Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for March 2014

Traveling + Writing

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China is big. Very big. Asia – or East Asia to be more precise, is bigger still. It includes the economic powerhouses of Japan and South Korea. It includes the cultural stew and rapid developments of south-east Asia, of which Indonesia is the most feted. It includes the basket case of North Korea and the fortress of Burma.

One of the draws of being based in Beijing was the relative ease of traveling to all these exciting locations. In the reality, the distances and airfares involved in flying around Asia is not so convenient. But still, I have spent the past week in the idylls that are Thailand’s islands.

Originally my plans were to incorporate travel & journalism – to go somewhere and experience the country while digging up stories, interviewees and new angles. It was a very appealing idea.

This time I didn’t do that. I just wanted to relax. It was a very valuable vacation. I read, wrote and jotted down notes and ideas, scraps of articles and blogs while sipping on a coconut, mango and lassi shake. I wrote the intro for an article, this blog, and wrote down a couple of pitches in detail, and jotted down ideas for others.

Sometimes, a holiday is exactly what you need to refresh the freelancing imagination…

In Koh Lanta, Thailand.

In Koh Lanta, Thailand.


Why I moved to Istanbul – by Samantha North

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It was a wet and windy Saturday afternoon in Istanbul. Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), Istanbul’s main tourist artery, was crammed with people waving colourful flags, shouting and chanting.

Samantha North (pictured) tries freelancing in Turkey.

Samantha North (pictured) tries freelancing in Turkey.

The police hovered close by with their riot shields and tear gas guns. Looming behind were the giant vehicles used in Gezi Park to water cannon protesters out of the way like rubble.

But this time everything stayed peaceful. The good-humoured crowd were yelling in Ukrainian and Russian for Putin’s exit from Crimea. They sang songs and posed for photos.

Some of them paused in their chanting for interviews with Turkish media. All the time the rain was lashing down on the crowds with their rumpled umbrellas.

Spending the weekend in the middle of a political protest is probably not everyone’s idea of a good time. But for me, a freelance journalist new to Istanbul, it was a timely reminder of why I’d moved here in the first place.

One might question why any newbie foreign journalist would move to a country notorious for jailing others in the same profession. Indeed, a recent Al Jazeera feature described Turkey as the “world’s biggest prison for media” – right up there with well-known offenders Iran and China.

Recent announcements from the government suggest that the the situation is only going to get worse. Parliament’s passing of a bill to tighten internet control has become the latest cause for concern.

From last month onwards, the authorities can now take down any ‘unsuitable’ website, without warning. There has even been talk of banning Facebook and YouTube, under claims of ‘immorality and espionage’. Clearly, this sets a worrying precedent and has sent many Turks back to the streets in protest.

Street protests are becoming a regular feature in Turkey these days. In fact they are becoming an integral part of the country’s national image. But protesting as a way to express discontent and cause social change appears to have lost much of the impact it had during last year’s Gezi events. It also seems to have little effect on government policy-making.

So why would a journalist head to a place like this? It’s pretty obvious really. Turkey is a key geopolitical player in the Middle East. It’s safe, stable and foreigner-friendly; especially when compared with neighbours like Iraq and Syria.

Those places are accessible from Turkey if the foreign journalist feels so inclined (I don’t, yet…). Iran is close by, as is Israel. Even the Crimean peninsula, where Russia’s latest power play is currently unfolding is just a short hop over the Black Sea. There are plenty of stories to be dug up by the bold and imaginative foreign journalist.

For a Brit, one big advantage is being an English speaker. If you’re a good writer and have some ability in editing, work with Turkish publications is out there. Opportunities can usually be found by doing a bit of strategic networking. And don’t forget to network with other journalists in town, especially the really experienced ones.

In a future post I’ll go into more depth about getting started in Turkey. It’s still very early days for me and my lofty dreams of writing for the Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph are yet to be made reality. But I’ve just started freelancing regularly for an international print magazine…so more news on that to follow.


Read Samantha North’s follow up: Freelancing in Istanbul: the breakthrough

Samantha North is a British freelance journalist currently based in Istanbul, where she writes for Time Out magazine. She is founder and editor of the website PlacesBrands, which specializes in issues concerning soft power, public diplomacy and country branding. Samantha has lived in Qatar, Belgium and China over the past eight years, before moving to Istanbul in February 2014. Her website is

30th blog post anniversary: The Top Seven Posts

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Hello all! This post marks the 30th post on this blog (not including the ‘About’ post). So I thought now would be a good time to mark the seven most popular posts in this blog’s existence.

Before that, a brief history: this site was originally created as a simple holding page for my portfolio and bio – an online CV basically. But it soon morphed into an idea – I was going off to China soon, to once again grind at the freelance coal pit, an addictive and unhealthy pursuit with world-beating highs and irredeemable, squalid lows.

I thought I should also write a blog on my experience of trying to make it overseas, as a ‘freelance foreign correspondent’ as I termed it. I started blogging at the end of September, 2013. The first post on this site is ‘Welcome: mission statement’.  Since then I’ve made new contacts, people who are on a similar journey to me, deciding to up sticks, move to a new country and try their hand in journalism in a foreign land. There are new plans developing for this site, with writers from other countries who I hope will become regular contributors. There might even be a redesign and rebranding at some point. But anyway, I waffle. Without further ado, these are the top seven most popular posts.

The seven most popular posts on this site to date:

7. How I Got My First Ever Paid Freelance Gig

This post tells, in detail, the story of how I got my first ever byline in The Guardian when I was a first year student at university. It took me two years before I got in that newspaper again…

6. The Illusion of Journalistic Success

One of my personal favourites.

5. Life in Beijing as a Journalist – Retrospective 

An instructive lesson in how someone without journalism experience got to be The Guardian’s China correspondent.

4. How does a journalist make a name for him/herself? Part 1. 

I analyze what ingredients make up successful journalists who are not only professionally successful, but also lauded, renowned and can claim some degree of fame. There is also a Part 2. Other parts have yet to be published.

And here are the Top 3 posts in ascending order. 

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

One of the earliest posts on this site, this has been a perennial favourite.

2. What happened last time I tried to be a freelance foreign correspondent 

Another early one, this post is highly recommended to those new to the site. It relates my adventures and mishaps of the time when I decided to move to a new city, where I knew virtually nobody, had no job and no accommodation planned, but wanted to do something vaguely journalism related. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life (although it often didn’t feel that way, but I learnt a lot in that short space of time).

And the number one most clicked on, most visited post on this site since it began, but may change in the future, the most popular post so far is………

1. So I got a job with a Chinese TV company 

Thanks to those reading! And if anyone is out there who wants to contribute, please hit me up – my email can be found here.

Why I blog – by Alec Ash

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This is a guest post by Alec Ash, a young British writer who came to Beijing in 2008. He studied Mandarin and started a blog about Chinese youth. He has been published in The Economist, Prospect, Salon, Literary Review, and is a correspondent for The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is currently working on a book for Picador.

George Orwell, in his essay Why I Write, said there are four motives for writing of any kind: (i) Sheer egoism, (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm, (iii) Historical impulse, and (iv) Political purpose. I figured I’d do the same kind of list for why I blog.

I’ll keep this short and pithy, imitating Orwell with four bullet points based on his above motives (he was a born blogger). Part of the point of this is to try and tease out if there’s a difference between writers (i.e. authors, columnists), journalists and bloggers, when it comes to why we put pen to paper, finger to laptop, in the first place. So…why do I blog?

(i) Sheer egoism. That’s right, no need to change the first and most powerful motive for any writer. Anyone who deludes themselves that what they have to say is of such interest to the world that they simply must put it down permanently is more than a touch vainglorious. When it comes to blogging, even more so – no one invited you to write, and likely no one’s paying you to do it. Hardly anyone will be reading it either, to begin with. Why bother? Because deep down you think you’re shit hot, and want other people to know that.

Blogging in China adds the extra incentive of expat status – something to set you apart, so you can show you’re not just another English teacher, that you know China, that you’re following the latest news everyone’s talking about, and you’ve met all the big name expats, and know all the cool bars, and your Chinese is crazy good. I should add that journalists, especially news reporters, who blog as part of their job are less vain and egotistical than your average garden blogger.

(ii) Community enthusiasm. Did I just make China bloggers out to be a pack of vain pricks? I apologise. That’s not what I think at all. The English language China “blogosphere” (how I loath that term) is one of the most vibrant out there, full of people who are contributing to our collective understanding of China in a very meaningful way. In that sense it’s a community effort, with blogs linking to and building on each other’s research and analysis in a form of crowd-sourced journalism. Whether that’s a productive conversation or a “circle jerk”, as some would have it, it’s something that writers want to be part of.

(iii) Journalistic impulse. Anyone living in China is confronted every day with things that just beg to be written about. It might be a conversation with a Chinese friend or stranger, a new piece of information that nuances your understanding of an issue, or something you found on the Chinese internet and want to share. One way to tell if you’re a writer at heart, for better or worse, is if when you see or think of something interesting, you feel a need to set it down in words for others – that somehow the experience or thought is incomplete until you put it into language.

In China, those interesting things are hitting you in the face every day. What’s more, most of them won’t get written if you don’t write them, especially if you’re somewhere other than Beijing or Shanghai. The country’s just too big, and professional journalists can’t be everywhere at once. So the journalistic impulse to record your impressions on a blog is especially strong here.

(iv) Corrective purpose. A lot of China blogs, I feel, exist in part to correct or add nuance to what mainstream opinion gets wrong. Maybe the press have gotten their facts mixed up, but you’re there on the ground with access and time to pick at the details. Maybe the mainstream narrative is over-simplified or single-sided, and you have something to say about that. Maybe, God forbid, Tom Friedman (a columnist for The New York Times) has written about China again. Whatever the spur, correcting the generalisations and misconceptions about China that are so legion is an important reason why we do this.


There you have it. My changes from Orwell’s wording are small. “Historical impulse” becomes journalistic impulse, because bloggers know they’re not recording for posterity, only for the moment. “Political purpose” turns into corrective purpose, because we also know we won’t make a difference, and are often only talking among ourselves. “Aesthetic enthusiasm”, i.e. the joy of crafted writing, plays less of a part in blogging, which is more conversational and hastily knocked out – but bloggers enjoy the act of writing, too. In fact, another big motive for keeping a blog, myself included, is to galvanise yourself to write regularly, and to write better and faster.

Alec Ash will be speaking at The Bookworm Literary Festival (2014) for “Blogging China”, a panel discussion featuring notable Beijing blog founders. More info can be found here. His website The Anthill is an online publication for China-based writers. 

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 7, 2014 at 9:38 am

Smog’s lesson in reselling freelance stories

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That time I spent every week going to London to practice pitching

One reason you shouldn’t study a journalism degree is to learn how to freelance. J-school is woeful at teaching the mechanics, processes and techniques of successful freelance journalism. A much better way of learning is to buy a couple of books on it, practice what they teach and start doing it. Freelancing workshops can be pricey but worthwhile.

In the second year of my journalism degree I spent a couple days every week, for 12 weeks, attending another journalism course in London (which is three hours away from my university).

On this course, at the start of every class, we were asked to pitch ideas for magazine stories. To begin with our ideas were plagiaristic, rudimentary and not much different than the headlines we’d noted on the various news websites we checked.

Over the duration of the program however, as the weeks wore on, and we became used to the habit of pitching and coming up with ideas for stories our skills noticeably improved. The slant of our headlines steadily grew more sophisticated, our angles more acute, our ideas more original.

Who knows what quantifiable difference it made to our progression but I do believe that that weekly exercise irrevocably strengthened mine and my cohort’s ability to think up story ideas and to think in such a way that allowed us to be creative in a strict form – that of the story pitch.

In the classroom in London. For more on my time on this course, you can read this:

That time my journalism tutor said something profound about freelancing

Back at university, we were given a couple of lessons in freelancing, which were superficial and lackluster, but one thing a tutor said stuck with me.

“The trick”, he would say, on more than one occasion, “is not to sell 17 ideas to one publication. The trick is to sell one idea 17 times”.

It has taken me some time to fully understand what that meant, and just how you do that.

Along the way I listened to an editor talk about a friend who was brilliant at selling off different parts of an interview to different publications: “He’d interview Nick Cohen and he’d ask him some questions about being Jewish and sell that to The Jewish Chronicle; he’d ask him about the war [Iraq] and sell that to a political magazine”, and so on…

The point

What is missing in these lessons is how to repackage and resell an existing idea. It is what one freelance I heard refer to as ‘re-nosing’.

The fact is you cannot re-pitch the exact same idea again – you have to adapt it, change it up, modify, refocus the angle, sell in in a different format…there are lots of ways you can mine existing ideas or articles you’ve written to make more business.

In my experience, what I’ve done on Beijing’s air pollution problem – described sometimes as ‘smog’ – is a clear example. It all started as an article about how Asia can be a job opportunity for graduates. One of the sources for that story became a profile feature for a business magazine. I adapted the angle so that it became a news feature when the smog got bad again…and so on. Below are the headlines and stand-firsts of the different stories which hopefully demonstrates what I mean more clearly:

Does Asia hold the answer to your graduate career hunt? [link]

Doing business in China: Lu-Hai Liang speaks to the founder of a successful Beijing-based startup about what it’s like running a company there [link]

The expats offering a breath of fresh air in polluted Beijing [link]

Related –

Why is China such fertile ground for young, ambitious Brits? Young British people are choosing to emigrate to China, armed with strategies for chasing success. Why? [link]

The other Jamie on a food mission: Meet the chef teaching people in the East to love Western food [link]

Flying the flag for the best of British in China: A young English woman who forged a successful career in China after moving there as a teenage is now promoting British brands to wealthy shoppers in Beijing [link]