambient field recordings mixed with original music.

In an era where every online publication is flirting with click-bait and chasing page views, MAEKAN is determined to provide something different. I had a conversation with Eugene to find out where the idea came from and where it’s headed.

Eugene Kan, co-founder of MAEKAN
Eugene Kan, co-founder of MAEKAN

Jeff Hamada: How many pushups have you done today? Be honest.

Eugene Kan: None and to be fair, I don’t love push-ups. The modern desk jockey generally has a weak back/scapula which means that increased tightness in their chest (through push-ups) will pull their shoulders forward and you get this terrible posture issue. Pull-ups are way better, but unless I’m at the gym I don’t really do them.

Jeff Hamada: Haha I was joking, but this does make me wanna do some pull ups. Were you more of a jock or a nerd in high school? Knowing you now, I feel like maybe you were always extremely both.

Eugene Kan: Outwardly, probably way more “jock.” I was the alpha male bro. Played a ton of sports, partied and drank a lot, but to be fair what else are you going to do in a small Canadian town?

But I used to love reading and looking at encyclopedias. I’d stay up late at night, put a towel at the bottom of the door to trick my parents into thinking I was sleeping. I was really just reading. I’m not sure if I was actually interested in acquiring knowledge back then or just competing. Competing to be the best at my multiplication table or to know the capitals of obscure countries.

Jeff Hamada: I love that you were tricking your parents so you could read.

Eugene Kan: I’m sure there was an element of me that enjoyed the reading process, but for better or worse everything was personally game-ified. Can I read one more chapter? Can I do x more things? I’m sure it’s at times personally destructive but I also feel very comfortable being uncomfortable.

Eugene Kan
Eugene Kan
Eugene Kan
Eugene Kan

Jeff Hamada: It’s been a long time since you lived in Canada, what’s it like coming home to visit your folks after living in Hong Kong for so long?

Eugene Kan: It’s been a 11 years since I’ve lived in Canada. I go back probably every year or every 18 months or so. I enjoy it more and more as I get older. When you’re younger, you come back and think you’re hot shit because you live in a big city. You feel as though you have more worldly experiences but honestly, who really cares? Go home, interact with people as normal people and revel in the fact that they’re happy with their lifestyles.

Jeff Hamada: Does your family understand what you do for a living? How do you explain it to them?

Eugene Kan: Back then not really… now probably less so? They probably tell their friends I run a website. I don’t really think I need to explain much to them because they never ask. They’ve been incredibly supportive so it doesn’t really matter all that much. Even if there was a bit of friction, I don’t think it would change much. With That Food Cray!!! (a food site/brand I run with my wife Nicole), I think they understand more clearly what it is because the topic is very visual and tangible.

Jeff Hamada: What kind of friction? They wanted you to get a “regular” job?

Eugene Kan: By friction, I mean had they said “no, don’t do that, do this,” it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have done my own thing, created my own narrative and found a way to make it happen. I remember when my mom would tell me you should do this, or you should do that, and for whatever reason it never registered with me that I should follow their orders. I’m not sure why because my parents immigrated from Hong Kong so I was technically still under that type of belief system. I’d say my parents were pretty liberal given the circumstances.

Eugene playing football
Eugene playing football
Eugene playing football

Jeff Hamada: When you and I first met I think it was pretty early on in your time at Hypebeast. Can you talk a little bit about how you first got involved with the site?

Eugene Kan: When I first moved to Hong Kong it was to play professional football. I had a lot of free time so I was writing on the side for a sneaker reseller called Kix-Files. In retrospect they were running a really clean hustle. They would get sneakers for discount from established accounts and then mark them up for the 30% or so discount they got and sell them globally. Imagine if Footlocker back-doored $100 shoes for $70, and then the site turned around and sold them for $115.

Anyways, I was writing for their blog everyday for free in exchange for sneaker discounts. One of the guys there, Travis, knew Kevin Ma (founder of Hypebeast) and we got connected. Hypebeast happened to compensate per post so I came on board as a freelancer in I think March 2007? By the start of August, I was their first full-time editor and I was there until late Spring 2015.

Jeff Hamada: How did your mindset change over the course of your time there?

Eugene Kan: Over the span of those 8.5 years or so, I think I experienced a lot of different states. I don’t think too many things fundamentally changed as to how I saw or perceived so-called street culture. I was never a big consumer of things despite what Hypebeast was particularly known for. I was really fascinated with the application of fashion as a message. I would say that the biggest mindset change over the years though, and it took me leaving, was to understand the role of fashion.

I think I was extremely dismissive of consumerism during my time there and I would probably lowkey throw shade on the things I perceived to be valueless that were entering the space. But in retrospect, I now truly understand what role fashion plays. The journey towards creating identity is at the root of most human beings and that’s why hype sites will continue to thrive, based on our desires for acceptance.

This is nothing revelational so much as I started to really respect the power of fashion and sneakers as cultural currency, even if I’d never personally prescribe to it. It’s so easy to quickly look at a person head-to-toe and get a good understanding of where they stand within culture and society. On top of that, “style” is a very acute understanding of purpose and place within culture. Wear certain popular brands and you can immediately tell if somebody is buying their way into the movement for outside validation haha.

Jeff Hamada: So you left Hypebeast and started MAEKAN with your friend, Alex Maeland. Tell me about MAEKAN. Give me your elevator pitch — what is it and why should I care about it?

Alex Maeland, co-founder of MAEKAN
Alex Maeland, co-founder of MAEKAN
MAEKAN cards
MAEKAN cards

Eugene Kan: MAEKAN is a publication and community rooted in creative culture that focuses on the things that matter. It’s about the movements and personalities (often in Asia) that are creating their own pathways and structures to define the future. We’re seemingly in a place where there’s so little critical thought and analysis, as well as accountability that everything around us seems to just be a means to an end. We want to create a place where people are welcome to learn and interact to help shape the future of creative culture. Our format relies heavily on audio stories and beautiful visuals. In a time when it’s hard to commit to reading a 5-minute article, audio stories with sound design and narration are a nice way to provide humanistic connection and experience.

Jeff Hamada: Is there an extra pressure in using your own name (in this case a combination of your last name and Alex Maeland’s last name) for your company name? Shawn Stussy once told me he wished he hadn’t used his own name.

Eugene Kan: I would love it if MAEKAN (pronounced May-Can) could grow much larger than Alex and I at some point. It’s not about us, it’s about being a platform for the movements and stories that matter in creative culture. The background behind MAEKAN’s name is as follows: We wanted a clean domain which featured a .com. We wanted a made-up word that we could create meaning behind. We had other things too that played out, such as it being symmetrical with six letters and sounding like “making” as in making things.

Brainstorming for the name
Brainstorming for the name
MAEKAN office
MAEKAN office

Eugene Kan: I would say there is pressure because our names are on it, but that’s also very welcome. It ensures we’ll always put out things of a certain quality.

Jeff Hamada: Who curates MAEKAN? Is it you and Alex? The whole team?

Eugene Kan: To riff a bit off of what I said prior, MAEKAN is really the platform. There is a certain curation that comes from the internal team, but it pertains more to “does it fit the brand and editorial lens.” We are always critical of that. I’m under the belief that a lot of stories in this world could fit in a MAEKAN lens, it would just need to be approached from the right angle.

If you look at a can of Coke, most people only look at it from one direction, the aspect of the logo, straight-on. How can you look at a topic from multiple vantage points and determine what fits what we do? Some considerations include: Purpose — Is there a purpose to this story? I’m not trying to get clicks so that’s not a valid reason. Angle — Is there an angle that goes beyond something very general? Relevance — Why is this story relevant and why should the viewer/listener care?

MAEKAN Story
From the MAEKAN Story: Sounds of Tokyo

Jeff Hamada: I’ve been asking this question in every interview of this series — What do you think your duties are as a human curator in the age of computer algorithms?

Eugene Kan: Algorithms are currently emotionally and context agnostic. We as human curators need to be very honest with what we do well and what algorithms/tech do well. We need to continually drive the wedge between those two and let each side excel where the other doesn’t. An algorithm is only as good as the data it’s fed and humans can envision things that don’t currently exist and will them into reality.

Jeff Hamada: Storytelling seems to come naturally for you, do you feel like what you’re doing now is the thing that you were born to do?

Eugene Kan: Actually, I’m a really bad storyteller. I can’t think of the number of times that I’ve started a story only to panic and think to myself “fuck, this is a dumb story, why did I even start?” Or even worse, when I’ve been discovered and somebody throws out the awkward nod and I get the “cool story, bro.” I’ve never really thought of myself as a flat-out storyteller, so much as curating that experience perhaps? I can identify a good story when I see one and help whip it into shape, but I don’t think I’m great on the executional front. But whatever that role is, perhaps just as an editor and curator, yeah I think it’s something I can do for a long-time to come.

Jeff Hamada: Yeah, I didn’t mean storytelling just in terms of you verbally telling a story, but even the writing you sometimes post along with your photos on Instagram—it’s always seemed like something you enjoy.

Eugene Kan: In that regard, I agree. There’s a sense of undervaluation of freewill and freedom (assuming you believe that) that many of us endure. The fact nobody can tell you what to do or you can exercise your own desire to put something up, regardless of outward pressures, that is priceless. On paper, I should be more stressed and broken relative to a past life, but I feel more invigorated and excited to create a new structure. If only more people could step out and at least try to experience it.

Jeff Hamada: Do you have a mentor? Have you ever had one?

Eugene Kan: I unfortunately have never really had a mentor, the closest thing is a mix of curiosity and lack of confidence in my own abilities. I’ve just had to grind it out and figure things out myself. Growing up in a place where “creative culture” wasn’t really a thing, you just had to commit to doing it or never get anywhere. That also meant really trying to experience as many things as possible, perhaps to a fault? I catch myself sometimes where I do so much research that I feel I know enough about something and overlook the opportunity to physically experience said topic. That’s not how it works, physical experiences still cannot be trumped.

But to that point, one person can only experience and analyze so many things in a lifetime. I wish I had the company of some other super high-achieving individuals that could put me in my place.

Jeff Hamada: If you could pick someone to mentor you now, who would it be?

Eugene Kan: I was thinking about this question and my initial feeling was nobody because of a desire to champion my own approach to simply “figuring it out.” But the one thing I really wish I was better at, was the process of tactfully combining art and commerce. The “art” side is something gaining increasing relevance in the tech space. It’s something that humans are fundamentally good at and I suspect it will continue to have greater importance in an increasingly content-heavy world. But on that note, it’s also important to create a path towards sustainability. Money shouldn’t be the enemy of creatives and looked at more so as “certificates of respect.” How you choose to spend it is up to you and you can bring value into this world through that. Earlier this year I had the chance to speak with John C. Jay, who’s currently a big part of the creative picture at Fast Retailing (the parent company at Uniqlo). He really elucidated the relationship between art and commerce and was able to articulate it in a really compelling way. It’s people like that who can really provide a lot of insight to that relationship.

Jeff Hamada: What’s one thing you learned the hard way?

Eugene Kan: Cashflow issues with a media start-up haha. Running a sustainable business is something that creatively-minded people struggle with but it shouldn’t be an excuse to not find a way to make it work. Running out of money is not something that feels good but it’s something you really needed to keep a razor sharp focus on. There are times when we just didn’t focus enough on this side of the business, but hey, we figured it out and we’re still here on the uppity up.

eugene kan
Eugene Kan

Jeff Hamada: What’s next?

Eugene Kan: There are so many amazing stories and voices in this world that are underrepresented. We’re looking forward to exploring more verticals and shows in 2018 as well as figuring out ways to bring MAEKAN offline through panel talks, events, and activations such as a unique MAEKAN room in a Seoul hotel in 2018. I’m also interested in the role merchandise will play for creative-based brands and companies that aren’t inherently fashion companies.

Jeff Hamada: The room thing sounds cool, I often think about what Booooooom would look like as a physical space. I think this will be the last question, at what point will you feel like MAEKAN is a success?

Eugene Kan: Success with MAEKAN is helping contribute to a next generation of creatives that are able to continually improve and define the community around them. Challenging one another should be the norm not the exception and in a world that’s continually swallowed by swaths of powerful voices, it’s our duty to keep things and people behind them accountable. I won’t for a second claim MAEKAN will do this in a political arena (maybe not yet), that’s not what we’re familiar with, but we truly believe there’s opportunity in the creative space and especially youth culture. I’m sick of the bullshit that lacks accountability.