A Street Magazine for the Age of Fools-- Fines Lee and The Big Issue


2011 / 7月

Wang Wan-chia /photos courtesy of Hsueh Chi-kuang /tr. by Geof Aberhart

"The Big Issue! $100 a copy!" Since last spring, you may have noticed this catchcry amidst the bustle around Taipei's MRT station exits. Or maybe you've spotted the orange-vested, ID-badged sellers, waving the latest issue high in the air.

The Big Issue, originally from the UK, launched a Taiwan edition in April 2010, packed with articles from professional journalists and authors. But what stands out most about the magazine is how it's sold-the sales-people are all homeless, and out of each issue's cover price of NT$100, NT$50 goes to the publisher to cover costs, with the remaining NT$50 going to the seller him- or herself.

By combining a unique business model with a means of helping the less fortunate, The Big Issue (TBI) has become a model social enterprise, operating to provide a social good rather than simply to make a profit. Now that TBI Taiwan has just celebrated its first anniversary, what kind of challenges have they faced, and how has the model fared in Taiwan, where social enterprise is still a fairly unknown thing?

It is a fine Friday morning in summer, and 48-year-old Li Long-zhu is looking at his schedule. First, he has to head to TBI's distribution center at Tai-pei's Hua-shan Creative Park to pick up the latest issues, and then push his cart full of magazines to the plaza in front of Shin Kong Mi-tsu-ko-shi, across from the Tai-pei Railway Station. As he makes the trek, he thinks to himself, "This issue's not been out long, and with the weekend coming up, that should make for some good sales today!"

Li Long-zhu, originally from Yun-lin, dropped out of high school at 14 to find work. At 20, he married a mainland Chinese woman and moved up to Taipei. Together they had two children, and while his wife was a fulltime housewife and mother, Li worked pressing clothes for a garment factory in Wanhua.

That was back when Taiwan's clothing industry was booming. Orders were piling up, and he and his colleagues were making NT$5 for each garment they pressed. He worked 10-plus hours a day, making NT$50,000-NT$60,000 a month with ease-his personal best was making NT$110,000 one month.

A wanderer's path

But then the garment factories began moving to mainland China to make the most of the lower labor costs, and in 1999 Li Long-zhu suddenly found himself out of work. He went door-knocking, looking for work, but all he could find was odd jobs washing dishes and moving cement. In the end, his wife could no longer take the financial strain, and headed back to the mainland with their two children in tow.

Having already lost his job and his marriage, three years ago things got even worse for Li. Unable to afford rent, he had to sleep in underpasses by night and wander the streets by day, occasionally getting work holding advertising signs or helping with temple festivals. To feed himself, he would make the long trek to a branch of Grace Home, which offers food for the homeless, lining up with other homeless people to get a meal, and worried that if he were too late, he'd get nothing.

When he heard last year that TBI was looking for salespeople, he signed up immediately, becoming part of the magazine's vanguard. He works almost all year, in the heat of summer and cold of winter, only not heading out on rainy days. He is out on the street selling magazines for an average of 10 hours a day, generally selling about 20 copies a day, enough to meet basic living expenses.

In his second month working for TBI, he was able to rent a small studio apartment for NT$4000 a month, finally making his deepest wish come true-bringing an end to over two years of homelessness. Now, he just hopes he can keep working selling magazines, saving money to one day go visit his son and daughter in mainland China. Every part of his life, from lifestyle to how much he values his own life, has been transformed by TBI.

"By giving these homeless people a chance to become self-sufficient, we also help them rebuild their self-confidence and self-respect," says TBI's Taiwan editor-in-chief Fines Lee.

According to figures from the International Network of Street Papers, there are 112 publications in 40 countries using the same model as TBI, offering homeless people the opportunity to stand on their own two feet, and with a 20-year history in the UK, TBI and its various international editions is both a leader and the best known.

Teach a man to fish....

In 1991 Gordon Roddick-husband of Dame Anita Roddick, founder of British body care product chain The Body Shop-was inspired by a street magazine called Street News, sold by homeless people on the streets of New York. Working together with John Bird, who had experience with publishing and had been homeless himself, he created The Big Issue.

Building on the credo that it is better to give a man a hand up than a handout, the pair built up a network of homeless street vendors, as well as developing a system of recruitment and training for their vendors. This offered job opportunities to vagrants and the underprivileged, helping them take another step toward finding housing, getting back into touch with people, and rediscovering their self-confidence and self-respect. From there, they could once again become productive members of society, say farewell to homeless life, and then even look for more stable work.

Over the following years TBI grew gradually, and in 1995 The Big Issue Foundation was set up, with the aim of helping TBI vendors establish secure housing and get access to healthcare, as well as expanding TBI services to include vendors left unemployed due to disabilities.

In 1996, the first overseas edition of TBI was set up in Australia, and today editions are published in 10 countries, including Ireland, South Africa, and Japan. Taiwan was the ninth country to join TBI's ranks.

In each country, the local fundraisers must first apply for a license from TBI in the UK, which gives them the rights to the name, although the local editions are independently published. The content varies greatly from place to place, and local editors are free to decide on their own articles, including the option of getting articles from other editions translated.

The British edition of TBI has already moved from monthly publication to weekly, with a weekly circulation of 136,000 copies, and has an estimated weekly readership of 640,000, based on copies being shared around. So far, TBI has helped as many as 10,000 homeless people turn their lives around, becoming a leader in social enterprise in the UK.

Going offline

The chief executive and editor-in-chief of the Taiwan edition of TBI, Fines Lee, got his start in the world of the Internet.

Now 41 years old, Lee graduated with a degree in physics from Tung Hai University, and in 1997 he became a founding staff member at Taiwanese website Kimo (which has since been purchased by Yahoo!), working on Kimo News and user interface design.

Later he moved on to the then-embryonic GigaMedia, before leaving and once again proving to have an eye for a trend and business opportunity by founding auction site Downput, which would later become Roodo Market. In 2004, when Kimo Auctions began asking sellers to pay a listing fee, unsatisfied users made the move to Roodo, helping it rocket to the top of the pile.

Riding this new wave of popularity, Roodo transformed to become a primarily blogging-focused site. In 2008, Lee also established Roodo Magz, working with a couple of dozen professionals living abroad to publish articles on lifestyle, culture, art, design, and other global hot topics, complete with in-depth criticism.

Earning praise for its graphic design and in-depth content, Roodo Magz also went on to win the Click Awards, the most respected awards in the Chinese-language online world.

In 2009, one of his friends asked Lee if he would be interested in branching out into the print media. At roughly the same time he happened to hear about the history and model of TBI in the UK, and he was intrigued. Lee decided to start out in the same vein, going from an old hand at the Internet to a newbie in the publishing world at a time when the print media were under threat.

Lee flew to London in November 2009 to visit TBI's head office and meet with John Bird, bringing with him information on homelessness in Taiwan, Taiwan's available social welfare resources, and Taiwan's public transportation systems, as well as a plan for the kind of content he hoped to publish. Tapping his personal network, he was even able to get famous graphic designer Aaron Nieh to draft six possible covers for the first issue.

Impressed by Lee's preparedness and professionalism, Bird happily gave him the go-ahead, asking Lee to get started as soon as he could. Bird even waived the licensing fee, but also said he could only offer his experience, not any kind of financial or manpower assistance.

After getting back to Taiwan, Lee immediately set about getting TBI Taiwan going, raising NT$2 million from friends and family to cover start-up costs.

A unique sales approach

In his initial efforts to find vendors, Lee visited organizations that work with the homeless, including the Spring of Living Water in Wan-hua, Grace Home, and Ze-nan Homeless Social Welfare Foundation, holding seminars there to introduce the magazine and its business model. Those that were interested in following up could go on to seminars on sales methods and practical training sessions, then head out to sell magazines on a trial basis.

As with the UK model, before vendors can go out and sell magazines, they must sign a code of conduct, which includes prohibitions on smoking, drinking, selling other products, or accepting extra payments beyond the magazine's cover price while working. Lee explains that the code of conduct aims to both train a respect for work and differentiate TBI from other social welfare and charitable organizations.

To start off, TBI provides 10 copies of the magazine to new vendors, and when those are sold, they can then restock according to how much money they have and how well the magazines have been selling.

In addition to letting vendors decide where they will sell the magazines each day from a list of available locations, along with when they will work, TBI also allows the vendors to decide whether or not they'll work on a given day, whether they want to take a short break for emotional or health reasons, and even if they want to com-pletely quit selling magazines. Virtually every element of vendors' work is under their own control.

As Lee explains, many homeless people have various odd jobs that they may do, and this, coupled with their unstable living conditions, means TBI can't put them under too many restrictions, otherwise things might backfire.

According to official figures, there are some 500-600 homeless people in the Greater Taipei area; however, more pessimistic estimates place the number somewhere above 1,000.

In the year that The Big Issue has been on sale in Taiwan, 120 people have at some time been vendors, and after starting with 18 vendors, today the number currently working is already up to 50. Vendors come and go-some manage to escape homelessness, find stable work, and return to mainstream society; others drop out of the job for various reasons. A high rate of vendor turnover is common amongst TBI operations wherever they are.

The Taiwanese edition of The Big Issue has sold 30,000 copies a month, averaging over 200 copies per vendor. Almost 10 of their vendors, though, are selling 600-700 copies a month, making for a monthly income of over NT$30,000.

The way Lee sees it, sales figures are directly related to how committed the vendors are, with pedestrian traffic in their chosen areas only a secondary consideration. If a vendor doesn't show up often, people wanting to buy the magazine will be left empty handed, and so naturally sales will turn in favor of the more regular, long-term vendors.

An anthem for the Age of Fools

Taiwan's The Big Issue covers a broad range of topics, including global issues, arts and culture, green philosophy, business and technology, and other areas. The target demographic is members of the so-called "Generation Y."

The inspiration for the cover of the April Fool's Day 2010 issue, which featured "The Age of Fools" in Chinese with a large font, came from Apple founder Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford, which he closed by exhorting the students to "Stay hungry, stay foolish."

Fines Lee, who considers himself a member of Generation X, says that Generation Y, who grew up with the Internet, is now the largest demographic in Taiwan, and they generally have the guts to innovate, pursue what they want, and approach the world with their own set of values. To him, Generation Y embodies what Jobs meant by "stay foolish," being motivated by ideals and imagination rather than tradition and dogma, and that this will surely bring forth a surprising and colorful future.

At the same time, this generation have grown up in a time of massive consumerism and information overload, so TBI aims to keep things simple and focus on the core ideal of "staying hungry, staying foolish," presenting a "wise fool's" perspective on the world.

And as John Bird himself said about the founding of TBI UK, social enterprises are still businesses-they sell products, not pity. As a result, the magazine still needs to be competitive, attractive to readers, and capable of standing up against commercial magazines.

TBI's editorial policy has been controversial in the UK and US, especially when compared with the content of similar street magazines.

One school of thought maintains that TBI is too commercialized, aping commercial magazines by frequently featuring celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Paul McCartney rather than really getting to grips with issues relating to the homeless and underprivileged. The other side argues that such commercialization helps sell magazines, which is key to both long-term success for the magazine and helping the homeless earn an income.

A convenient channel?

Facing an initial lack of vendors and experience, when TBI Taiwan launched, Lee made a bold decision in order to build a name for the magazine. He had 100,000 copies of the launch issue printed-some of which still remain in inventory-and chose to follow in the footsteps of the UK edition, which was put on shelves in 200 branches of The Body Shop, organizing to have them put on shelves in 7-Elevens outside the Greater Taipei area.

He explains that when a magazine launches, it naturally needs to build up a name, and by having it on sale outside of Tai-pei they could get the magazine into the hands of readers outside of Tai-pei, in areas where there were no street vendors. On top of that, there was no cannibalization of business by having them in convenience stores and being sold by street vendors. TBI even made an arrangement with 7-Eleven that after expenses were taken out of the price, 7-Eleven would donate the remainder of the cover price to organizations that help the homeless through the United Way system.

Quickly this approach aroused questions from people online, who wondered whether this inconsistency with TBI's operations elsewhere was a betrayal of the magazine's founding spirit.

To address these concerns, and after looking at the costs and benefits of stocking the magazine in convenience stores, after two short months Lee decided to end the arrangement, and from June 2010-issue three-the magazine was no longer available in 7-Eleven. Instead, TBI attempted to set up arrangements with social welfare foundations in central and southern Taiwan in an effort to expand street vendor presence to those locations. However, with a production staff of only six people, it was decided that due to issues with publishing and distribution, this was unfeasible. It wasn't until May 2011 that vendors began selling the magazine outside of the Tai-pei area, setting up in Tai-chung. There still remains a lot of room for growth in terms of getting the magazine out around the island, however.

Media with a mission

Although TBI was founded with the aim of providing a social good, it's still a business, and has to strike a balance between business and social concerns. In its early days, they focused on building a solid editorial and vendor foundation, then once profits were sufficient, they founded the The Big Issue Foundation, a non-profit organization responsible for providing vendors with training, as well as working on raising funds to provide greater services to the homeless. Such foundations have been founded in four to five years of operation in the countries where TBI has been most successful, including the UK, Australia, and Japan.

Looking back over TBI Taiwan's progress over the past year, Fines Lee laughs that he never really considered the whole "saving the world" part of things, instead being more interested by the challenges of getting the magazine up and running. And despite the difficulties he's faced in this effort, Lee remains as wholeheartedly dedicated as ever.

"Thank god for The Big Issue!" says Li Long-zhu. Having faced his share of hardships, Li can't help but feel grateful: "I can't imagine a job that's more welcoming or heartwarming than this," he says with a smile. "When people buy magazines from you, they'll even smile and give you encouragement." And with that, Li Long-zhu turns around and gets back to work as the sun beats down. "The Big Issue! $100 a copy!"



繁體中文 日文

愚人世代的 街頭雜誌── 李取中與《THE BIG ISSUE》

文‧王婉嘉 圖‧薛繼光


這本源自英國,名為《The Big Issue》的雜誌,去年4月起發行台灣版,也多了個中文名字《大誌》,由專業記者、作家編寫雜誌內容;最特別之處,在於這份刊物的通路,僅限無家可歸的街頭流浪者販售,每本售價100元,販售員每賣出一本,即可得到50元收入,另外50元則歸雜誌社所有,做為內容生產成本。

結合商業模式與照顧弱勢的《The Big Issue》(TBI),以「社會企業」為定位,意指將營運所得用於追求社會目的,而非私人營利的經營型態。台灣版《TBI》創刊至今已屆滿週年,實際運作情形如何?對於社會企業概念仍十分模糊的台灣來說,又將帶來什麼刺激與挑戰?










據國際街報聯盟統計,目前全球共有112份刊物於40個國家以相同模式發行,提供街頭流浪者自力更生機會,其中最知名及具指標地位者,當屬在英國已有20年歷史,發行版圖遍及全球的《The Big Issue》。


1991年,以天然、環保為特色的英國保養品牌「美體小舖」(The Body Shop)合夥人羅迪克,在美國紐約受到街頭販售的《Street News》啟發靈感,返回英國後,便找了具有印刷出版經驗,同時也曾經是無家可歸者的友人柏德,共同創辦《The Big Issue》。


《TBI》在英國逐漸獲得廣大迴響,並於1995年成立「The Big Issue基金會」,服務對象擴及因殘疾而無工作能力的街友,服務內容也拓展至街友的棲身住所、健康醫療等全方位照護。












柏德對其有備而來的專業架勢印象深刻,欣然同意,只說了句「Go ahead!」,要李取中放手去做,不需支付任何授權費用,但也直言僅能提供經驗分享,無法提供金錢或人力等協助。














選在去年4月1日愚人節發行的創刊號,封面上頭大大寫著「愚人世代」,靈感來自於蘋果電腦創辦人賈伯斯2005年在史丹佛大學演講時的結尾:「Stay Hungry, Stay foolish(求知若飢,虛心若愚)」。


同時,Y世代生長於物質豐裕的年代,消費選擇目不暇給,資訊爆炸超載,因此《TBI》以「Stay Hungry, Stay foolish」為核心理念,傳達無論外界紛擾吵雜,仍得切記時時回歸本質,以最單純的心態看待世界的「愚人」精神。 


















文・王婉嘉 写真・薜継光


この雑誌はイギリスから始まったThe Big Issue(TBI 、ビッグイシュー)の台湾版で、去年4月から中国語名「大誌」で発行された。記事はジャーナリストや作家が書くが、最大の特色は流通で、販売員をホームレスに限るところである。一冊100元で、一冊売ると販売員に50元が入り、50元が雑誌製作に当てられる。











現在、世界40ヶ国で112種類の出版物が似たようなモデルで発行されており、ホームレスに自立の機会を与えている。中でも最も知名度が高いのが、イギリスで20年の歴史を有し、発行地域が世界各国に及ぶ「The Big Issue」なのである。


自然原料と環境保護を特色とするイギリスの化粧品ブランド、ザ・ボディショップの創設者ロディックは、1991年にニューヨークの街角で販売される新聞「Street News」に感銘を受けた。イギリスに戻ってから、かつてホームレスで、しかも出版経験がある友人と共同で「The Big Issue」を創刊した。


同誌はイギリスで支持を広げて、1995年にはThe Big Issue財団法人が設立され、障害があって働けないホームレスを対象に、医療や住む場所の世話などを始めた。








































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