Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

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.

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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.

*

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

January, 2019

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I’ve spent most of this month indoors. Most people do. Whether it’s in an office or in the confines of a house, we are usually bound by four walls. I go running from time to time. I borrowed Karl Ove Knausgaard’s fifth novel in his tetralogy Min Kamp from Hastings library and ploughed through its 660 pages. He’s a Norwegian writer and writes about his life in fictive form but with the honesty and detail of autobiography. It’s been termed auto-fiction.

In this fifth book Some Rain Must Fall he writes about his time as a student living in Bergen attending a writing course, his low opinion of himself, his attempts at being a fiction writer set against the successes of two friends, who are younger and more precocious than him, and about his relationship with his older brother, his family, and his romances with women. Two things stand out from the book: despite being a good-looking, almost two-metres tall Norwegian writer with ambition, his extremely low self esteem, and the clarity and rhythm of his sentences that are so reflective of whatever he is writing about.

He is a writer who is attuned to nature. He doesn’t write the names of trees; he just refers to trees as “trees”, rather than as pines or oaks or whatever, and he uses descriptions of nature and weather very well.

When I go running it’s usually on country roads, or through a local wood, and on muddy fields. It’s cold in January, of course, and I’ve noticed that my mood is usually low and depressed this time of year, especially the initial couple of weeks. It always passes. Emotions are just like weather; they move and pass through.

I’ve spent January working on a piece of nonfiction for a writing competition and on short stories. I like writing literature and I hope at some point I can do it fulltime. It will take time.

For my freelance journalism “career” I’ve sent out 12 pitches to editors. I’ve received one commission, one expression of interest, two rejections, and the rest of the pitches I received no reply despite my follow-ups. As you can see that’s not a good hit rate. The trick is not to be disheartened, to persevere, and to make sure future pitches are better.

I’ve continued working for a marketing company as an editor, copywriter, and consultant. I enjoy it and I wouldn’t mind doing more of it. Having diverse income streams is a good idea for a freelancer.

For this year I would like to branch out more beyond journalism. I have some ideas and I want to test them. The road ahead is not very clear to me. But I will let you know how they turn out.

Lately, I read an interesting article. It’s headlined The Equation That Will Make You Better at Everything [link]. The equation is simple and it reminded me of something that I should apply to the things I do. That is get out of my comfort zone. If I find myself cruising, stuck on autopilot, and going through the motions, I should find work that challenges me. If you’re a freelance journalist, that means getting a commission that will make you feel slightly uncomfortable, slightly scared, and under pressure, because you know the task will demand more of you than going through the motions.

Feeling uncomfortable is the only way to grow.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

January 27, 2019 at 11:24 pm

Being Home Again

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These are not our horses.

I’ve been at home, living at the parent’s place, since the first week of December. The last time you encountered me was in Vietnam I believe. From October to November I was traveling. I went to the Philippines, Vietnam (where a friend joined me), and Malaysia (where I joined three other friends). I then went to Hong Kong and crashed on a couple of friends’ sofas for two weeks before finally heading back to wintry Beijing. I stayed there for a bit, did some work, socialized, collected much of my things, and then flew to sunny England.

While I was traveling, doing my “location independent thing”, I soon marvelled at how those travel bloggers and so-called digital nomads do it — not the work side of it, but the ceaseless moving around.

Anyway, now Christmas is over and soon this year will fold away into the past. And 2018 has presented me with some genuinely strange memories. Tragic, sad, wondrous, indelible.

I remember when I was in Seoul, Korea, on a vacation/assignment. I would do my reporting in the day when that was required of me, and meet up with a local journalist who I’d made the acquaintance of via Twitter. Damin is her name and she works at The Korea Times. We watched Mexico play Korea in the middle of Seoul, sat on the lawn, drinking beer with all the other Koreans, at midnight.

Other times I was alone, so very alone. And it often happens that when I am abroad and alone I sometimes feel lonely and a little wretched but these feelings are seldom overwhelming. But then I always look back on those times with positivity. As if that alone-ness was the utmost luxury: just pure freedom.

I’d walk the streets of Seoul. Just walking, lots and lots of walking. I think I averaged around 25,000 steps a day. When I’d eaten dinner, I’d walk for an hour or so, and then start thinking about heading back. I was staying in the lovely apartment of someone I met in Beijing who’d found a job in Seoul (he was out of town when I visited). When I got to my destination subway station, of the apartment, I’d head to a convenience store across the street where I’d buy a creamy bread and a couple of beers. I’d walk home with that. I’d load up a football game on my laptop. This was late June and the World Cup was on. I’d eat my creamy bread and watch the game and drink my beers. Then I’d go to bed and try to sleep but often wouldn’t be able to until around 4am. I’d wake around midday and repeat the process. Lots of walking, in the June heat. See a few sights. Have dinner. Buy creamy bread and beers for midnight supper. Football. Bed.

On my trip to the Philippines, which was surprising in many ways, I remember one day being taken to a beach by a local. I was on the island of Palawan, in El Nido. We arrived late in the day, just in time for the sunset. And then we walked on the beach while the sky turned from orange to beige and deepest navy, and she told me her sad story about her French boyfriend who she had a baby with and who wanted to marry her but she didn’t want to marry so young, and he had terrible mood swings, and so she abandoned him, and I listened while the surf washed softly over our feet.

It’s those kind of moments I remember.

That are full of adventure, soulfulness, spontaneity.

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That gorgeous beach near El Nido, Palawan.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 28, 2018 at 10:53 pm

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