Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Moving Onward

with 2 comments


2016 has been a pivotal year.

In January I managed to secure a freelance contract with a PR firm. This guaranteed income stability, the single biggest contributor to freelance happiness this year, in contrast with last year where I had no such guarantee. This year I also decided to start writing a novel.

This summer has been busy. I added two jobs to the one I had with the PR firm. The others are teaching English (which I did for a month, paying for the next three months’ rent) and the other is copywriting.

Copywriting is a new occupation for me. And as a writer it always amazes me how much there is still yet to learn. As a writer of nonfiction and journalism I’d never really paid that much attention to adjectives and verbs, they came quite naturally. But in advertising and marketing every word needs to count, conveying information about the brand and the product.

It’s about trying to locate the voice of a brand and then trying to speak with the voice of that brand consistently. It’s a craft uniquely suited to novelists and screenwriters, rather than journalists I feel. It’s more about character and voice, rather than information.

What does this mean? Have I abandoned journalism for the dark arts of advertising? Have I become something I’d always forsworn was the easy, commercial position?

At the start of this year I thought I’d take a step back from journalism to concentrate on my own writing, namely fiction and essays. There are, after all, many more forms of writing. And journalism is a severely limiting form with very rigid constraints.

I will always continue practicing journalism, and I still do. I’ve got an article to work on right now in fact. But journalism seems to be dying. Well, print journalism anyway. Part of it died in a very real way this year when The Independent newspaper was shuttered in March.

The British newspaper industry appears to be in terrible decline. The Daily Telegraph is not what it once was amid colossal changes and scaling back. The Guardian is asking readers for donations. Regional and local papers announce regular falls in revenue and circulation. Across the pond even mighty names like the New York Times report troubling times as the entire industry’s business model is being made redundant.


With the addition of those jobs to my freelance portfolio success, or some measure of it, has followed. This criterion of success is making more money. Before, I was surviving only on the income generated by one job, and the meagre income of infrequent freelance gigs. I’d become used to surviving (quite well, if not lavishly), this way.

When I was catapulted into something else entirely, into greater earnings, that very change made me feel vulnerable. It made me feel anxious.

I spent some time trying to diagnose what this was.

Money is an abstract idea. It’s conceptual. And that means it has the capacity, as an idea, to control and influence you beyond its physical component. Think of it this way: money, which is really just some bits of paper or bits of metal, is almost worthless in itself. Its value comes from the value we have given it. And this value can stretch and grow in accordance with the value and meaning to which you give it yourself.

Once I realized this, I understood how to get over its control over me, at least partially. It means trying to hold onto things that really matter: spending time well, my books, going for a swim, having a joke with friends, walking in nature. It sounds corny but money should fall under your own whims and decisions, not the other way around.


I have been reading a fair amount this summer, getting through novels. I have also been writing fiction. It’s been a revelation to me.

Even as I read and write more, my adoration of it, of language, ideas, character, and story, develops still.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a recent profile I read of Eimear McBride, the Irish novelist, in which she says writing never stops being hard and painful and yet it brings her great joy. But, she adds: “happiness and joy are not the same”.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 1, 2016 at 9:52 am

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for penning your thoughts. I’ve actually moved in the opposite direction of corporate houndom (and dreading Mondays) to really appreciate the privilege and luxury of freelance work – but trying to wrap my head around the instability, when it rains it pours, and then other times it drizzles.

    I have been thinking about how do food and travel journalists do what they do without the constant freeloading – because I am always running on deficit spending more on the story than I get compensated for after filing the story!

    I am fortunately living on savings as well as the generosity and sponsorship of my spouse to “pursue the writing dream”.

    I lived and worked in Beijing 2007-2011 but don’t believe we had a chance to connect!

    Juliana Loh (@bilbaobab)

    September 7, 2016 at 8:59 am

    • Thanks for reading my thoughts! I am technically still freelance, working to freelance contracts. I think this is the best of both worlds as I still have freedom of movement and time (as long as I fulfill my responsibilities) but with the addition of a regular, fixed income. It’s stability and freedom, and I’m not sure journalism can afford these luxuries in combination.

      Food journalism is an area into which I’ve not strayed and I think it’s reserved now for bloggers and restaurant critics, although saying that a friend of mine (who I met through this blog) has written regularly for VICE’s Munchies section as well as Roads and Kingdoms on food.

      For travel journalism, I’ve mostly relied on editors getting in touch with me, rather than the other way around, and I believe this is due to the high visibility of this blog on Google rankings when they search for freelancers based in a certain area. Otherwise I much prefer to just travel somewhere and to stumble on stories, which is what happened when I visited Myanmar (please see my Burma posts if you’d like to know more about that).

      I moved to Beijing in the autumn of 2012 so we missed each other!

      Lu-Hai Liang

      September 7, 2016 at 3:36 pm

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