Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for December 2015

While you were gone

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Some might think going abroad and living somewhere strange is full of fear.

And they wouldn’t be wrong.

I spent my early to mid twenties in a polluted, giant city. And I would be lying if I said there weren’t some hard, lonely and depressing times.

But I learned things.

I grew.

I became more of myself.

I got to know people — from China obviously, and from Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Korea, Canada, and other places. I got to know Americans. Quite a number.

Some of them became friends. Some of them became friends and then became not.

Some were just people you knew, had a great time with, got drunk with — pushed together by fate and circumstance. We didn’t know what was in front of us, in the future, or the significance of what we had just left behind.

We might have had plans. We might have had ambitions. We might have had more beers.

We didn’t know what was in store, whether it was ruin or reward.

We didn’t know if it was the best decision. Or the worst mistake of our lives. We didn’t know if we were forming memories, to be remembered long afterward, or just passing through, the next day obliterating the one just gone. But there was one thing we could be sure of at least.

We really did know how to party.


To all souls about to embark on 2016, good luck and have a happy new year

2015: A Year In The Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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2015 was strange. For me at least. It was the quickest feeling year I’ve ever experienced, when months announced their arrival with the thought: “It’s April already?!”

I arrived back in Beijing in mid-January. And I went to Burma in mid-February for 18 days. I then reentered Beijing and into March, after travel, like leaping over stepping stones instead of passing time step by step.

Burma was a delight: charming, hot, earthy, and quite magnificent. It reconfirmed for me that travel, when done, is rarely regretted. In Burma I was fortunate to meet and hang out with a fellow freelance correspondent and his crew. It was wild and reminded me of stories expats tell of Beijing twenty years ago, when parties were mostly of the house kind and simply living there was pioneering.

I envy my Burma counterpart because that southeast Asian experience seems more reminiscent of the kind of old-school correspondence conjured by the likes of Graham Greene novels. Burma is like a country wrapped in amber, suffused with a golden light, and I do hope I make it back there sooner rather than later.

The year was also one of hardship. In March, I left a job that had been my main source of income for over a year. From March onward I depended entirely on my freelancing income and the transition was not a smooth one. Financially it was difficult, but the transition was the more harder simply because the routine of commuting and office hours that my former job had given me was suddenly stripped away. I was alone.

April through to July was difficult. That’s four months. Four months where I felt, at times, a great weight of loneliness and isolation. I would go so far as to say despair, especially when there seemed to be long hours which I spent just lain on my couch, dressed in nothing save denim shorts, sweating and thinking. That’s an image for which I am thankful as I now have a mental picture of myself that I hope never to reproduce.

Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty.

But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing. However, the freelance income from the previous year was supplementary to the income earned from my other job (the one I quit in March), which meant that, overall, this year I still earned less than what I earned the previous year.

There have been other milestones. But I do not wish to bore you, patient reader, with a list of achievements. Rather I wish to convey what being a freelance journalist abroad has meant to me.

And 2015 has felt like a transitional year. And educational, for reasons that are not so clear to me now but that I think, in retrospect, will probably guide me in the future.

Certainly, there needs to be a helluva lot more planning for 2016 if I am to make the most of my time, to make the most of what I can experience and to make the most of what I can do.

I have only realized, in the past week, that I had mislaid a small but significant resource. And that is the simple to-do list. For much of the time I have been in China, I have relied on to-do lists, dutifully scribed in my small Moleskine notebooks either in the morning or before I went to sleep. Never underestimate the power of a to-do list. It provides structure to your day and a sense of purpose.

This blog continues to be a source of solace and power. By making a timeline of 2015 for myself (a previous blog entry), I could see the year all the more clearly, laid out in front of me. It’s a great tool as I can objectively examine the time I used, to see what could be learned, what themes and patterns might be picked out, and what could be improved.

And writing in this blog is always a great way to work things out for myself.

Finally, (I pay annually for the URL) has paid for itself many, many, times over in freelance commissions from editors, and others, who have found me via this website. If that doesn’t sway you, if you’re a freelancer, to start your own website — the lure of work and money — then I don’t know what will.

Seminal posts of 2015:

The weekend of February 13th: getting ready for Myanmar

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

I’m still broke

Trying to cobble together a sustainable freelance writing career

Is this goodbye Beijing?

There is much to look forward to and next year I hope to be more footloose. Being trapped in Beijing, to where I will probably return in the spring, is not good for the soul. And traveling is a great way to slow down time as it focuses you on the present. However, I will still need to base myself somewhere, and will probably need my own place to call “home”, so reconciling wanderlust and home comforts will be a defining tension, as is common for wandering writers.

Beijing itself has been the great uncaring mass it has always been. The spring was lovely, with uncommonly blue skies, summer was hot and sweaty as usual, autumn was very mild, and winter was very cold and very polluted, although this offered journalistic opportunity.

I have been traveling and basing myself in Beijing for three years now and I am tired of the place. I’d quite like to base myself somewhere else now to be honest. But what I want, as is common for all people, does not accord with what others may want. This is a reference to the nature of foreign correspondence. Editors want journalists who have a native expertise and that means Beijing, and China, and the knowledge and contacts I have accrued from being there are what makes me valuable to them.

There is a meeting I have in London in early January that is important for me and I don’t want to say too much for fear of unnerving myself. But I’ll reveal more once we get to it.

For now, happy new year. And thank you for reading.


The previous year’s summary

A video showing a year in my life, compressed into five minutes

Top six most popular posts 2015

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Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Here are the six most popular posts of this year, that were also published this year, in ascending order:

Coming in at number six, it’s A freelancer’s journey in payment: my first five paid-for articles. This blog entry was a journey through my proto-freelancing career and how I took the first tentative steps into getting paid for my writing. The idea for this post came from a reader, and I enjoyed remembering those early days.

In at numero cinco, it’s Six dream gifts for a freelance journalist. Does what it says on the tin.

We’re at number four of the most popular blog posts 2015 and it’s another one about freelancing and payment. It is — Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever paid commissions. The post is filled with useful tips about how to pitch and how to contact editors. Part two is equally good.

And we’re getting close to the top. In at number three is Brent Crane’s guest 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 AsiaIt’s the story of a fellow freelancer and his travels in Burma and China; failing and failing better; success and triumph and hanging out with KIA soldiers in the jungle of northern Burma. Read it.

The second most popular post is: How I became a novelist in Beijing. Written by my friend Carly J Hallman, it’s her tale of how she came to write her debut novel Year of the Goose which has just been released, incidentally. Her novel has been featured by the BBC and Mens Journal as a recommended book for December. Her guest post is a fantastic evocation of what it means to be a creative writer in a city far from home, in a country capitalized by the outlandish.

And……the number one most popular entry of 2015 is………

Top five mobile phones for journalists

My personal favourites of this year:

Burmese Days

Why did I move to Beijing?

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

Satisfying moments when freelancing

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 16, 2015 at 6:33 pm

A brief timeline of 2015

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01 January

Arrived back in Beijing, after festive break in England with the family, in mid-January.

Continued working on a story about Buddhism for CNN, commissioned in December.

02 February

Celebrated Chinese New Year on the 19th, welcoming in the Year of the Sheep.IMG_2838

Two days later, I left for Myanmar. I spent a total of 18 days in Burma, hunting for stories and traveling. A mishap with flights meant I spent too much money on this trip.

The Telegraph published my article entitled The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Moving to Beijing.

03 March

Finally ended my association with BON, a TV company I’d worked for since November 2013.

I had no longer an office job and would now be living entirely on freelancing income.

At the end of the month, The Telegraph published another of my pieces, which was to be my final one for the expat section, due to budget cuts.

04 April

My debut for CNN, a piece from my Burma trip for the Travel section.

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Where I am right now

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Published on Monday, December 7, in The Independent, p. 23.

After four weeks in Yunnan, I am back in Beijing. Before I fly back to England for Christmas I am staying on a friend’s couch in Beijing.

Recently, I was published for a piece analyzing international affairs. It was my first time writing such a piece for a national newspaper. I asked the editor for advice on tone, to which he replied: “It’s supposed to be written in an authoritative manner, by you, our correspondent, who knows about China’s approach to climate change”.

The pressure was on. Certainly I did not want to write an article with my name on it, and my picture, a first for me, that had holes in it — or a poorly researched piece that could make me look like a fool in the printed paper, and online, for an audience of millions.

But the piece was well received by the editor and appeared in Monday’s issue of the paper. As a foreign correspondent I have made progress since August, when I received a phone call from London, from the foreign editor of The Independent, asking me if I was available to write a story.

The call came around 6pm my time, which is about 9am in the UK, and of course I said “yes”. The editor knew me because I had, some months ago, Tweeted him on Twitter asking if I could contribute to his paper. We exchanged messages but nothing came of it. As no-else was available at that time, that day in August, he suddenly remembered me and gave me a call.

That evening, I rushed around Beijing, doing interviews, calling people, and wrote up my story in a Starbucks. The story I wrote impressed the editor and was printed the following day. From then on I got more work with The Independent.

A couple of things to note, especially for any budding freelancers out there. While I was on the phone to the foreign editor, even though it was my first ever time speaking to him proper, I still asked him if I could have a higher fee for the article I had not yet written. He said “yes”– he’d give me a bit of a higher rate (he didn’t have much of a choice) and so I established, from the beginning, a precedent for getting higher rates from them.

It’s important that freelancers do not price themselves out of their jobs, and importantly, price other freelancers out of their jobs.

It’s important that editors respect you, and that you respect yourself and your work. It is a question of confidence that you value yourself to a point where you feel you can ask for better payment. But it’s a good habit to have.

Capturing a scene in 200 words & getting paid for it

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In the past, newspapers sold on the grimy streets of London or New York City often contained evocative accounts of far away lands. Telegrams would be sent from the Crimea, from Prussia, Indochina, Arabia, Austria-Hungary, and other exotic places.

Whether describing a war, some local ascendancy, or natural disaster, these early foreign correspondents would write in a style now rarely seen, exciting the imaginations of readers back home who could not see (there being no TV) nor travel to foreign countries.

A “vignette” is defined as “a brief evocative description, account, or episode”. They were a popular form in early American newspapers. Indeed, that sublime piece of “reporting” — The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, written about the American Civil War, could be taken as a long, extended vignette.

I wrote the following vignettes for The ‘i’ newspaper, a British national newspaper, that still finds a place for them. I enjoy writing them. It’s a romantic form that allows the writer to claim some lineage with explorer writers like Wilfred Thesiger or Marco Polo. Well, that’s how I like to think of it anyway.


The ‘i’ newspaper, a sister title to The Independent, pays £50 for each 200-word entry.


4 weeks in Yunnan — in pictures

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