ldfw3: uk observing diaryBack
The Yorkshire Evening Post page on Facebook, a big source of Leeds news to local people, has 22,203 ‘likes’ – 22,203 people who have given it a thumbs up so the latest Leeds news can appear in their timelines.
ITV Calendar, doing a similar thing for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, has 33,784 fans; BBC Look North has 39,082. The City Talking’s Leeds page has 54,203 subscribers, while Facebook’s own Leeds topic page, that crops up when you tell Facebook that Leeds is your home, has been liked 107,055 times.
And then there’s UK Observing Diary, which at the time of writing, has 148,524 fans.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know about Leeds, especially in the Far East,” said Shang-Ting Peng, who works at Hebe, producers of The City Talking. Shang-Ting started the page with her London-based friend Chia-Wen Liu, in 2009. Around 80% of the 148,000 fans of the UKOD page are based in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, and while they might not be sure where Leeds is on a map, they look at images of Leeds every single day, seeing the city through Shang-Ting’s eyes.
“It’s all about things from the lives of Chia-Wen and me, so it’s intimate enough to make people feel like they’re living here, but without all the fuss and the worry,” said Shang-Ting. The page started when Shang-Ting in Leeds, and Chia-Wen in London, wanted a way to share the discoveries they made in their new home towns with each other and with their families in Taiwan. “I asked Chia-Wen if she wanted to do this thing where we documented what we found every day, like an exchange diary between two friends. So I would post a picture and write something, and she would see that and know what I was doing that day, and then she would respond.
“I remember one of the first things I posted was a picture of a cow that was really muscly. And one day I said I was going on a trip to hunt for some hedgehogs, because I’d never seen one so I wanted to bring one home to be my pet. Then the next day Chia-Wen posted a picture of a hedgehog she had seen before and I was really jealous. That was the start of it, just showing our lives to each other, the differences of being in Leeds and London. I like to go exploring places on my own: it’s nice to feel like home, but also to feel like you’re a stranger. It’s exciting and gives you that feeling of discovering, and I wanted to document that feeling of exploring and adventure.”
Fan pages were still relatively new on Facebook, but the UK Observing Diary page quickly became popular. “When John Baron reported on it for Guardian Leeds,” said Shang-Ting, “It had around 6,000 likes. He thought it was an interesting story, about two Taiwanese girls talking about Leeds and London. And I wrote a press release in Chinese about John’s report, because I thought people over there might be interested in two Taiwanese girls getting press in the UK. I didn’t know if anything would happen – I wasn’t sure anyone would even reply.”
The response was massive. “I heard from one journalist who was going to write about it. But when I woke up that morning, my Facebook was full of messages saying I was on the news in Taiwan, sending me links to the news on YouTube – it was on the TV, and in newspapers, and online, every news channel was talking about it. They’d used my picture and the headline was ‘Pride of Taiwan.’ Our page jumped from 6,000 fans to 60,000 in a day – the analytics showed the most popular pages that day were Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and then ours. I was in shock!”
Opportunities to build on the success came quickly. “It was kind of a buzz thing, lots of people wanted to do something right away. We talked to one of the biggest publishing companies in Taiwan, and contracted to do a book. It took two years, and all that time the page just kept growing.”
The book took the UKOD concept, and concentrated it into a guide to Leeds and London. “We never wanted the fan page to be too specific, telling people to go to this cafe or that shop – it was about presenting the atmosphere of a place to people who might never be able to visit. But the book expanded on that, becoming more of a tour book for people to hold in their hands, recommending food and drink places, museums and galleries and shopping, with some street style and fashion too. You can still tell it’s from me and Chia-Wen, mumbling things about hedgehogs and strong cows and whatever – it combines what we think people will want to see, with things that mean something to us living here.”
A month long book tour in Taiwan promoted the book – and Leeds – to the Far Eastern public. “That was crazy,” said Shang-Ting. “I didn’t know how that was going to be – I underestimated everything. The first thing we did was a photoshoot and interview with Brand Magazine, then it was Vogue interviewing us, and every day our publicist was sending us emails saying our book was in the top three products on Taiwan’s equivalent of Amazon. We were collaborating on events with the British Council and we had Cath Kidston as our brand partner.
“We arranged a book signing in Eslite Bookstore, which is my favourite book store in Taiwan. It’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it’s a culture changing place, people can just go in there and sit on the floor and read the latest books. We walked to the venue on the third floor about half an hour before it was due to start, and at first I thought there would be a little room for us. But then we realised we were just going to be in the middle of the shop floor – there were chairs all set up for the audience, and about 50 people queuing up already! We went to a back room and were just looking at each other, like – what’s going on? I had been to that bookstore so many times and never seen anything like it, unless it was for a movie star or something. The aisles were full of people standing and they had to stop letting people in. Chia-Wen and I did presentations about everything to do with London and Leeds, and then we were supposed to be signing books for about 15 minutes, but we were there for over an hour. It was crazy. Plus my writing is really bad – I didn’t like scribbling on their nice new books!”
The book’s impact has continued since its publication in 2012. “I hear from loads of people who, when they come to London, come to Leeds as well, all because of the book. We have loads of brand collaboration requests coming from Taiwan – people like Ted Baker, Hunter and Hotels.com all want me to talk about things, even though I’m in Leeds, for people in Taiwan to see. We’ve kept the fan page advert free because we don’t want people to feel like we’re selling things to them, but we have experimented with things – we once asked if anyone wanted to buy boxes of Twining’s Jubilee tea, and we had over 200 people interested, but nobody at Twining’s ever got back to me about it.”
The fan page and the book don’t just reach potential tourists and shoppers. “There are a lot of students who tell me that because of the book and the Facebook page, they decided to come to Leeds to study – I can look through the UKOD inbox and see all the people who come here because I’ve talked about it.
“Just after I did my book tour, my friend from Taiwan came to study in Leeds and brought her friends. I thought my friend would have told them that I did UKOD, but I think she didn’t want to seem like she was bragging about me, so I just showed up and started telling them all about where to go in Leeds and what to do. This one girl was staring at me for ages, and finally she said, ‘You look just like the girl from UKOD.’ I said, ‘I am!’ And she said, ‘But the way your face looks in photos, I thought you’d be taller!’
“My friend said that we’re sort of famous among the Taiwanese students in England, and that’s why she didn’t want to tell people we’re friends," said Shang-Ting. "Which is crazy! She said everybody in that crowd knows us, they all like our page. When I flew back for the book tour I was sitting next to a Taiwanese girl on the plane, and she was a student in London, and because I was about to launch the book, I asked her just to see: ‘Do you know this page, UKOD?’ And she said ‘Yeah, everybody knows it, if you’re a student in England you like that fan page, everybody does.’ I was like, ‘Yes! Score!’ So I said, ‘Guess what, I am the person behind UKOD!’ – and she looked at me like: okay. She liked the page, but she was not impressed by me at all!”
People continue to be impressed by UK Observing Diary every day, though, with little aspects of Leeds getting hundreds of likes and dozens of comments whenever Shang-Ting posts them up. “Sometimes it feels like a challenge because Leeds is my home now,” said Shang-Ting. “I could easily lose the feeling of discovering things, the sense of surprise, but the fan page keeps me from that. Doing this means I keep being surprised and being wowed by the city.”
Originally published in The City Talking: issue 7.