Books

'TO:KY:OO': Liam Wong's Tokyo is midnight neon and bright city lights

by Austin Freeman

Contributing Writer

Tokyo has long been an inspiration for photographers. The sprawling metropolis serves as a concrete playground for artists to invent, deconstruct or reimagine the city to their liking. Former videogame designer Liam Wong’s “TO:KY:OO” invites readers to experience the city as a cyberpunk dreamscape, where the sun never rises and the neon is always vibrant.

TO:KY:OO, by Liam Wong.
264 pages
THAMES & HUDSON, Photography.

“I was working for five years and got to take six months off after finishing a big project. At the end of those six months I felt like I wanted to do my own thing, and it was now or never,” says Wong. “I had already wanted to create a book, so I traveled to London to pitch my book to publishers, who said it would take a year to produce a few hundred copies. I didn’t want to do a few hundred because it’s just one run and it’s done, then people eBay them and stuff.”

Unhappy with the publishers’ offering, Wong instead decided to crowdfund the project via Volume, a crowdfunding platform for books, an option made far more realistic when you take into account Wong’s 300,000 plus followers on Instagram and Twitter.

LIAM WONG
LIAM WONG

The book is more than just a collection of Wong’s photos, however.

“We didn’t want it to feel like a zine with pictures just back to back,” says Wong. We wanted it to feel like a story. Something about me, something about Tokyo, something about my journey. So, we put those ideas together and I approached a few people like Syd Mead who created the concept art for ‘Blade Runner,’ he gave me a quote I could use.”

Wong also enlisted the support of Hideo Kojima — known as the brain behind the videogame Metal Gear Solid and, most recently, Death Stranding — who ended up writing the book’s foreword.

With all the pieces coming together, the biggest challenge Wong and his team now faced was ensuring the book would actually be funded.

“We got the page up on Volume and entered the funding stage,” says Wong. “We decided to announce it on Friday, a common payday, because people would be more likely to donate. I sent out a tweet letting people know they could purchase the book, and the site immediately crashed. There was an error in the script and the website couldn’t hold more than, say, 50 people. We ended up taking it down for three weeks while they fixed the code.”

This hiccup gave Wong some anxiety, knowing crowdfunded projects often times have less than stellar reputations. Regardless, he and his team pressed on.

“People who have followed my work for years and ones I knew personally were donating. In my head I was thinking, ‘this cannot fail.'”

Once the website was relaunched, the project quickly took on a life of its own.

“During the funding period, it was really interesting watching it go up. Places like Polygon and CNN picked it up, so it was all over social media. On places like Instagram and Twitter, people would say they didn’t have any money right now but continued to share it. It was fully funded within the first 48 hours, to the tune of $40,000.”

LIAM WONG
LIAM WONG

Before it closed to the public, Wong’s crowdfunder raised around $180,000 in just five weeks. Through the support of over 2,500 people from all corners of the globe, it became the most crowdfunded book in the U.K. to date. In total, “TO:KY:OO” received enough money to be funded four times over, with money to spare. Wong and his team were over the moon as they headed into the next phase, production.

“There’s a lot of things you don’t consider when you get into crowdfunding. The volume of questions that came in every day for six months was insane. When people started receiving the book and posting images of it online, others assumed their copy got lost. In reality, they rolled out over time differently across the world. Combing through (the emails) was frustrating at times, especially when the answer was in fine print on the crowdfunding page.”

Frustration aside, Wong’s exploration of nocturnal Tokyo made its way to everyone who funded the project, in addition to bookstores all over the globe. “It’s still surreal, really. I came across my book in Amsterdam a while back, just sitting on a shelf in a bookstore. Then I come to Tokyo and it’s the same thing.”

At 264 pages, “TO:KY:OO” isn’t stingy with its content. Still, Wong admits to having trouble deciding which shots made the final cut. “I had many photographs to choose from and had no experience with publishing, so I was thankful to work with talented editors and designers to make it work,” he says.

Looking toward the future, Wong will continue to take photos of Tokyo and has no intention of slowing down. In a place where the phrase “Tokyo is yours” can be found graffitied around every corner, Wong and his team have brought to life their own vision of the city.

“TO:KY:OO” is an ethereal labor of love, made possible by that vision and those who believed in it.

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