BrownScene Magazine

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BrownScene Magazine seems so long ago, almost like a footnote in my life. I’ve been in a lot of spaces and places since then, from the TV stuff to the Poetry stuff to the Community Centre stuff… BrownScene is the thing I least talk about.

Funny enough, it was probably my biggest success. Maybe I was just so sad to see it all end and maybe I just miss it so much that I tucked it way back into my consciousness.

Here’s how it all began. Two of my college buddies, Roel Sarmago and Errol Vicencio, and a friend of ours, filmmaker Romeo Candido were chilling out after a movie. We were in our idealist years of college, all wide-eyed and wanting to change the world and we thought that a magazine would be a cool idea. After all, we were business people, writers, designers… and we had something to say about being young and Filipino.

We started as Brown Sugar Magazine but quickly found out it was already a porn site so we changed it to BrownScene. People always asked us ‘why brown’, ‘isn’t that for east indian people, or mexican people’? We decided to stick with Brown for discourse, to embrace our ancestors shades of skin tone.

A huge party kicked it off, but what people don’t know is that we HAD that launch party so we could raise money to print the first issue. It all worked out and on that cold February day in 1998, the magazine was born, even being featured nationally on MuchMusic.

The awesome part of BrownScene was that even though we published it in Toronto (on an Apple Centris), the content came from all over North America via email. Columnists from New York, Florida, California, Vancouver and even the Philippines chimed in and gave BrownScene a broad reach both in viewpoint and in audience.

BrownScene’s aim was always to try and unify young Filipinos all over North America and to show us that ‘from borough to barrio’… we’re all the same and we can learn from each other. In that way, I think we were ahead of our time.

Soon after, BrownScene got picked up for distribution by Tower Records and was available as far as Singapore and Japan! The Toronto Star even picked up two of BrownScene’s articles (one was about Apo Hiking Society and the other was a recipe for Corned Beef and Fried Rice).

A magazine sounded like a cool idea but it was really hard to get the money together to publish each issue. Advertisers weren’t biting and they were the means to the end.
Errol and Romeo moved on and Fred deGuzman, JR Servilla and Mark Hudson came on just as BrownScene had a new idea, which was in line with the dot-com craze of the time.

Erwin Tumangday from bluespark.com gave us a great concept. Viral marketing through an HTML based newsletter that went straight to the email inboxes of subscribers. Hopefully, the subscriber list would attract advertisers to keep the magazine, now a print AND online version, growing. At it’s peak, BrownScene.com and the BrownScene Blast had over 5000 subscribers worldwide.

Locally, BrownScene was turning into the defining voice for Filipino Canadian youth culture. Seeing it as a way to foster our audience, we started doing events meant to promote Filipino Canadian talent as well as spread the word about the magazine and foster an audience… and a market.

We were the first to bring Rex Navarrete to Canada. When Emm Gryner was getting all that buzz, we were one of the first to get the scoop. At it’s height, BrownScene events like the SceneStealers Cafe took place every week and gave some local musicians their only stage.

Increasingly, it was getting harder and harder to keep the bus going. While the magazine and website kept growing exponentially by word of mouth and online, the advertisers were still not biting, citing that the young Filipino wasn’t a viable enough target audience for them to put their money towards. Sadly, many of these potential investors were older Filipinos with established businesses, who chose instead to keep buying ads in the local Filipino newspaper. The Ryerson Review of Journalism wrote about the struggle of ethnic media and BrownScene was featured.

BrownScene officially ended with FLIPPIN’ PAGES. We had exasperated our options as far as financing the magazine and the site and were now running on fumes.

At this point, the website and bi-weekly blasts had begun to eclipse the popularity of the magazine and we were getting thousands of hits per day and over 7000 subscribers and growing. We had a network of talented writers and designers who contributed to it, never having met or even spoken in person. BrownScene (along with other sites like Pinoylife and PinoyPower) was somewhat a household name for the Filipino in-the-know. I was fortunate enough to be asked to attend Asian and Filipino student conferences at colleges and universities across Canada and the U.S. to talk about writing and starting a magazine.

Flippin’ Pages was like the BIG HEIST. We rented out the SteamWhistle Brewery for a huge bash and we had to either fill it, or go down in flames… and go down in flames we did. I guess it’s better to go out in a blaze of glory rather than fizzle out without a pop.

The event was awesome, but the amount of people that passed through the doors weren’t enough to save the magazine. The work had gotten too expensive and tiring for us (no one ever got paid) and so, BrownScene went riding off into the sunset.

I guess our spirit was deflated. We wondered how we could put so much work into something and still now get the financial support we needed to thrive. And so, at an informal meeting at The Green Room in Toronto… we called it.

It was done. We all went on with our lives. Some of us continued on our normal jobs. Fred’s a chef. Mark, Errol and JR have great jobs in IT. Roel is a financial advisor.

Romeo and I continued working together on TV and film projects. My BrownScene experience led me to get involved in FLIPtv, a TV show aimed at young Filipinos, which aired all over Canada and even briefly worldwide on TFC-The Filipino Channel.

People miss it. Every now and then I’ll do the vanity search and see that it’s been mentioned somewhere. That shows me that when it ended, there was a void.

One thing I’m proud of is that a lot of the talented folks who were involved in BrownScene are still out there writing. They don’t know, but I check up on them often and odds are I keep up with their latest work. I hope they feel the same way as I do, that the experience forever changed me and helped mold me into who I am today – a writer, editor, artist, poet and community worker.

The best thing, however, is knowing that for that brief period, we all had a lot to do with how young Filipinos looked at the world, and themselves.

Peace and Adobo Grease,

Len Ryan Cervantes
Editor-in-Boxer Briefs

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15 Responses to “BrownScene Magazine”

  1. for that brief period, we all had a lot to do with how young Filipinos looked at the world, and themselves.
    So true.
    There were quite a few Filipino publications (both print & online) at the time, and I worked with quite a few, but the Brown Scene folks were the most fun I had the pleasure to work with. Even though I never met y’all in person. You guys were just so laid back and chill, and I enjoyed the staff emails and of course those email blasts. We all have to hook up one of these days. Maybe Arnel and I will drive up to Toronto, or you guys could drive down to NY.
    And you know what’s so sad and ironic? All but one of the pubs that dbd mentioned are gone, or in hiatus.

    • yeah its too bad, eh…
      I’m wondering if we’re just in a valley right now, but it seems like that was a time of a new consciousness… I remember chillin at a conference with the PinoyPower.com people, the iJeepney.com people and the newfilipina.com people and we all were so wide-eyed…
      I wonder what’s goin’ on now?
      I mean, you’re still writing and so am I… but are there younger versions of us out there doing the same thing, or have they lost it?
      Anyways, I’m in NYC at least once a year… so it’s a deal.
      (remember that one time I called you, but we couldn’t put it together?)

    • how funny!
      that you wrote for brownscene, i had written some articles for brownscene. we never met. lived on two different coasts, and you happen to marry my cousin!

      • Re: how funny!
        now that IS funny!
        Did you guys know each other then? Or ever casually mention it when you did meet?
        SHEESH!
        The next thing I’ll find out is the Fred deGuzman and Miriam Warren are actually friends!!!

      • Re: how funny!
        Who????
        (Hi Mi!!!)

      • Anonymous Says:

        Re: how funny!
        i’m not sure how i put it all together, but no i didn’t know heidi back in the brownscene days.
        oh, and it’s not like fred and miriam are friends that when fred visits the bay area, he would stay at her place! nahhhhh… =)

  2. i miss reading brownscene
    i also miss writing to the editors
    heh

  3. back in the day, when i was a wee undergraduate student, my friends and i struggled and fought for some kind of representation on a campus full of priveleged, spoiled rich kids. needless to say, we were the minorities, in ethnicity, socioeconomically, etc.
    i have ties with the school still and hear that a lot of the kids there now use the organization we helped set up to party. they don’t seem to care like we did. they seem so apathetic, not realizing the struggles we faced a mere 5 years ago to get them the little recognition and rights they have now. i see the organization dissolving in a few years.
    but it gives me hope that this, like the tide, will turn. after this apathetic generation, the next generation will understand and fight again.
    it gives me some hope, when my 5-year cousin responds to this:
    me: ian, are you itim?
    ian: no.
    me: ian, are you puti?
    ian: no.
    me: then what are you?
    ian: PINOY AKO!
    it probably helps that we black that pinoy rock band, bamboo, in the car!

    • i feel that way too…
      and I even stuck around a bit to try and help ‘the kids’ keep it goin’ but I don’t think it was in their hearts.
      it sorta made we wonder what lit the fire under us at that time?

      • you know i think about that all the time. what made me want to fight so hard when all my life, i’ve been the quiet one. i believe some of it is because i came from living in a city of diversity (it was the fogtown featured in Lumpia) to a place of little diversity. white suburbia. but i think there’s much more to it than just that?
        maybe it was finally being old enough to see and understand the struggles my parents faced as immigrants, even though they had lived in the US for 20+ years already? maybe it was me so sick and tired of learning that only european immigrants contributed to american history and never learning about the japanese internment camps, the native american slaughters (well, they mentioned it somewhat in class), and how the great US military was aided by their “little brown brothers”?
        i just hate to see that the kids nowadays are about “azn pride”, but for all the wrong reasons.

  4. Back in the day
    (when I was young, I’m not a kid anymore)
    Believe it or not I still have ALL my BS folders in my Outlook inbox. Maybe it’s laziness…but I don’t know why I’ve never deleted them. It’s funny how “nice” I was to Mark though in the first few emails. hahha
    I actually list BS in my resume as Marketing experience. Haven’t had any luck with it…but you never know.
    I miss going to car shows and taking pics of models wearing the BS shirts. hahha

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