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How Behind-the-scenes Work on Benshi Pulls on the Heart

How Behind-the-scenes Work on Benshi Pulls on the Heart

by Arya.SH, editor-in-chief of Weiwuying's Benshi issues 13-20

A freelance editor, writer who has worked in the art/culture and design sectors for years, she has held positions in design and lifestyle media firms and currently writes for publications and press releases, telling unforgettable stories about people and life through text. 

Whether it be an opera, a dance number, or a circus act, behind each lies the effort of countless people, and magazines are no different. With the fifth anniversary of Weiwuying, Benshi (which was born right alongside Weiwuying) had its 20th issue published, reaching a small milestone in its mission of art promotion.

The members of the Benshi team, consisting of Weiwuying staff, the editor-in-chief (now me), and Onion Design, often refer to ourselves as the "Iron Triangle." Since its inception, the magazine has had three adoptive parents (editors-in-chief), some of whom are good at finding experimental subjects while others care about the depth of the content. Along with the help of several talented editors and photographers, we work together in upholding the spirit of Benshi, which is to guide readers in looking at life and art in a humorous way. 

A lot of wonderful things have been shared about in the magazine, but there were many more that weren't. An example is issue 15, "Image," for which a National Palace Museum researcher educated us about ornamentation on bronze implements and the "weight" of time. During the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, since speech would be forgotten and bamboo strips (used as paper) would rot, people recorded some things on bronze implements, clearly documenting the events of history on a material that lasts for ages. Through highly unique and creative imagery and patterns, they documented reminders for their descendants, stories of war, memories of sericulture and weaving, and animals that only exist in the imagination, keeping these concepts still as alive as ever.

At the end of the interview, the researcher said with feeling, "A human life lasts about 80 or 90 years, while bronze vessels survive for thousands. They have survived the test of time, quietly preserving the ideas of those before us. In comparison, we're all quite young." Standing around those ancient bronzes, I immediately got goosebumps and a sense of admiration welled up within. I had heard people say that vessels have life, and that encounter made me believe it. 

For several years, the entire world was caught in the Covid whirlpool, and it posed a challenge to those of us in publishing. Every day, my mood rose and fell with Taiwan's CDC press conferences. Restrictions on gatherings and repeated changes in dates and who would be interviewed were common. There was nothing to do but strive forward when possible and take cover when necessary. Those things we had no control over back then are really funny to think about now. 

I once had a young male photographer go to a bar for a project, and a worker there began to hit on him, asking, "How do you feel about playing with chains?" The horrified photographer texted me in a panic asking what he should do. Another time, during a Level 3 alert, a photographer from Tainan had endured a four- or five-hour trek to the food street in Meinong to take pictures only to find that lots of stores were closed when he got there.   

We're always stepping out of our comfort zone and exposed to people in other fields. We have found that the average Joe and Jane can at times be quite easy going when it comes to preparing for interviews. We like to confirm numerous details of an interview with an interviewee beforehand, but they often aren't interested and think all of that can wait until the interview. As a result, our team members are always ready for anything that might suddenly come up and have trained up their capacity to make quick decisions. Additionally, it is often the case that we have to follow up with the interviewees to verify such information as names and their hours of operation (because frankly they don't care whether it's correct XD!).   

The magazine business is all about the right place, time, and people; destiny is often the protagonist in these projects. For the 18th issue, "Wonderland," we went to a place of old-fashioned entertainment, the Phoenix Cabaret (a "red envelope club"). We got there at 19:00 just as music and lights were awakening it from its daytime slumber, which is when we met the striking Miss Ya-chiao.

Once she knew why we had come, she gave us everything we needed: a private room where the singers could come to be interviewed. Some of them talked extensively about their performance history while others spoke a bit about the evolution of entertainment in Taiwan – all of them were fascinating. They taught us about requesting songs and giving red envelopes too. The line of prospective interviewees kept growing to the point that we had to respectfully (though not delicately) decline. While the editors were interviewing in the room, I had to go outside to break the news to those waiting their turn, clearing my throat and doing my best to be heard above the clamor of the singing: "I'm so sorry! We don't have enough space in the magazine for any more interviews!"

For the 11th issue, "Paper," we went to the Chen Hsieh Ho Joss Paper Shop in Zhunan. The owner, 82-year-old CHEN Kun-hui, spoke with precision and gusto. His family has been making joss paper for generations. The business has experienced the prohibition of joss-paper burning during the Japanese occupation, the rise of burning joss-paper in supplication for good luck when playing the lottery beginning in the early ROC period, and the present, when people are becoming environmentally conscious and thus burning less joss paper. Through these ups and downs, the family has maintained its devotion to traditional culture. 

CHEN was so lively despite his age. I was surprised to find he was the youngest person working there! Of the seven or eight others, the oldest was a woman of 93. They had all long been neighbors, and they jokingly said that they would rather be making joss paper and talking about their lives with each other than just sitting at home doing nothing. As they spoke, their hands worked with a speed that magnificently displayed the extent of their muscle memory nurtured over the years. CHEN did not hesitate to share the secret to his youthful energy: besides continuing to work, he takes regular doses of royal jelly, which he strongly recommended for me too. I couldn't get enough of how genuine he was.

For each issue, my mood is renewed. It's like being on a never-ending journey on which I get to experience different things and am touched. Once again, I have to say sorry, there simply isn't enough room for it all. There are so many other behind-the-scenes stories I wish I could share with you. This column is a continuation of the spirit of Benshi. From an interesting perspective, it will document my observations of life, art, and culture. Whether novel or ordinary, when we look at something from different angles, anything can become extraordinary. Let's keep our hearts open and learn from the world about things known and others yet unknown.

*Please follow a physician's recommendations for consuming royal jelly. 

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