Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for October 2013

The Illusion of Journalistic Success

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I am not yet a successful journalist. Not by a long shot. But this month has been unprecedented for me, in the breadth and depth of bylines. The succession of published articles has been such that a friend of mine remarked that I seem to be “on a roll”. 

And yet, many of those articles that have now, finally, been published have been months in production. Days spent hunched over my laptop in my parent’s house, in the kitchen, making flagrant use of their landline. One article took over two months from its initial filing to its eventual publication. I spent many nights wondering if those articles I’d been labouring over during the summer had been all in vain.

Meanwhile, I wait for all that freelancing moolah to hit my bank account, meaning I’ve been living on vapours here in Beijing, having had to borrow 2000 RMB (£200) from a friend just to live on. (Moving over has really sapped my finances – I really should save more of a nest egg before coming over next time). In other words, journalistic ‘success’ is not really very real. When you hear about a journalist or writer whose career seems to be on the up, more likely they’ve been agonizing whether all that hard work, the meticulous reporting, cultivating of a story’s sources, the carefully put together prose hasn’t all been worth it. And of course they are likely to be dirt poor.  

But I have a good thing going on. Especially with a certain left-wing current affairs magazine. The editor there seems particularly keen to have me keep writing for them. It could be the start of something beautiful…

As a journalist, and especially as a freelancer, your eternal mission will be finding good editors. Editors you can have healthy, nurturing relationships with. They are your gatekeepers, your lovers – every pitch is a minor seduction – your employer, your critic, defender and promoter. If you hit on a good one, be sure to keep ’em. It could be the start of a long career and the very least a path you should walk until you’ve explored its length.  

Life lessons

I met the other day Malcolm Moore, 34, The Daily Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent. We had lunch after a short email correspondence and Malcolm spoke, after my prompts, about his route into journalism, the life of correspondents, the battle of getting your pieces accepted by editors, about the difference between Shanghai and Beijing. 

Like many 30-something journalists I’ve spoken to, his route into journalism is haphazard and pretty much accidental. He came across ever so slightly jaded. I had to wonder if he wasn’t just doing it just to put off a young, starry-eyed naif. I told him that perhaps I’m missing out, by concentrating on freelance, on the training and education instilled by the grind of daily deadlines of a staff reporting position or of being in a newsroom. He rebuffed that and said simply, “You do not want to be in a newsroom”. And made it sound like a hellish, grueling experience. 

In some ways it reaffirmed my mission of aiming, ultimately, to be a narrative non-fiction writer or essayist, in the mold of the Adam Gopniks, John Jeremiah Sullivans and Malcolm Gladwells. But to be that, to get into such an esteemed position also requires superior reporting skills and the sensibility of a finely-honed detective (Gladwell himself said he needed the ten years he spent at The Washington Post as a reporter before he could elevate himself to writing books and New Yorker pieces). 

Whatever happens, it’ll certainly be an adventure, and despite financial concerns for the future, raised by Malcolm (thanks buddy!), I look forward to whatever lay ahead. Sometimes, the struggle itself is the reward.  

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 29, 2013 at 10:02 am

5 things to do upon arriving in a new country, as a foreign correspondent

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Not as a traveler of course, but as a journalist, and maybe even to set yourself up as a freelance foreign correspondent.

Try to book in some stories
This is important. Some may find the prospect of traveling and going to a new locale stressful enough without having to think about reporting and deadlines to deliver on top of everything else. You’re a professional journalist, you need to be on stories 24/7. Having stories to do will give purpose and focus to your journey.

You should be pitching lots of ideas to a varied smorgasbord of publications well before your flight. A little research goes a long way – find out about new trends, in culture, society, business, look for the stories behind them, related to them, the human sides. You’re going to be a reporter on-the-ground, this gives you an advantage to staff reporters who are nowhere near the action, writing their stories about Columbia, Japan, etc on their London desks.

You could, for example, find expats. Many newspapers have a section devoted to expatriate life. But business editors, food, culture editors are also interested in Brits who are abroad doing interesting things. They have to be truly interesting though – are they an interesting person, in an interesting field, with a story that changes over time or demonstrates a trend? Look on websites, many countries have English-language publications for expats. Having a few stories to do when settling in somewhere forces you to make new connections, orientate yourself journalistically and establishes your presence in that country. Oh, and the moolah helps too.

Make contacts
But how? Well, go to events – gigs, lectures, art exhibitions, trade fairs, expat gatherings, open mic nights, hobby gatherings – you have to get yourself out there and start meeting as many new people as possible. And ask for business cards wherever appropriate. Ask for recommendations, maybe your new found friend knows someone with a business or is a musician, great – everything helps, to establish your feet and antennae for potential stories. Most locals, unlike reserved Brits, tend to be open and friendly toward foreigners so make best use of your exotic status.

Meet your fellow journalists
Find them on Twitter, LinkedIn – search out bylines and reach out to them. Most will gladly meet up for a coffee. Some may even share freelance and job opportunities down the line. You’re all in the same boat, so having that network can be invaluable. Having journalist friends opens a massive amount of routes and having people to bounce ideas around or to work on stories together is priceless. In Beijing, I’ve had the fortune to make several journalists’ acquaintances and it can be a true inspiration to hear their stories of how they got into journalism.  

Attend talks, lectures, debates
I’ve found these events the single easiest way of making the best relevant contacts in one go. In Beijing there are two particular hot-spots and that’s at The Bookworm (a bookstore), and regular lecture events given by professors and intellectuals in Wudaokou, a student area in west Beijing. The Bookworm hosts regular cultural events and often feature eminent people. I’ve attended talks given by Mark Kitto, a former columnist for Prospect with a long and colourful history in China, and Martin Parr, a world-renowned British photographer.

What’s more important than the speakers themselves are the audience. After the speaker finishes, if you hang around or wait to speak to the speaker, you’ll find a lot of the audience can be just as interesting. I’ve met journalists from Chinese media in the audience who’ve subsequently become contacts. I’ve met scientists, academics, diplomats and trade officials. I often ask for business cards. An audience member I once met talked about doing her PhD in Beijing and told me, off the cuff, that China is the world leader in nanotechnology research – possible story and readymade contact there.

Start a blog, journal, diary
A blog can encourage writing and reporting, without the drain of thinking ‘Will it get commissioned?’ – you always have a back-up, and well written blog-posts are advertising for your work, and could lead to commissions. Even if you land one or two off the strength of your blog, that is reward enough, and it’ll strengthen your writing and research skills anyway. Also of course, book deals and invitations to give paid talks can arise, it happens – Adam Westbrook is prime example. Many a China writer’s career has been launched off the back of a blog, even media businesses have been bought and sold from blog-like beginnings. Danwei.org and Tea Leaf Nation were both humble online-only publications, with the latter recently bought by Foreign Policy for an undisclosed sum. Keeping a journal meanwhile will force you to seek out new experiences and will be a nostalgia-ridden chronicle of your hapless time spent trying to chase freelance and foreign dreams. Perfect material for a book…

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 21, 2013 at 12:20 am

Back in The Big Beige

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My nickname for Beijing is The Beige, which is usually the colour of the sky, owing to the terrific pollution and smog. I’ve arrived in the city from my small hometown of Hastings and the first couple days I always find it a surrealist experience. It takes a little time to adapt to the ‘Chinese-ness’ of everything. Also Beijing is massive and colossal in many aspects, the size of everything, the number of people and cars, the dysfunction of blocky communist architecture with islands of modernity nestled between roads the size of Wales.

The pollution sucks. It’s not just the tiny particles which can have health-screwing effects in the long term, there’s also the dust. Oh the dust. Already my nose is perpetually blocked and every time I come home I feel like Han Solo; dusty and disheveled.

Still there are benefits, the cheap food (I almost never cook in China), the cheap beer and the opportunity of it all. It’s a city built on dreams: gaudy, grand governmental dreams, small and large foreigner dreams, and the many million migrant dreams which are invariably crushed by reality.

What will I do different this time? Hmmmm, lots of things I hope. Really try to completely fluent up my Chinese, try to actually get a steady paying, no screw that, a big paying job. Get a bike. Make more cool friends. Travel more. Write more. Essays.

I’ve already landed an apartment. 1200 Yuan a month. That’s about £120. Found it on a Chinese site – they’re cheaper than the expat sites. The place doesn’t have a kitchen and the room is small, but for that price, I cannot really complain. I’m also heavily cash-less, relying on my bank overdraft. And waiting on several hundreds of pounds from freelance clients. It’ll come.

So for now, I’m sitting pretty, soaking it up, keeping busy and sipping coffee. The Beige is a colour you get used to.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 17, 2013 at 12:53 am

Life in Beijing as a Journalist – Retrospective

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Over the course of seven months (from October 2012 to May 2013), I met quite a few journalists and media types in Beijing. Working for a listings magazine meant I had the opportunity to attend events (although not nearly as many as you may think).

I got to know Jonathan Kaiman, a tall young American who writes about China for The Guardian. His route into journalism is fortuitous. First visiting China as a Mandarin student he moved to Beijing in 2009 for a research project, making field recordings of traditional folk music in southern China.

He was at a concert in Beijing when he met Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. After a few meetings over coffee, Johnson suggested Kaiman should try journalism and hooked him up with an internship at the New York Times. After six months he proceeded to do another internship, this time at the LA Times. There, he worked under the tutelage of none other than Barbara Demick, who wrote a great book about North Korea. “He’s one I’m really proud of”, Demick said to me once, at a talk she gave in a bookstore. “When he came in, he knew nothing and now he’s doing really well”.

Kaiman says he learnt a lot about writing from her. He started freelancing for various newspapers after the internship finished, and then a chance came in from The Guardian as their China correspondent Jonathan Watts was departing for Brazil. So Watt’s press accreditation was handed over to Kaiman.

Kaiman is talented and a hard worker with a gift for writing flowing paragraphs filled with information. And his success is also down to a series of lucky breaks. But equally he could not have realized the full potential of every step if he had not 1. Taken the time and investment to learn Mandarin properly. 2. Worked his socks off, and taken serious hits to his bank balance (internships are low-paid). 3. Did not come up with great ideas and write great stories.

There’s no great lesson to be gleaned from that (no one example should be a great lesson).

Chinese media

I also met a fair number of expats who worked for Chinese media. For the most part, although it was relatively well-paid and secure job, they were not completely happy with their lot. They complained about their treatment by their bosses, at their lack of control, and at the amateurishness of it all. There were two young Brits who worked for the national Chinese TV network, in the English-language division. Their professional life was comfortable, but I always got the sense they knew deep down they were treated like puppets.

Not that I was in any better position.  I was an intern at The Beijinger (to begin with anyway). True Run Media is the company who owns The Beijinger. It was founded by an American who looks like a much lankier version of Steve Jobs.

I met a lot of interesting expats, ones who research nano-biotechnology, in which China is the world leader apparently, and entrepreneurs and European TV guys. The community of expats, and the places they frequent, is small. And the circle of journalists and writers – and the places they go – is even smaller. I look forward to joining that circle again.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 14, 2013 at 5:00 am

Review: War Reporting For Cowards by Chris Ayres (2005)

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Chris Ayres is a coward. And comes from a ‘long line of cowards’. He is a British journalist for The Times, covering a cozy beat as Hollywood reporter in Los Angeles. But his world is thrown into sand when he’s sent to Iraq as war correspondent, embedded with the US Marines as they fight off Saddam Hussein’s forces.

“All life, ultimately, exists on the brink of death; war just makes it obvious”.

This is the set up, and while the cowardly thing might be a conceit, and an over-egged one at that, it does allow for amusing and sympathetic contrasts.

The most revealing and inspiring section of the book, for student journalists anyway, is the vivid and brisk tale of Ayres’ rise as a journalist. From City postgrad to ‘workie’ at The Times, his descriptions of fellow journos and the newsroom are top rate and heady with the scent of clattered keyboards and inky shirts.

Here he is on his nascent career: “The nib I completed for Barrow on that traumatic Thursday was followed by more nibs, then, in a profound development of my Times career, by some ‘lead’ nibs. Eventually I was trusted with a few proper news stories, which carried my name at the top of them…..By August, Barrow had agreed to pay me £30 for a weekly Friday shift”.

He ends up in New York covering Wall Street when two planes are flown into the two towers. His response, which is not exactly Hemingway-esque, is deftly handled and the overall effect is one of woozy surrealism. The feeling was one a lot of people felt just watching the events unfold on telly, let alone in the shadow and dust of the ensuing tragedy.

One of the most enjoyable aspects is the recurring rivalries Ayres has with other journos, especially one Oliver Poole. The Telegraph reporter is presented as an unflappable ideal, scoring constant scoops and a war natural.

Both of them end up on an embed scheme run by the US government and Ayres sets off for Iraq. After a listless interlude in Kuwait, we storm into the desert and across the border. We meet Captain Buck Rogers, who seems to quietly disdain the reporter’s presence, and Murphy, a small Irish marine with violent tendencies.

We are introduced to military language and acronyms which use and effect is astutely noted by the author, as the euphemisms progressively dull the senses to the mortality of warfare. Dialogue is realistic and the marines are portrayed as smarter and more sensitive than gung-ho preconceptions expect.

Ayres is best when capturing the grim glamour of war: “…as much as you hate the fear and the MREs and the mutilated corpses and incoming mortars and the freezing nights in the Humvee, you know you’ll be a more popular and interesting person when, or if, you return. Because war is all about death, and everyone wants to know what death is like”.

It’s not a long book and a brisk narrative. And you will like the sense of having learnt something about war reporting, the ultimate gig in this cowardly heroic job.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm

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Why I’m heading back to Beijing – and why you REALLY should learn a language

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I’ve booked a flight back to polluted, dusty, thrilling Beijing. I’m pretty much broke and owed a significant amount of money by freelance clients. It will be a struggle to survive. I have two options: either freelance or get a job with a TV network who’ve expressed interest.

Most would plump for the latter and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s a small, independent English-language TV network. But I hear that further up the ladder it’s owned by Chinese managers connected to the government. It’s of questionable integrity.

It would still be a good experience and I’d like to brush up on my broadcasting skills. And the money and security would be nice.

But the allure of freelancing is powerful for me. It means freedom, independence and the luster of impressive bylines. The demand, like I’ve said in a previous post, is high for China-related articles.

Also I’m heading back to start a crystal meth lab. Only kidding. Probably. I’m also looking to improve my Chinese.

There’s been news about falling rates of study for languages. Businesses are increasingly looking for language skills as trade becomes more globular. If you have a language, it opens doors.

If you live in China, or looking to go there, it is easily the best investment you can make. The amount of opportunities that become available to you in business, public relations, marketing, start-ups and the media, among much else, increases vastly.

Learn Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Arabic or Chinese and you will be especially in demand. For a freelance foreign correspondent, it presents a particular opportunity.

The Great Wall Music Festival, near Beijing. May 2013.

The Great Wall Music Festival, near Beijing. May 2013.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 7, 2013 at 5:00 am

Wishlist: 4 gadgets I’d love to do journalism with

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1. iPhone 5S, £549 (32GB)

Why? Because it’s pretty much all you need to do journalism – it browses the internet, sends emails, makes calls, records audio, takes fantastic photos and records incredible video. It’s a media production machine. I’ve heard of at least one freelancer who wrote entire features for almost an entire year using just an iPhone (more on that in a future blog).

The best thing about it is the quality of the images it can make. More than that, it’s the ease and convenience of it that puts it head and shoulders above everything else.

iPhone photos have graced the likes of Time magazine (front cover!), New York Times and much else besides. Conflict photographer Ben Lowy uses it almost exclusively and he’s covered Afghanistan, Libya and the Arab Spring.

Videojournalism? Guardian reporter Adam Gabbatt uses an iPhone to make short video reports which you can see here and here. The Guardian’s SE Asia correspondent Kate Hodal interviewed Suboi, Vietnam’s first mainstream female rapper: “I interviewed her and she gave me an exclusive freestyle, which I caught on my iPhone and then uploaded to our editors in London”.

If you are going to make a video report however, do invest in an external mic – that is extremely important. You want decent video and audio. Some sort of tripod/monopod for it would be very handy too.

2. Surface RT, £279 (with touch cover £319)

The Microsoft Surface RT is a great productivity tool for journalists. It is much lighter than most laptops, coming in at 676 grams (the Macbook Air in contrast weighs 1.3kg), and has a battery life of 8 hours. Why get this tablet rather than an iPad? Two words: Microsoft Office. Apart from being cheaper than an iPad, the Surface RT unlike all other tablets has Microsoft Word. You’ll want the optional touch/type covers – which click in magnetically – to do any serious typing work.

Yes it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of apps Apple and Android tablets have, but so what. They are distractions you don’t need. You have the internet, email and Word (plus a front-facing camera for Skype calls) – what more do you need as a journo? You have a smartphone anyway for those apps. Another benefit is that you can split the screen in half – so on one side you can browse the web, while the other is on Word for example.

There are two Surface machines. The RT, pictured above, is the cheaper, lighter and smaller version, and runs a custom RT operating system. The Surface Pro is much more powerful (on a par with high-end ultrabooks), much heavier and runs Windows 8, meaning you can install any/all programs you currently run on a normal laptop. Most gadget reviewers say get the Pro, but I prefer the simplicity of the RT and of course it’s a lot lighter and much less pricey.

UPDATE: The Surface 2, an update to the RT, is to be released later this month. It’ll feature an upgraded processor, screen, back and front cameras and a kickstand that is more adjustable. The Surface 2 will retail for £70 more than the RT, at £349 (for the 32GB version).

Panasonic GH3 – a much better choice than a Canon 5D Mk 3, especially for video.

3. Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3, £1299 (including 14-140mm lens)

This digital camera takes higher-quality videos than a Canon 5D Mk3. And it is well over £1000 cheaper. Here’s an excerpt from DPreview.com’s review of the camera: “The enthusiastic and largely unanticipated response to the GH2’s movie capabilities by working videographers (Google ‘GH2 video hack’ to get an idea for how keenly its capabilities are being exploited) has meant that Panasonic must now also consider that its camera is being integrated into professional video rigs”.

Needless to say it also produces great photos, and for video there is simply no equal. The sensor inside the camera will be much larger than most dedicated video cameras. And while it won’t quite be able to beat the Canon 5Ds for low-light capability, it does have better video features, frame-rate options and better detail at 1080p HD levels.

For the aspiring video journalist interested in producing films with professional-level picture quality, look no further.


4. Moleskine notebook, £9.41 (240 pages, 13x21cm)

Not exactly a gadget but for someone whose profession is the creation of words, the pleasure of putting pen on paper should still be paramount. I bought my first pocket-sized moleskine last year and I’ve loved the aesthetic, the pages are crisp and a joy to write in. The dimensions are perfect and the pocket in the back is great for storing business cards and cuttings. I recently purchased the larger moleskin (pictured) and I have to say I like it even more. A4-sized notebooks still have a place in my stationary, particularly for taking telephone and face-to-face interview notes, as well as for diagramming article structure plans. But for the simple pleasure of writing and jotting down ideas, the larger moleskin has perfect weight and dimensions.

As design critic and writer Stephen Bayley said in a 2012 article entitled ‘The joy of Moleskine notebooks’: “there aren’t many things you can buy for £10 that are the best of their kind. I buy them compulsively. It makes you think you are just about to write, for once, something brilliant.”