Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia – by Brent Crane

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Brent Crane (pictured) is an American journalist who traveled through China and Myanmar for six months. Along the way he published stories with the DailyTelegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He also shot for the BBC. This is his guest post for the site.

Brent Crane (pictured) is an American journalist who traveled through China and Myanmar for six months. Along the way he published stories with the Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He also shot for the BBC. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com. This is his guest post for the site.

I landed in Beijing on June 16th, 2014, in the early afternoon on a one-way ticket from Boston. I had just turned 24. China was not new to me. I’d been before in 2011 when I had studied in Kunming and also before that in 2010 for the Shanghai World Expo. But this was my first time in the nation’s capital and I thought it’s very grey here.

I stayed with a friend from a study abroad program at the Beijing University of Science and Technology. When she and others asked what I was doing in China I’d get shy and mumble, “freelance journalism”, and felt like a five year old saying, “I want to be an astronaut”.

I wasn’t confident because I really didn’t know what a freelance journalist was or if I could even be one and I usually stumbled when I tried to explain anything. I’d come to China off a whim and depending on who I was talking to they’d either be impressed or think I was an idiot.

Now, seven months later I can answer people with more assuredness. I have written and shot for the Diplomat, the Daily Telegraph, VICE, Al-Jazeera and the BBC, among others. In the name of “journalism”, I have been smuggled into rebel-held territory in Myanmar from China, toured refugee camps, reported on one of the year’s largest and most daring democracy movements, sampled hairy stinky tofu and tracked down a Hunanese peasant who claimed that a tea brewed from animal feces had cured her cancer. I sampled that too.

Journalism, when done right, is an adventure. Let me explain. Journalism is many things and one form isn’t necessarily better then another. I’ve never wanted to report on expensive condos or failed furniture stores and I don’t ever plan to. Doing journalism right for me means reporting on things that I find interesting/engaging/unique/weird/impactful. I didn’t have to go to Asia to find those things but I did because I think it’s easier to find those things there and also I could survive better off what I was making in Asia.

When I started out I was getting about one project a month on average. That’s about $200 give or take. In China, it can buy you several dozen bowls of noodles or dumplings and several nights in a decent hostel. In America it might buy you a few nights in a shitty motel and a few Chipotle burritos which are also shitty.

The author took this photo moments before a confrontation between police and protesters in Hong Kong in the largest democratic demonstration the city  has seen since its handover to Beijing.

A photo captured moments before a confrontation between police and protesters in Hong Kong. Photo: Brent Crane.

So that’s why I went to Asia to begin my career as a freelance journalist. Like I said, I had been to the continent before as a tourist and a student, but never as a writer. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of doing reporting there and I figured I’d just wing it. I majored in Chinese Studies and International Affairs in school. I also knew that not having a “Journalist Visa” in China and doing journalism there is technically illegal so I would have to be mindful of what I wrote and how I collected information. I had had a good experience in Washington DC before I left, interning for an international affairs journal which improved my writing and news analysis skills, but besides that I was pretty green. Pretty damn green, I’ll tell ya.

Networking and travel

If journalism is about anything it is about people and if you want to be a journalist damn it you have to be okay interacting with people on the reg. And not just while working on a story but also while networking.
Networking is an annoying and silly thing when done wrongly but when done right it is beautiful and invaluable. If you are an aspiring journalist and are not getting out there and meeting with professional journalists you are doing it wrong.

The best thing I did during my first few months in China, mostly when I was in Beijing, was network. How does one find working writers? you might be thinking. I’ll give you a hint: Twitter and Google. Unless they’re a jerk or legitimately too swamped most writers are open to meeting and talking about their careers. Everyone’s been a beginner before.

I met with many journalists to fill in the blank spots in my head about freelancing while in Beijing: How do I pitch stories? What makes a story? How do I find stories? How do I organize my notes? How much do places pay? And most of the time journos would provide me with the contact info of someone else I could talk to or an editor I could pitch my half-baked pitches to. Everyone who makes it in this world is a good networker. (Full disclosure: I met Lu-Hai through networking).

I remember one journalist I contacted way in the beginning of my journalistic journey, right after I graduated from college (University of Colorado ’13!). I’d found his website online after reading one of his stories in Outside magazine and sent him an email. I was looking for a mentor and the subject of his dispatch—an American militant training Burmese rebels in the jungle—showed me that he was the kind of journalist I could learn a thing or two from. We kept in touch through the months and one day in China I Skyped with him, feeling kind of bummed at the time because I had gotten some pitches I was confident about turned down. “Who cares?” he said, “Really dude, who cares? You’re gonna get tons of stories knocked down. Everyone does”.

It meant a lot to me at the time and still does. You’re gonna get tons of stories knocked down. Everyone does. Who cares? Learn from it.

A lesson from failure

One of my biggest learning experiences happened two months into my time in China and it involved failure. I was in Xinjiang, a gigantic province in China’s northwestern frontier where violence often breaks out between the region’s Muslim Uyghur minority and the Han Chinese. I’d always wanted to go there because of its remoteness and natural beauty and it made for a convenient end-destination for my westward journey from Beijing, it being the most westward place in China.

Ramadan, final mass, in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Photo: Brent Crane.

Ramadan, final mass, in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Photo: Brent Crane.

I pitched a story to Al Jazeera before I got there on the state of Uyghur nationalism, and the editor commissioned the story. The idea came to me from a paragraph in a Lonely Planet guidebook about a town outside Kashgar called Yensigar. It mentioned that this town was the birthplace of a famous 20th century Uyghur nationalist though the Chinese government tried to keep that under wraps. That got me thinking about what Uyghur nationalism was like today. I looked into the topic and found only academic writing; nothing in the mainstream press about it.

I figured it would be interesting and important for the average reader to know about in regards to the Xinjiang issue so that’s how I came up with the idea to write about it. Keep in mind I had never done any actual reporting before this. All of my published work was news analysis stuff, which is all done on Google. So a couple weeks later I wrote the story up and sent it to my editor. What follows is the entirety of his response:

Regretfully, this piece won’t work the way it is. It appears that you did not interview anyone except for a quote from a student who didn’t give her name, and a comment about sharp knives from a knife maker. Have you interviewed anyone else for this piece?

It was disheartening and they ended up killing the piece. I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty sour about it. It felt like the first time getting dumped. However, after a couple of reworkings I was able to publish it elsewhere. But more importantly I learned something from that first kill: know exactly what the editor wants before you get started. Does he want an opinionated analysis piece or just a light introduction to the issue? Does she want 1000 words or 2000? It seems obvious but sometimes you get excited and before you know it you’re halfway through making a pizza that your customer didn’t order.

Follow your gut

On the flipside it’s also okay to follow your gut with a story and throw any worry about editors out the window. At least that’s what New Yorker correspondent and China-hand Peter Hessler told me over the phone: “I found querying unnecessary, I think it’s better to just write the story and try to sell it”.

I’d seen on Peter’s Facebook fan page (which is run by his sister) that he was set to give a talk at the Shanghai Museum of Modern Art. I was in Beijing when I saw it but would be in Shanghai at the same time as the talk. A week later I went to the event. I approached him during the post-show book signing, which was the wildest book signing I’d ever seen. It appeared I was the only westerner there—he gave the talk in Chinese and it wasn’t widely advertised in the English press—and his hordes of Chinese fans were going nuts for him to sign their copies of River Town and Country Driving (his second book Oracle Bones is banned in mainland China).

I asked Peter after he spoke if he’d be down to talk shop with me some time. He agreed and handed me his business card in between autographs, grinning at the absurdity around us. We spoke a few days later over the phone. Him being one of my favorite writers, I was nervous. But he ended up doing most of the talking and was quite friendly; after nearly an hour of speaking with me he said, “I should probably get going, someone is waiting for me. Is that okay?”

Peter gave me some good tips—write up the story in lieu of pitching, get out of the major cities and into the country—but the real takeaway for me from that conversation was that even the most successful writers come from humble beginnings. During Peter’s first year as a freelancer in Beijing, he couldn’t foresee the success that would eventually come to him and of course he felt doubt and anxiety over his decision to do freelance journalism in China. He weathered his fair share of rejections, like we all do, and he didn’t always feel on top of things. As someone going through those same ups and downs, it was reassuring to hear that it’s just part and parcel of the job, especially from someone who’s risen to the top of that job.

It ended up being bought for $500 by an independent literary journal

So I followed Peter’s advice a month later in Guangdong province. Back in Xinjiang I’d met a European couple who had told me about a strange city they had been teaching English in called Shantou. It was a beat-up, forgotten cesspool of a place, large swaths of which were run by Chinese criminal organizations and governed by a corrupt collection of disgraced cadres. It sounded like a juicy story but after a quick internet search I found there was little to nothing written about it. I decided to go, thinking I’d surely find something interesting to write about. China (and Asia in general) is such a fascinating place that in most spots you go you can find a story if you look hard enough. 90% of the time if I decided to go somewhere off a whim I’d find something. It’s just a matter of doing a bit of research beforehand, talking to locals and being receptive, curious and alert about what’s happening around you while you’re there.

I had my European friends connect me with an American who taught journalism at the local university there (which is rated one of China’s best) and through him I met the subject of my story: a scholar of religion and a passionate connoisseur of heavyweight boxing. I thought he was interesting and without making any pitches I wrote a profile on him called “Boxing and God in Shantou”. It ended up being bought for $500 by an independent literary journal called The Magazine, managed by a wonderful writer and editor named Glenn Fleishman. In that single story my trip to that Guangdong backwater was paid for and then some. That’s freelancing at its best for me: going to interesting places and doing interesting things then getting paid for it.

Myanmar

The author with rebel soldiers in Laiza, Kachin state in November, 2014.

The author with rebel soldiers in Laiza, Kachin state in November 2014.

My most exciting time as a journalist happened in November, after more than five months of backpacking through China. I had recently decided I would go to Myanmar and I was reaching out to journalists who’d done work there, trying to get a picture of the place before I arrived. A photojournalist in Beijing connected me with another photojournalist who often works in that country and when I emailed him he said he was in a place called Laiza, a frontier town on the Yunnan-Myanmar border and the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar’s second largest armed ethnic group. When we spoke over the phone a few days later I asked him how he got to Laiza as it’s closed to foreigners. “Ah it’s easy,” he said calmly. So I decided to go and he connected me with the fixer who would arrange transport for me from China. I didn’t know what I would find there but I figured even if I couldn’t find anything to write about, I would just be happy to see the place for myself.

The war between the KIA and the Burmese army, the world’s longest running civil war, picked up in 2011 after the breaking of a 17-year ceasefire and ever since it’s been a tense situation. Laiza is run by the KIA and the Myanmar central government has no control there. I knew I was taking a chance. Chinese border guards could intercept me before I got in (or on my way out) and then there was the possibility of violence. But I did my research, talked to people who knew about the situation and decided that the reward outweighed the risk.

On the second day I was there a Burmese army shell landed on a mountain-top military training academy three miles outside of the town, killing 23 young cadets and injuring many more. It was the worst single attack on the KIA since the breaking of the ceasefire. When I heard the news from my fixer I thought, “Well this is it”. I got on Twitter to see if any of the major publications were covering it and saw a Tweet by the BBC Myanmar correspondent Jonah Fisher, “Kachin rebels say 20 cadets killed after their parade shelled by Burmese army. If verified casts doubts over alot. Potentially v serious”. I Tweeted at him, “Jonah I am here now, in Laiza. Confirmed killed is 21 so far, 11 injured in three mortars shot at Officers Training Academy.” and he responded, “@bcamcrane have you got a number? can i call you?”.

We connected over Skype, he asked if I could shoot video, I said yes and next thing I knew I was working for the BBC, one of the most well-respected news agencies in the world. Jonah wanted me to shoot footage of the shelling site and the burial the following morning. That next day was a whirlwind of reporting unlike any I had ever experienced. I had done several stories before this but this was by far the most timely story. The attack came out of nowhere and the BBC needed footage and information ASAP. It was truly newsy reporting and my first time doing it.

At sunset, Adam, my KIA-provided fixer, drove me up on his sputtering motorcycle to the site of the previous day’s shelling, up winding, cobblestoned roads through verdant mountains. After that we headed to the burial where I counted 23 grave sites freshly dug in a jungle clearing. Dozens of KIA soldiers and officers as well as soldiers from other ethnic armies were gathered for the ceremony. A huge stack of locally made AK-47 assault rifles were leaning up against a thick grey tree. I was the only westerner there. Later I met with a colonel from the KIA in an old casino converted into the KIA War Office. In his room the stoic colonel presented me with maps and through a translator explained why he was certain the attack was unprovoked.

It took several hours to upload all of the footage and then send it over the crappy internet to Jonah (here is the published video). By the end of the day I was exhausted but I felt as if I’d reached a new plateau as a journalist and I wouldn’t have gotten there without taking that risk to enter Laiza.

Itinerary

I’d say that the biggest challenge for me was maintaining my professional aspirations while on the road

I chose my itinerary by going to places where I thought I’d be able to find stories and also places where I knew people or had connections. If you are choosing between two spots and in one of them you have a connection with someone who lives there, you must always choose that place. As a journalist, having a local explain the ropes is invaluable. But I was also committed to only taking buses and trains because 1.) I hate planes and 2.) traveling overland is a much better way to experience a country. That made my itinerary planning easier too because it limited my choices and kept things linear.

While in China I made it to 18 of its 22 provinces. I’ve seen more of that country then I have of my own. China’s transportation infrastructure is very good and it is also very consistent.

A train journey the author went on from Shenzhen to Kunming took 34 hours. Photo: Brent Crane.

A train journey the author went on from Shenzhen to Kunming took 34 hours. Photo: Brent Crane.

You can visit a train station in Shanghai and one in Urumqi, which are 2,500 miles apart, and they’re going to be 99% the same in appearance and procedure. My itinerary planning was made infinitely easier too because I was for the most part traveling alone. If there were no tickets available for one place I could simply buy a ticket to another, without having to consult the preferences of a travel partner and it was always easy to find lodgings. There’s nothing wrong with traveling with friends but if you are committed to working as a writer on the road it helps to be alone.

I traveled through China and Burma for just over six months. Until I bought my plane ticket home, I was running a profit (though a very small one). My biggest expenses during my travel in Asia were my train tickets, which ran from $20 to $80. Also my 18-day stay in Hong Kong, where food and drinks are about the same as New York, was not cheap. But money is not why I got into journalism and I never expected to come out of Asia ready to buy a Rolex. What I learned over there is worth more then money. Beyond the crash-course in journalism, I made great friends and acquired invaluable life skills: a stronger patience, a new sense of empathy, social malleability and a deeper understanding and appreciation of cultural relativity.

…risk in eating nothing but ramen for long durations of time

Language was only an issue when I allowed it to be one; with enough creativity and without frustration one can bypass any language barriers. Of course it helped that my Mandarin is decent but I’m certainly not fluent and still encountered plenty of incomprehensible moments, especially in the more remote provinces where the accents can be challenging. I didn’t find it hard to live out of a suitcase. You’d be surprised how quickly you adjust to that. I didn’t have much of an issue with the food either; I only got sick three times and each bout was over in a day. I’d say that the biggest challenge for me was maintaining my professional aspirations while on the road. It’s a lot harder to write a story in a completely new town with shitty internet then it is to do so in the comfort of your own bedroom or a trusted cafe. Whenever I got to a new place and had an assignment to write I’d ask around for the quietest cafe with the best WiFi but often my searches would end in vain. In noisy China solitude is a hard thing to come by.

If you are a writer reading this, as I have assumed most of you are, then I hope that you can find something of use here. But I also hope that you adapt what I’ve said to fit your own situation. Everybody has their own individual comfort levels, financial needs and time restrictions. I’ve always loved the idea of being a writer because it comes with a completely customizable career path and no single writer’s journey ends up the same as another’s.

However, I will say that in the path of all of my favorite writers there has been a consistent element and that is the risk factor—and I don’t necessarily mean danger. Risk in traveling to a foreign place, risk in writing about an under-reported topic, risk in blindly following a lead, risk in experimenting with a different style, risk in eating nothing but ramen for long durations of time. Being a successful writer is an extraordinary job and no one gets to have an extraordinary job without doing extraordinary things. You just have to decide what extraordinary means for you and act accordingly.

Children at a Rohingya refugee camp in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo: Brent Crane.

Children at a Rohingya refugee camp in Rakhine state, Myanmar. Photo: Brent Crane.

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5 Responses

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  1. […] His previous guest post is here. […]

  2. […] A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia […]

  3. […] Also by Brent — A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia.  […]

  4. […] post for the site, a doozy of a read and an inspiring tale for all budding freelancers, it’s A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia. It’s the story of a fellow freelancer and his travels in Burma and China; failing and […]

  5. […] spent a year at the Phnom Penh Post, to Nepal. Brent’s a prolific freelancer (and a guest contributor to the site) and by the time I’d met him in Chiang Mai he’d already sold […]


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