Lately, I’ve taken to using my smartphone as my photographic device. At the moment, I’m in Yunnan and have been traveling around the province. The photo you see in the below post, in the previous blog entry, was shot using my phone, edited on my phone, and uploaded onto this blog with my phone.
For work I still rely on my trusty Canon S120. The camera is what I use on journalism assignments. But for everything else, my phone replaces it. Much of this has to do with the fact my phone is always on me.
But even while traveling in Yunnan, where my camera is readily available in my rucksack, I’ve left it in there, in the hostel locker, while I’ve traipsed around, phone in pocket ready to be fished out.
Why a smartphone is better than a digital camera as a travel camera
“Finding a date in Beijing is not especially difficult”.
“When you land at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, yours very likely will be the only plane that day disturbing the quiet, although rather bumpy, runway”.
“Five years ago, Beijinger Robert Zhao went on a trip to Tibet”.
“Let’s start with Mary”.
These are the first sentences of some of the articles I’ve written. Most of them, as you can see, are pretty simple. But all of them came about quite suddenly.
So how do you write the first sentence? I can only speak from my own experience, but most of the time it just comes. The sentence will offer itself and I’ll trust that instinct and stick with it. From the opening sentence, everything follows.
I once read somewhere that if you have a title, the first sentence, and roughly know what the ending of the story will be, then half your job is already done. Sound advice, I thought.
I once copied out the first sentence of every essay contained in Tom Bissell’s book of essays Magic Hours (many of them started out as features for magazines). That is the extent of my writing geekery. I did it just out of interest. I wanted to see how a writer I much admire opens his pieces. I highly recommend such exercises. Once you copy and analyse in this way, you see the structure, the bones, that make up good writing, all the more clearly.
But it’s self imposed. I moved out of my apartment and I’m currently crashing at a friend’s place. I don’t have my own accommodation in Beijing anymore.
On Friday I will be flying to Yunnan, a province in southern China. It’s a beautiful and diverse part of the country. I’ll be staying with a friend and then we’ll travel around the province a little. I am looking forward to it. I’m a big nature lover and Yunnan has plenty of it. It’s something that Beijing, being a huge urban agglomeration, lacks.
October was a much quieter month than September. Here are a couple of pieces I wrote recently. One is about China abandoning its one-child policy after 35 years — big news. The other piece is about craft beer and coffee in Beijing. The latter piece was something I enjoyed writing. It took me a night and a day to put it together, and its more descriptive style brought to mind the older form of foreign correspondence, when those living in foreign lands sent home vignettes and descriptions as well as news; trying to capture the zeitgeist of exotic locations in which the writer lived but who readers back home could only imagine.
I hope that perhaps I can do more such writing. Although capturing the zeitgeist is harder than it may initially appear.
November and December will probably be downtime for me, which makes up for a mediocre and somewhat depressing summer, a summer where I traveled nowhere and did not do many summery things.
But I took the long view and the wintry downtime is something I feel I need. I will be flying back home in December for Christmas, staying with my family in England. I bought a single ticket. Will I be coming back to Beijing? It’s likely, but the question of when will hang around for a while I think.
I recently went to Spring Cameras, a photography store in Beijing which develops film, sells secondhand film cameras, film, and photo books. I hadn’t been there for a while, but I went to get a roll of film developed. I browsed a little and happened on a photo book with the title: “Love in Beijing”.
The owner of the store was talking to another person when I asked him how much the photo book cost. He asked me to ask the maker of the photo book, who was the man he had been talking to. I bought a copy of the photo book (of which only 500 were printed), and we — him, the couple who own the store, and I — subsequently went for dinner. Here are some photos from his lovely book.
In October 2015, you can buy the Apple iPhone 6S, with its “3D Touch”, for £539. Or you could plump for the super sized curved-edge screen (£629) of the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge +.
The two “hottest” phones on the market right now, for these “flagship” pieces of tech, you pay a premium for “killer” features; top-of-the-line processors, screens and cameras, and, admittedly, the best design.
In September 2013, the LG G2 represented the highest end of “high-end” phones. Numerous tech sites proclaimed it as the best Android phone in the world. A year later, some still thought that was the case.
So it’s worth asking whether a great phone in 2013 is a shit phone in 2015.
And it’s worth asking whether you need all those premium features.
The answer to the first question is obviously not. The LG G2 was described as an “absolute speed demon” when it came out; possesses a gorgeous screen that’s a large 5.2 inches in a relatively small body, and a good camera with optical stabilization.
The price I paid for a brand new LG G2 (colour: black; memory: 32GB) in 2015 was a steal. Exactly how much I’ll let you know later.
I bought my first LG G2 in a phone market in Bangkok in the summer of 2014. It was secondhand and in less than perfect condition. This would prove to be its undoing finally when the screen broke. That first secondhand LG cost me around £180. The iPhone 6S costs £539, about 3x the price. But is it three times better?
You may feel that paying that much more is worth it to buy the best of the best; an intangible feeling of product greatness further justified that perhaps by spending more now you bought a phone that will last longer. But that’s millions of dollars of marketing hype speaking through you.
You can’t blame Apple’s or Samsung’s marketing departments for upspeaking their products’s “flagship premium features”. But the fact so-called tech “journalists” go along for the ride too is reprehensible.
Anyway, enough proselytizing.
My new LG G2 was bought for RMB 970, through Taobao.com — China’s eBay. The best phone of 2013 cost me in 2015 £99.
This is a continuing series focusing on ideas and suggestions about how to find and come up with story ideas. To view previous entries in the series, please use this tag.
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a Chinese journalist. As a tech reporter, she has covered China’s rapidly developing tech industry.
She told me things of which I was only very dimly aware or not at all. She made them clearer to me and painted pictures and scenes of China’s technological landscape that, heretofore, I barely understood.
Who are your sources? And where are they?
Perhaps one of the greatest training that a stint on a local newspaper can provide is the lesson on how to locate, maintain, and cultivate sources.
I cannot say that I am as well trained as a reporter on, say, The Bournemouth Echo or The Hastings Observer in this matter, but I distinctly remember observing a journalist “working the phones” when I did work experience at The Brighton Argus when I was still a journalism student.
It was around 11am, and she had already done a bit of reporting in the morning frenzy, and now there was a lull. So she picked up the phone and started calling up her contacts — her sources. From what I could gather, these were police spokespeople, town councilors, heads of housing associations, neighborhood watches, local business people; those pillars of society that are often the first receivers of news.
When she got through to these people, on the phone, after dispensing with the pleasantries, her first question was: “have you got anything for me?”
What may be obvious to those on the inside is not obvious to those on the outside
Recently, while I was at a bar, I got talking to a couple of architects. One of them told me that a lot of foreign architecture firms had been shutting up shop in China in the past couple of years.
I was immediately piqued.
When I asked him to elaborate, he was dismissive — “I thought this was obvious”, he said — implying that it was common knowledge. But the fact that he was an architect (and an employee of one of the most famous architecture firms at that) made him inoculated to this piece of information.
Among architects, in China, it might indeed be common knowledge. But to those on the inside what may seem common knowledge is often completely unknown to those on the outside; people outside of that information circle.
The job of the journalist is to get inside that circle, pluck out the information, and then to distribute it to those outside the circle — in other words, the general public.
What if you’re going abroad, and starting out as a freelance foreign correspondent?
One of the single best things you can do, upon arriving in a new country, as a journalist, is to make contact with other journalists. Best of all, local journalists. They will have a different understanding of what’s going on in that country than foreign journalists. Both are valuable.
But the fact that local journalists speak the local language (obviously), use and interact with the things that they are reporting on like locals, means they can pick up on things that outsiders may miss. Specialty journalists (tech reporters, political journalists etc) often hold information even more unknown.
Other sources can be niche publications, journals, blogs, and event organizers. When I spoke to the tech reporter, she told me things that could turn into around half a dozen stories. And having contacts herself, she can be a springboard onto the next step. It was a very productive talk. And all it took was an email, a few text messages, and a focused chat, while I sipped on a coffee, on an otherwise lazy afternoon in Beijing.