Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for October 2015

Love in Beijing

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I recently went to Spring Cameras, a photography store in Beijing which develops film, sells secondhand film cameras, film, and photo books. I hadn’t been there for a while, but I went to get a roll of film developed. I browsed a little and happened on a photo book with the title: “Love in Beijing”.

The owner of the store was talking to another person when I asked him how much the photo book cost. He asked me to ask the maker of the photo book, who was the man he had been talking to. I bought a copy of the photo book (of which only 500 were printed), and we — him, the couple who own the store, and I — subsequently went for dinner. Here are some photos from his lovely book.

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Caption reads: “Gezi & Xiaoge. During the year 2003-2013, they have moved 13 times among the places Chaozhu, Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. Finally, they got married during the Spring Festival in 2012 after 9 years’ love. For them, the happiest time was when they were in Guangzhou. At that time, they lived underground, ate the cheapest food and watched a movie named “Saw”. However, they still believed they would have a good future. Now their daughter, Chongchong, is six months”.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 27, 2015 at 8:14 am

As we approach 2016 I decided to buy a brand new smartphone — from 2013. Here’s why.

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I got a new phone to replace my old broken phone. I decided to buy exactly the same model. When it was released in September 2013, the LG G2 cost around £468.

In October 2015, you can buy the Apple iPhone 6S, with its “3D Touch”, for £539. Or you could plump for the super sized curved-edge screen (£629) of the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge +.

The two “hottest” phones on the market right now, for these “flagship” pieces of tech, you pay a premium for “killer” features; top-of-the-line processors, screens and cameras, and, admittedly, the best design.

In September 2013, the LG G2 represented the highest end of “high-end” phones. Numerous tech sites proclaimed it as the best Android phone in the world. A year later, some still thought that was the case.

So it’s worth asking whether a great phone in 2013 is a bad phone in 2015.

And it’s worth asking whether you need all those premium features.

The answer to the first question is obviously not. The LG G2 was described as an “absolute speed demon” when it came out; possesses a gorgeous screen that’s a large 5.2 inches in a relatively small body, and a good camera with optical stabilization.

The price I paid for a brand new LG G2 (colour: black; memory: 32GB) in 2015 was a steal. Exactly how much I’ll let you know later.

I bought my first LG G2 in a phone market in Bangkok in the summer of 2014. It was secondhand and in less than perfect condition. This would prove to be its undoing finally when the screen broke. That first secondhand LG cost me around £180. The iPhone 6S costs £539, about 3x the price. But is it three times better?

You may feel that paying that much more is worth it to buy the best of the best; an intangible feeling of product greatness further justified that perhaps by spending more now you bought a phone that will last longer. But that’s millions of dollars of marketing hype speaking through you.

You can’t blame Apple’s or Samsung’s marketing departments for upspeaking their products’s “flagship premium features”. But the fact so-called tech “journalists” go along for the ride too is reprehensible.

Anyway, enough proselytizing.

My new LG G2 was bought for RMB 970, through Taobao.com — China’s eBay. The best phone of 2013 cost me in 2015 £99.

Finding story ideas #2: meeting sources

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“The source of a river or stream is the original point from which the river flows. It may be a lake, a marsh, a spring or a glacier. This is where the stream starts”.

This is a continuing series focusing on ideas and suggestions about how to find and come up with story ideas. To view previous entries in the series, use this tag. 

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a Chinese journalist. As a tech reporter, she has covered China’s rapidly developing tech industry.

She told me things of which I was only very dimly aware or not at all. She made them clearer to me and painted pictures and scenes of China’s technological landscape that, heretofore, I barely understood.

Who are your sources? And where are they?

Perhaps one of the greatest training that a stint on a local newspaper can provide is the lesson on how to locate, maintain, and cultivate sources.

I cannot say that I am as well trained as a reporter on, say, The Bournemouth Echo or The Hastings Observer in this matter, but I distinctly remember observing a journalist “working the phones” when I did work experience at The Brighton Argus when I was still a journalism student.

It was around 11am, and she had already done a bit of reporting in the morning frenzy, and now there was a lull. So she picked up the phone and started calling up her contacts — her sources. From what I could gather, these were police spokespeople, town councilors, heads of housing associations, neighborhood watches, local business people; those pillars of society that are often the first receivers of news.

When she got through to these people, on the phone, after dispensing with the pleasantries, her first question was: “have you got anything for me?”

What may be obvious to those on the inside is not obvious to those on the outside

Recently, while I was at a bar, I got talking to a couple of architects. One of them told me that a lot of foreign architecture firms had been shutting up shop in China in the past couple of years.

I was immediately piqued.

When I asked him to elaborate, he was dismissive — “I thought this was obvious”, he said — implying that it was common knowledge. But the fact that he was an architect (and an employee of one of the most famous architecture firms at that) made him inoculated to this piece of information.

Among architects, in China, it might indeed be common knowledge. But to those on the inside what may seem common knowledge is often completely unknown to those on the outside; people outside of that information circle.

The job of the journalist is to get inside that circle, pluck out the information, and then to distribute it to those outside the circle — in other words, the general public.

What if you’re going abroad, and starting out as a freelance foreign correspondent?

One of the single best things you can do, upon arriving in a new country, as a journalist, is to make contact with other journalists. Best of all, local journalists. They will have a different understanding of what’s going on in that country than foreign journalists. Both are valuable.

But the fact that local journalists speak the local language (obviously), use and interact with the things that they are reporting on like locals, means they can pick up on things that outsiders may miss. Specialty journalists (tech reporters, political journalists etc) often hold information even more unknown.

Other sources can be niche publications, journals, blogs, and event organizers. When I spoke to the tech reporter, she told me things that could turn into around half a dozen stories. And having contacts herself, she can be a springboard onto the next step. It was a very productive talk. And all it took was an email, a few text messages, and a focused chat, while I sipped on a coffee, on an otherwise lazy afternoon in Beijing.

Related:

Six things I learnt about the freelance journalism market while I was in China // Five things to do upon arriving in a new country, as a foreign correspondent

10 reasons why using Facebook sucks in China

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1. The biggest problem with using Facebook in China is that you can’t. Facebook, like many western social media sites, is blocked by China’s so-called Great Firewall. YouTube, Twitter, several news sites, Instagram, and Dropbox, among others, are all disabled. There are ways to get around the firewall and most expats in China use a VPN (virtual private network) to leap over the wall. This makes getting in touch with your friends and seeing those all-important messages dependent on the reliability of your VPN.

2. The fact it’s banned means only a tiny minority of Chinese people — usually those who have had the most contact with foreigners — have used Facebook, making it harder to stay in touch with your Chinese friends. You can’t add friends if they aren’t on it.

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What a desktop VPN looks like

3. Chinese internet can be slow; this added to the not infrequent lag of your VPN provider (China sometimes employs its army of hackers to attack VPN services), can cause serious slowdown. This can lead to a reluctance to upload photo albums onto Facebook, a learned unwillingness to share content.

4. The Chinese government is notorious for its paranoia and censorship, about topics like pollution, human rights, Tibet and Xinjiang. Foreigners know this. This can create a small but noticeable sense of paranoia, manifesting itself into a shadow of self-censorship when you comment or post on Facebook, and other social media.

5. The ubiquity of Facebook means a lack of effort for more traditional, more intimate forms of communication. A dearly addressed email or a Skype call can be easily foregone when you have the convenient blue hub of Facebook. (Handwritten letters and postcards would be even better, in this writer’s opinion).

6. It can be a serious distraction when you find a cafe that has WiFi with a built-in VPN as everyone logs on to those sites usually blocked.

7. The “Like” button is the most inane, shallow form of interaction ever conceived. (Apart from perhaps the now disappeared “poke” feature, also a Facebook creation).

8. As a tool for interacting with less close friends and acquaintances, Facebook is both great and terrible. It’s great for passively consuming other people’s news, but also terrible for instilling this sense of passively watching other people while not really engaging with them. Commenting on an acquaintance’s post can feel almost intrusive or embarrassing; a ridiculous feeling.

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A few of these complaints may not be specific to China

9. The way Facebook encourages a feeling of “tidying away” your messages. The way that Facebook messenger has been built — tiny little chat boxes that pop up at the bottom of the screen — makes it seem as if getting a message, from a friend or family member, is like a distraction; a blip that needs to be dismissed as soon as possible. More time spent on newsfeed, and less time spent on messaging, means more time for Facebook’s advertisers and data collection.

10. The tenth reason why using Facebook sucks, in China, is because you’re inadvertently encouraging Mark Zuckerberg to be obsequious to the Chinese leadership. The Facebook founder was widely criticized last year for his fawning behaviour to China’s president Xi Jinping, following his suggestion to his employees to read the Chinese leader’s book The Governance of China, so they “understand socialism with Chinese characteristics”. A US current affairs magazine noted at the time: “for the free publicity he is providing the Chinese leader, Zuckerbeg has been widely condemned on the Chinese internet“. Lately, he was seen to be trying to impress Xi by speaking to him in Mandarin when the Chinese leader visited America in September.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 15, 2015 at 5:35 am

Pitchable outlets #3: CNN.com

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This is a series examining publications and their accessibility to freelancers. Use the pitchable outlets tag to see more in the series.

Status: medium-high / 1st tier

Reach: CNN, short for the Cable News Network, was the first 24-hour cable news network and the first all-news TV channel in the US. It launched its online counterpart CNN.com in 1995. Since then the website has grown into one of the most widely read news publications worldwide. It has numerous bureau across the globe and international channels such as CNN Espanol and CNN Philippines.

For an idea of reach, one of my stories for CNN.com scored over two million page views.

Accessibility: CNN.com’s China section is well developed with broadcasting staff based in Beijing, and editors in Hong Kong. Its China coverage is excellent, even if their TV broadcasts still tend toward the bombastic, with deeply reported online articles and news features that are often informative as well as entertaining. They have a good stable of Chinese news assistants who help in producing short-form video, and in Will Ripley they have a video correspondent who makes use of innovative reporting techniques.

My contributions to CNN.com have been in news features covering cultural trends in China. I made contact with their China editor via Twitter — I found her Twitter account, Tweeted a message to the effect of, “Hey, do you take freelance pitches?”, and she replied in the affirmative. She then sent me her email address via private message on Twitter.

I’ve published two articles about China for CNN, and a travel story for CNN’s online travel section. The pitch for the travel story was forwarded on to their travel editor by my China editor.

I’ve also had a story killed by CNN (my first kill and for which I did not receive a kill fee). The story had been commissioned, but then subsequently killed by someone who had been standing in for the editor who originally commissioned it.

CNN has a roster of staffers who report breaking news and generate stories. For a freelancer, you will have to pitch original ideas; ideas that a freelancer would have the time and flexibility to cover. For instance, these could be stories from China’s rural areas or under reported regions and industries, which staffers may not have time to get to. Their email format is: firstname dot lastname @ CNN dot com.

Writing style: CNN.com has a quite distinctive writing style. They tend to use short paragraphs — one sentence or two sentence paragraphs are not at all uncommon. What this means in practice for the journalist is less writing, and more reporting. Both of the articles I’ve had published took months before they were finally published as numerous rounds of back-and-forth took place. My editor would often ask additional questions and for information to be added, all of which meant additional reporting.

Each paragraph in their articles contain important items of information. This does not mean their articles are not stories. CNN.com articles often contain narrative, but they will be truncated and will fulfill a purpose. Numerous angles will need to be covered and reporting will need to be deep and varied. The prose style is snappy and chatty but authoritative.

For a story about how Buddhism is once again colonizing the hearts of Chinese people, I used an interview with a young man who wanted to become a monk. The interview transcript ran to several pages, and was immensely useful, but his story was condensed into a much shorter version in the final piece. It nevertheless formed a vital part of the article, and demonstrates how a journalist needs to filter information in order to master the narrative.

Payment: CNN have paid me $300 for 1000 words, for articles. This is not bad, but, considering the amount of work involved, not great either. They will pay more for photos to go along with a story (ie a photo gallery) but only if you agree to relinquish copyright of your photos to CNN.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 7, 2015 at 8:38 am

Six things I really like

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My Redwing boots. They are comfortable, weather resistant, and look great.

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My Accurist watch. They’re a British brand producing watches that are tough and reliable, with a strong sense of style and identity. I’ve had this one since my student days. I’m very attached to it. It cost me £35.

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My Canon camera. It’s kind of a perfect camera, for me. It won’t produce as immediately impressive photos as a Sony RX100 or a DSLR. But the S120’s combination of size, speed, and technical ability makes it super easy to take good, usable photos. As a tool, I’ve sold photos from this camera to Al Jazeera and CNN, more than making back what it cost to buy.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 6, 2015 at 7:21 am