By David Abel | Globe Staff | 03/26/2006
The closest Leo Anthony Ballou has ever come to Asia was a cruise he took three years ago to Mexico.
The lifelong Bostonian, whose great-grandparents moved here from Ireland, has no ties to China, Japan, or anywhere else across the Pacific, though he has recently learned to say hello in nearly every Asian language. Before he dropped out of Northeastern, the computer science major had never even studied about the region.
Nor had Ballou ever worked in the media.
Such inexperience -- and a business plan that would require stretching the limits of his credit cards -- might have dissuaded a less optimistic entrepreneur from spending thousands of his own dollars to publish Asian Boston, the city's newest freebie magazine. He recently began delivering some 15,000 copies of the first edition to scores of local restaurants and shops, everywhere from Chinatown's China Pearl to Brookline's Fugakyu.
"This is America. If you can dream it, you can be successful," Ballou says. "I don't like to
hear you can't, you shouldn't."
But what does a Caucasian who grew up in South Boston -- whose closest link to the other side of the planet is a Vietnamese girlfriend -- have to say about Asians?
"I just think they're a beautiful people, and I respect their culture," he says. "It's everything about them -- their food, traditional dress, their arts and entertainment. I feel I connect to them in a way that's hard to describe. I hope they appreciate me for appreciating them."
Like the thicker glossies it seeks to imitate, the cover of Ballou's 40-page glossy features a venerable, circulation-boosting ploy: a scantily clad woman flashing a well-lipsticked, come-hither pout. Just above the slender Asian's bare midriff, the magazine promises to introduce readers to "the essence of the Far-East Asian Women of New England."
Inside, articles include interviews with Asian comedians, a profile of an Asian rock band, stories about an Asian supermarket and a local fashion designer, and everything from poetry to tips on skin care and hair removal. Between more than a dozen ads -- which Ballou says brought in only $2,000, or $10,000 less than it cost him to publish -- there are more pictures of sultry women, 11 full pages of them. (The index directs the reader to a website if they want to "hire Asian Boston models . . . for your media event or venue.")
The first edition has raised some concerns in the city's Asian community, which comprises about 9 percent of Boston's population, or about 50,000 people, according to a 2004 survey by the US Census.
"It's weird it's not someone Asian doing this," says Karen Chen, an organizer at the Chinese Progressive Association in Chinatown. "I don't mean any offense, but I wonder if he knows enough about Asians in Boston. What legitimacy does he have to do this?"
Chen and others worry the magazine will perpetuate stereotypes about Asians.
"It looks like he's promoting the idea that Asian women are sex kittens or submissive sex objects," says Anh Nguyen, marketing manager at Sampan, a biweekly English-Chinese newspaper published by the Asian American Civic Association in Chinatown. "If you're not affected by Asian stereotypes, it doesn't affect you. But I have to go out there and live. People who aren't affected by these stereotypes should be more sensitive. It's alarming."
City Councilor Sam Yoon, the first Asian-American to be elected to the City Council, declined to comment on the magazine.
The magazine has another potential problem.
Waiting for customers on a recent afternoon at Ho Yuen Bakery in Chinatown, Annie Leung, a 50-year-old saleswoman, flips through Asian Boston and tries to find the words to express her feelings.
"I don't understand," she says, a mantra others repeat in Chinatown. "Why would I read?"
Ballou says he doesn't want to offend anyone; his goal is to "celebrate" local Asian culture. As for the language barrier, he says future editions -- he plans to publish four a year -- will likely include articles translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, or another Asian language.
"I wanted to come out with a bang, not a whimper," he says. "I wanted the eye-catching women. Having a beautiful woman on the cover doesn't hurt, in terms of getting people's attention."
Ballou came up with the idea a year and a half ago after being laid off from a job in which he leased space for cellphone towers. He didn't want to work for someone else, he says, and so he began looking for a business idea.
While listening to books on tape featuring the popular self-help guru Robert Kiyosaki and studying to be a paralegal at Bunker Hill Community College, he says he began noticing how many Asians there were around the city. "I started thinking there was a market there," he says.
He walked around Chinatown to see whether a local magazine for Asians existed, and when he found there wasn't one, he decided: "I'm doing this!"
To start, Ballou found a photographer and a fashion designer, and gained permission from the Hyatt Regency near Chinatown to allow him to do a photo shoot there.
"I thought the idea was fabulous -- I said, `Great, go for it,' " says Donna Agnew, a local fashion consultant who helped pick out the clothing the models wore in the magazine. "I just wanted to encourage him."
Agnew, who received a half-page ad in the magazine for her help, put Ballou in touch with Gunnar Glueck, a graphic designer who spent about six months laying out the magazine, something he'd never done before.
"Initially, I thought it was a bit unexpected that he would do this," says Glueck, who charged Ballou only $4,000 for his work. "But I think he just wanted to better represent the community. I thought it was a cool concept, so I cut him a break."
Over the year, Ballou came up with several story ideas, found writers and models by meeting people on the street and posting online queries, and found a publisher in South Boston.
"Editing was the hardest part," he says.
He also found advertisers who share his vision.
"I think he's trying to do the right thing," says Michael Tow, president of New Boston Financial in Brookline, which advertises in the magazine. "I see him as trying to do something that Asians haven't been able to do. Sometimes it takes an outsider to bring these kinds of things together. I think he's trying to help the community."
In late February, Ballou began distributing the magazine to some 200 stores and restaurants in Boston and beyond, from Providence to Lowell to Manchester, N.H. He also put some on Lucky Star, one of the Chinatown buslines to New York.
He has begun work on a second issue, and hopes to make a profit by the third. His plan, he says, is to attract more ads from local Asian businesses, increase his rates, and insert DVDs with advertising.
For now, though, things remain tight.
Ballou still works out of his home in Southie, where he lives with his brothers. He's living off a dwindling savings account. And the future of the magazine is anything but guaranteed.
He says he will continue relying on the good graces of those who see his vision.
"I'm hoping to make money," says Ballou, who plans to print another 2,000 copies of the first edition. "This is my passion. I'm going to make this work."
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.
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