Local Spotlight: Q&A with Pema Choden Tenzin (Yeewong Magazine)
Pema Choden Tenzin is the Owner and Chief Editor of Yeewong Magazine; Bhutan’s first and only women and lifestyle magazine. The magazine started publication in 2009.
We sat with Pema — one of Bhutan’s leading woman entrepreneurs — to learn more about her road to success.
1. What is your background in editorial and magazine design?
Absolutely none! I graduated from Sherbutse College and I majored in English literature. Initially, I wanted to sit for RCSC (Royal Civil Service Commission) like everyone else and get a job in the government. But right after graduation I worked for different organizations before sitting for RCSC to see if I was interested in anything else. I was scared of spending the rest of my life working as a civil servant. At that age, I wanted to experiment. I wanted to find adventure and create a collection of experiences. Media was something I was interested in and, so, that’s how it started.
2. What led you to the idea of creating the first women’s magazine in Bhutan?
Back in 2008, I was training to be a documentary film editor when the first Miss Bhutan pageant was initiated. The creator and founder of the Miss Bhutan pageant asked me to work for him as an event manager and when I agreed, he gave me all the responsibility of the content creation and designing of the first beauty pageant magazine. While working on the magazine and writing stories about these women, it gave rise to an idea of a more content heavy women’s magazine instead of a magazine just for a beauty pageant. We started interviewing different Bhutanese women and basically added a different perspective to the current structure of magazines in the market.
3. Has the start of a Bhutanese women’s magazine changed the perception of women in Bhutan?
The perception of people is changing now but it is still a struggle and we are still under progress. I wouldn’t say that people have totally accepted it as a women’s magazine and as a voice of the Bhutanese women. And that’s exactly what I talked about at Mountain Echoes festival.
Just because a woman is glamorous, modern and glossy doesn’t mean that her ideas and opinion aren’t worth something. Over the years Yeewong has covered a lot of important issues on women; including women with AIDS and women suffering from domestic violence. We have also tried to partner with local nonprofits. We have visited villages to document women weaving nettle and women who have been weaving Kishuthara for generations. It is sad that Yeewong is over shadowed by the gloss and glamour but I’ m not disappointed by it.
4. What is your favorite section of the magazine to write?
I don’t have any favorite section in particular. I love working on all sections and that is one of the best thing I love about my job. Any day of the week, I always look forward to sitting in front of my desk and working on it. The beauty is that I get to experience and meet new people and can work on something new every day. Whether it is the YEE-REEL section, the TRENDS & BEAUTY section or the HEALTH section, they all have something in common but at the same time they are different.
5. Is the magazine solely read by females or do you have a male readership also?
We started off as a women’s magazine and that was a problem initially because back then we didn’t have the social media channels that we have now and YEEWONG magazine was the first publication to come out with a very colorful touch, embracing elements which were not openly accepted then but embraced today. At that time everyone questioned my decision to come out with a women’s magazine instead of a news magazine or a political magazine especially at a time when democracy was being introduced in the country. These people were not aware that over the years women in Bhutan were realizing a need to have a platform to voice their taste and interest that is different from the rest.
We do have men who read our issues and we get reviews from them, particularly from men whose wives are interested in the various sections of the publication.
6. What does Yeewong mean?
YEEWONG is a Dzongkha word which means ‘something that appeals to the heart, something charming’. The word originated from YEEKHAWONG TOK TOK. It was my dad who helped me choose the name.
7. What section of the magazine is a favorite with the readers?
There are various section and most of the younger girls like the TRENDS & BEAUTY. We have another group who likes the stories of various women, which is the YEE-REEL. We also have those who like the LIFESTYLE section. So, all in all, there isn’t a favorite section but there have been favorite issues. People really like the Royal wedding and the Royal grandmother issues.
I also received good reviews on our issue where Nathalie Kelly was featured, in the year 2015, when Nathalie visited Bhutan with MyBhutan.
In this issue, we also covered beautiful stories of different rural artisans coming together to create the dream house project.
8. What is your favorite issue of the magazine?
My personal favorite issue is the Royal Grandmother issue because usually there isn’t much information on our Royal Grandmother in print. I did so much research on her and during my research I also got a lot of information on both our 3rd and 4th Kings.
9. What is the GET FIT Campaign? And what is the objective?
It is an initiative started by YEEWONG magazine and is a part of our YEE-HEALTH section. What Yeewong has is a list of issues that is close to us and we try to feature them in every issue like textile, women entrepreneurs and HEALTH. Our objective is to encourage the idea of exercising and inculcate the habit of exercising in everybody’s life. everybody start exercising. Last year for the GET-FIT campaign we had men participate as well so this was something nice to see.
10. You are one of the first notable women entrepreneurs in Bhutan. What difficulties did you encounter in establishing yourself?
In the Bhutanese media industry, publishing a colorful magazine was very new. I would say people were surprised to see Yeewong come out at that time, especially when there were so many serious publications. So, a lot of people didn’t take me seriously. I still struggle with that and it has a lot to do with the appearance, that is what we are trying to break and change. When something is glittery it does not mean what is inside it is not worth. There is this whole misconception that “beauty is only skin deep”. But, you can actually use this misconception to deliver something powerful. This is the kind of age old concept that I have always tried to break.
Most of my college friends tell me that people just flip through magazines to look at the pictures. I tell them that it is worth going through it and reading the stories for a change. From ten people, if one person takes notice of that, then I’m more than happy.
11. What advice do you have for future women entrepreneurs?
You know how people say “you need to be strong and thick skinned”? Well, it was not like that for me. I was and still am very shy and scared. After I had made the decision not to sit for RCSC examination, my father didn’t talk to me for a month and I was lost. Even at family reunions they kept asking why I didn’t sit for it and that I could have gotten a secure government job. The first few years were the worst, but when you are ready to confront all of those negative remarks and comments and not get affected by your friends getting secure jobs, then you are ready to be an entrepreneur. You don’t have to be tough but strong enough to navigate through all that.
12. What is the vision or next for YEEWONG?
Every organization needs a vision but when we started off we just wanted to be accepted and survive as a women’s magazine. But now, after all these years, our vision is to be a platform through which women’s voices can be heard and at the same time portray and preserve the traditional Bhutanese identity. We will always have the western influence but keep the traditions intact at the same time.
We are constantly exploring ways to experiment with different features, sections and stories and we also have a lot of projects in line with international writers and designers who are interested to explore Bhutan not just in terms of culture but the budding fashion and entrepreneurial ventures. Going international is next for us.
INTERVIEW BY SARAH CAHLAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY YEEWONG MAGAZINE