Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Taipei, Taiwan: why I stayed 55 days in the same place

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The answer? To focus on writing.

I have been here 53 days and I leave the day after tomorrow. I’ve been here almost two months, which was not part of the plan. Originally, I had intended to travel around Taiwan; heading to the central mountainous region, the food meccas of the south, and a smaller island where I was hoping to take pictures that I could potentially sell. After that, I had hoped to go somewhere else — the Philippines, most probably — on the way to Beijing, which is where I need to be at the end of this month, to cover a business event for a US magazine.

All of that came not to pass. I stayed in Taipei. I learned that June is a terrible month to travel around Asia, as most everywhere, excepting northern parts, are in rainy season. Oh well. And so, I’ve spent all of the time, apart from one Sunday, in Taipei, where it has been hot, rainy, and mostly overcast.

(Pictured: That one time I left Taipei. Thanks Rei Rei for taking me!)

But that’s just how life is sometimes — it pulls you to places you had not planned on being pulled. In my case, I’ve followed my desire to be productive; to create, rather than to consume. (Like I said in my previous post, travel is another kind of consumption.) Instead of traveling around Taiwan, I decided to dwell in Taipei, and I have not even left my neighbourhood much, so I can concentrate on creating.

Over the course of my stay, I’ve finished writing a nonfiction book proposal. This entailed completing a 10,000-word sample, a synopsis, and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. It’s quite a lot of work but I got it done, and by staying in one place, not venturing far and doing routine things — such as eating sweet potatoes for breakfast bought at the convenience store around the corner; going swimming at the local sports centre; walking around nearby gardens — it has helped my productivity.

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The Waning Wanderlust of a Serial Traveller

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I shot this on my iPhone SE near my hostel.

It’s been almost a month since I arrived in Taiwan. I arrived May 2.

Although I have visited this island-nation before, I did not remember how affordable it is. I have been living in the same hostel now for about three weeks. It costs 350 TWD per night (£8.76/night).

I’m living in a student area, with leafy environs, some comely cloud-topped mountains in the near distance, and a bustling night market just around the corner.

I have enjoyed going out with hostel mates, hiking with an Icelander, chatting to a Canadian old-timer, watching movies with a Korean doctoral student, and meeting local Taiwanese luminaries.

A lot of the time I’m in the hostel working away on my laptop, drinking the free oolong tea (the stuff is addictive), and going out to exercise and walk around. I go to watch movies at the cinema, go swimming in the local sports centre, and eat out very cheaply.

It is a comfortable life and Taipei has surprised me with its easy-going, cosy nature.

I keep meaning to go somewhere else, and I will eventually (hopefully) make it to Kenting, which is right on the southern tip of Taiwan, as far away from Taipei as it’s possible to be on this island.

I genuinely don’t feel the pull, the pressure, to do all the travelling things, of having to find fun. I just do routine things.

And honestly, travel itself is a kind of consumption. In fact, it may be the defining consumption mode of the twenty-first century.

Whereas before people bought clothes and luxury brands, people now compete to outdo each other in experiences. On Instagram and Facebook and WeChat, people post pictures of their travels and their experiences. I do it too, of course.

But it is only a kind of consumption. And for those creative types, is it not better to create rather than to consume?

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 29, 2019 at 11:19 am

Update: 8th May – in Taiwan

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I am currently living in a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan.

Taiwan is a sweet potato-shaped island in the South China Sea that is a de-facto independent nation, but is not officially recognised as such by many countries.

It has a complicated relationship with mainland China. But unlike its large neighbour, it is a developed democracy, and the home to Foxconn, the company that makes Apple’s iPhones.

It is barely bigger than Hainan island, which is a Chinese holiday resort island, and is home to 23 million people who use traditional Chinese characters (rather than the Simplified version used on the mainland).

Before I arrived in Taiwan, I was living on a friend’s couch in Wanchai, Hong Kong. There I stayed for two weeks. I went to Sonar music festival. My friend had a house party and I went to some seedy expat bars with her Russian roommate.

Hong Kong is a marvel of engineering and 7.5 million people live in a compact area, and yet it all manages to work. But the city is an expensive one and I couldn’t afford to tarry.

So I find myself in Taiwan. It’s a place I first visited 11 years ago, in 2008, when I stayed for six weeks. Back then, I found it a nice place, but a little dull, as it lacks nightlife and bars.

It still doesn’t have the kind of nightlife that Beijing does so well.

From 2014 to 2016, Beijing’s bar, club, and cafe culture peaked. And discussing with a friend the other day, we realised that Beijing might have been the best party place in Asia.

No other place rivalled Beijing, during those years. The combination of cheapness, the expat to locals ratio, the diversity of bars, and the undeniable sense that this was an exciting time to be. The Gulou area of Beijing had a scene. And it was great.

Nowhere else had that. Seoul is more pricey and caters more to the locals. Southeast Asia can be sleazy and caters more to backpackers. Beijing was up-and-coming, and the scene was buzzing, before it got abruptly shutdown from late 2016 onward.

The local authorities started bricking up bars and denying licenses to a host of restaurants, cafes and bars that had sprung up. In the space of a few months, a scene that was beloved by the bohemian Beijing crowd was quickly squashed out of existence.

It still exists, but is a shadow of what it used to be.

Taipei, Taiwan, is a nice place, no doubt about it. It is comfortable, affordable, and orderly. But it lacks the grit, the pure excitement of what Beijing had during its brief golden years.

But that is okay, I am quite enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of Taipei, for now.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 8, 2019 at 4:58 am

Thoughts on a hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam

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Last year, in the second half of October, I stayed in probably the best deal of a hotel I have ever stayed in.

I stumbled on it purely by accident.

My friend and I had just come from nearby Da Nang, a seaside city in the middle of Vietnam. It was the afternoon when we arrived, by taxi, into Hoi An.

Over a late lunch, I checked for hotels on booking dot com, aiming for one that occupied the perfect zone between the vectors of location convenience, goodness, affordability.

We walked around for a bit then I told my friend to stay with our luggage and wait, while I went to look at a couple of hotels that were nearby. I abandoned looking for hotels online and simply used my eyes to see what was around. And I happened to see the outside of a hotel that was nestled away from the road which looked okay.

I went inside and asked the clerk to show me around the rooms. I was happy with what I saw and I went to negotiate a price with the receptionist.

The hotel had a pool. The price was inclusive of breakfast. The rooms were large, with shower and a big bathtub, and comfy double beds.

It was while I stayed there that I started to wonder what it would be like to stay at this hotel long term.

I would wake early for the buffet breakfast. I’d return to my room and open the glass screen-doors, letting the breeze in. I would sit at the desk and write. I’d sit there and write, in my room. After a period of writing, I’d go for lunch. Then I’d come back and read. Or take a nap. After that I’d go for a swim. Then I’d lounge on the pool-side chairs and read. Then I’d shower and towel myself off in my room, and write some more. For dinner, I’d amble around the pretty town of Hoi An and find something good and cheap to eat. After that, walk some more, get a drink. Then maybe a massage. Then back to the hotel and deep, comforting sleep.

The hotel cost about 20 pounds for a double room, per night, including the breakfast. So, my fantasy is quite doable, at least for a few weeks.

Just a thought…

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 23, 2019 at 5:06 pm

Update: April 15th, 2019

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Hi reader, I’m writing you from the couch (also my bed) of my friend’s small but cosy apartment in Wanchai, central Hong Kong.

It’s been over a month since my last post, so sorry about that. In the whole of the previous month of March, I did not do any journalism. I wrote no articles for news publications.

I did spend three weeks in Spain, most of that time at the house of one of my best friends. She lives in the countryside with her husband, two kids, and an array of animals.

[Insert: an array of animals]

At her house, I worked on my own writing, for competitions and publishing initiatives. We shall see if they go anywhere.

I wrote an essay for a writing competition. I put the finishing touches to a short story for another competition. I applied to initiatives, schemes, and opportunities. It’s all for the aim of my long term goals.

I did some copywriting for the ongoing work I have with a digital marketing company, for some income.

It was great to spend time with my friend, after the kids had gone to sleep, sat around the miraculous fire-machine they have (Spanish nights in March are still chilly), with some wine, and just talk. It was great to just talk.

I then went back to England for a week where I bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific. A direct flight that cost a little too much, but the food and service was satisfactory. Since I’ve been in Hong Kong, I’ve been working on a couple of journalism stories, and a book proposal.

I’m staying with my friend who works for the South China Morning Post, and her roomie, and we went to a music festival on the weekend and we had a house party. So that was good.

For a freelancer, some nights socialising, drinking, and partying can underpin a kind of easy-going happiness. It replaces the socialness of an office. And the fact I’m moving around again also seems to be the basis for a type of joy and happiness, if not contentment, that can serve to fulfil the whole point of freelancing: freedom to look ahead, at unhemmed horizons, and a licence to roam.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 15, 2019 at 2:40 pm

Reconnecting with an older self

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Literature, not news, was my first entry into the power of language and story.

I remember when I was a teenager, going through school, and being given assignments by my English teachers.

Read Macbeth.

Read Of Mice and Men.

Write a poem. Write a short story. Write a persuasive essay. Analyse this novel for how it builds atmosphere thought its use of language.

From about age eleven or twelve (Year 7) I found I was good at these assignments. It didn’t even need a great deal of effort on my part. Like how some kids are naturally good at maths or art or French, it was just one of those things.

It wasn’t a certainty, certainly not obvious, that I was going to become a journalist, at that age. When I was a kid my dream was to play football for England. Quite the dream for the son of a political asylum seeker. (My father was granted political asylum by Prime Minister John Major; I wrote about his journey here.)

I was born in a non-English speaking country and moved to England aged five and didn’t speak English as my first language until about eight or nine years old.

But, for whatever reason, my brain moulded itself to English at a rate and capacity that made this adopted language my core of self-belief. That is, because I knew I was quite good at English, I had this core, iron-clad, of confidence. It’s not even confidence; it was just a calming knowledge that I was quite good at something. At least this one thing, I was very, very good at.

It wasn’t until much later that journalism came into the picture.

When I was 17 or 18, I was considering which subjects to study at university. English literature and photography were my top picks. Growing up, I didn’t know much about journalists. I read magazines (mostly gaming ones), and newspapers sometimes, but I never really considered that they were written by people whose positions I could envy and emulate.

Journalism, at some point, entered the picture, and that is what I chose. I took two gap years before I started my journalism degree, and in those two years I read two books that whetted my appetite for the game of journalism.

In the first year of my degree I was published in a national newspaper, which made me very happy. Unfortunately, that was also the first step, I now recognise, to forgetting my older self. The one who was enjoying writing classroom assignments and discovering that I liked writing.

Journalism has its own ideals. It lionizes reporters. It lionizes those who “speak truth to power”. It admires hubris. It admires articles and bylines as badges of status. All that stokes ego.

The ego of journalists is a very dangerous thing. Ambition is a dangerous thing.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot what it was that originally drew me to writing.

And I am glad that I am rediscovering that original joy.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 1, 2019 at 12:07 am

The story of my WIRED commission

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In my last post I said that out of the 12 pitches I sent to editors in January, I only received one commission. That commission came from WIRED (UK), a publication I have long admired, and is a branch of the original mag founded by one of my heroes, Kevin Kelly.

Anyway, that commission has now been published. You can read it here.

This is the story of how I got the idea for the pitch and what led me to pitch WIRED, who I had never contacted, or written for before. It may be of interest to the aspiring freelance journalists out there, to gain some insight into how I come up with ideas, and how I go about pitching.

It all started with a library visit. I joined my local library, and I go there every so often to take out books and to browse the magazines. Reading magazines and other publications is an excellent way of coming up with story ideas.

But you have to be alert for potential items of interest. I was sat in the library, reading through The Economist. I read an article about Tencent, videogames, and government regulations in China, when I came across the following paragraph:

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This was very interesting and I hadn’t known these things before. I read it again. I took a photo with my phone of this paragraph.

This paragraph has angles. There’s the female gamer in China angle, which is significant because it’s a higher proportion than in the west. There’s this game, Love and Producer,  which has been “wildly popular” with Chinese women in their 20s.

Story ideas should be specific, based on details, not generalised. You can’t pitch a story about videogames in China, but you can pitch an idea about a very popular game that’s hooked millions of young Chinese women that’s about dating four men, and by the way, women gamers are almost half of the market in China, unlike in the US or UK.

I then contacted a few Chinese friends to ask them about this game. I got some information from them, preparing my knowledge for a potential pitch.

I use Twitter and I follow lots of editors on there. I happened to see the tweet of a WIRED editor who had tweeted a call-out for pitches themed around love and romance, obviously tech or science-related, and with her email address. I took a screenshot of this call-out, for reference.

Then I pitched this editor the story idea. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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More pitching blog posts:

https://theluhai.com/2015/01/05/part-one-freelance-journalists-on-their-first-ever-paid-commissions/

https://theluhai.com/2014/01/17/how-i-got-my-first-ever-paid-freelance-gig/

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 12, 2019 at 2:01 pm