Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Five Years As A Full-Time Freelance Journalist

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It’s been over five years since I went full-time freelance, with many tales of woe and wonder accrued, and it was in Beijing, that city of crushing concrete and flickering dreams, where I, an ambitious migrant, learned the ways of this marginal life.

I wanted to draw attention to some of my most memorable and notable articles I worked on over that duration. It has been a journey of near financial ruin, some wonderful highs, truly terrible lows, and an endless procession of images that are so dense and numerous that they don’t stand out easily in my mind, something I consider somewhat of a curse.

Freelance journalism is no kind of career and I do not advise you, dear reader, to enter this occupation. It is badly paid, demands much of you, and the glory of it is a bright mirror made of silver ghosts. They will haunt you, those glories, because they are so elusive and whispering. If you want to do something truly fulfilling, be a doctor, a teacher, a nurse, a public servant without vice and ambition.

(I’m serious about this. If you deeply care about social issues get into public policy, activism or just become seriously rich while pledging part of your income to charity. If you really want to make a difference don’t sit on the fence like a journalist — get into politics. If you want to be truly creative, start writing fiction. If you like celebrity, start TikTok-ing.)

Don’t follow in my footsteps. Don’t get sucked into this vortex of monetary oblivion. Live a wholesome life with regular hours, great benefits, and free coffee. Build up your days with a succession of normal events and normal milestones, properly celebrated and fondly reminisced. If, however, you do decide to plunge in here’s what you might expect.

The time I went to North Korea as an undercover journalist

Aljazeera, Is North Korea on your tourism bucket list?

Although this happened in 2014, I wanted to highlight it because it remains one of the boldest things I’ve done. I decided I wanted to go to North Korea. In a lane off a small street, in downtown Beijing, there exists the offices of the oldest established North Korea tour operator, founded by a Briton no less. In that building is where I laid out my idea, to their general manager, about what I wanted to do, and where we negotiated how I would proceed. Tourism was a growing phenomenon and I thought I would write about it.

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The Kims and I, in Pyongyang.

What better way than to “smuggle” myself onto a tour? The investment was high. The tour cost a lot of money, more than I had ever spent. It was eight days, traveling all around North Korea, all inclusive. But I had told zero editors I was going there. Didn’t know who I would pitch the story to afterwards.

While I was there I took a copious amount of notes, which lie in a Moleskine in a drawer in England, and hundreds of photos and dozens of videos. I used a Canon S120, a digital compact camera, and an Olympus Mju-II, a film camera I’d picked up in Beijing. Those Canon S120 photos would eventually be sold to various publications and helped to recoup the money I’d sunk and more.

In hindsight, I could’ve negotiated for more money for the first feature that came out of that trip. I was young and did not realise how much the story was worth. I should’ve asked for more. But back then, $450 for a feature and $450 for a photo gallery seemed a lot to me. It was worth more than that though. Sigh. But, like I said, I eventually recouped my money, plus more, and magazines such as Marie Claire would pay well for the photos. Also, I went to North Korea. As a journalist. So, I’ll always have that.

The time I told everyone that I got a 2:2 degree in journalism 

The Guardian, Feeling depressed about your 2:2 degree? Get over it, employers have

I read multimedia journalism at Bournemouth University, earning a B.A. In the UK, a bachelors usually takes three years and you get a final grade for your degree. A First is the highest award and quite hard to get. Most people get a 2:1 and it’s respectable. What most students do not want to get is a 2:2, known colloquially as a “Desmond” (after Desmond Tutu). But that’s what I got.

I always found it ironic though that I was telling everyone I got a 2:2 in journalism, in The Guardian, a publication most student journalists would kill to get a byline in. C’est la vie.

The time I failed at being a travelling journalist in Burma

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Watching the sunrise getting messed up by balloons in Bagan, Burma.

CNN Travel, Myanmar monks feel the pressure of tourism

In the winter of 2015, I attempted an experiment at traveling while also doing journalism. It was a precursor to what I do now, which is basically travel the world writing articles. But I was not good at it then. (I am still not sure if I am good at it now.) And I spent three weeks in Myanmar travelling, and mostly failing at finding stories except this one travel story I wrote. But it remains one of my favourite published pieces.

Getting close to a subject: a Beijing mother & father humble me

The Independent, How One Couple Is Fighting Back Against China’s Financial Penalties For Unmarried Parents 

This story was one in which I felt actual emotion over. A woman and a man made a baby, but didn’t get married, and had the baby. In the UK, this wouldn’t be unusual. Yet in China it carries far greater costs. It is not strictly allowed, and it carries a fine, and the child may not get access to welfare such as schooling. Yet, the parents decided to choose not to marry (because they didn’t want to marry, so why be forced?) and in order to raise awareness of this issue, of mothers who give birth out of wedlock, they decided to crowd-fund the fine, but limiting the donation to just one Chinese yuan per person, in order to raise as much awareness as possible. This story really reminded me of the bravery of some individuals, of the costs borne by innocent children, and of how governments can limit the freedoms of their people.

Writing about Red Dead Redemption and videogames 

Kotaku UK, Red Dead Redemption: The Western Through Eastern Eyes

I’ve been an avid gamer for much of my life. Ever since I was given a Super Nintendo as a kid, I’ve been hooked. We used to go to Blockbuster in the mid-90s and I could rent SNES games. Earthworm Jim was incredible. Around 1996, 97, my friends and I were swapping SNES cartridges and beating each other on Killer Instinct and Mortal Kombat.

Then I got a PlayStation and the rest is history. When I was in Beijing, one of the things that made it seem more like home was bringing my massive PS3 there. I got the game Red Dead Redemption and I spent much time roaming its western landscapes. I got the chance to write about it, and get paid for it (one of those things that still feels miraculous) for a publication I admire.

Writing about the difference between political freedom and personal independence 

Foreign Policy, It’s Not Communism Holding China’s Youth Back. It’s Their Parents

This essay for Foreign Policy was originally intended for the New York Times. The Times editor was based in Hong Kong and is definitely the worst experience I’ve ever had with an editor. He took almost an entire year on the story, asking for edits and re-edits. He took ages to respond to my emails. And then finally he decided it wasn’t a good fit. I emailed a well regarded editor for Foreign Policy and he took the piece on and he was in every way better than the Times editor whose reputation is forever tarnished in my mind.

 

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One of the most addicting things about journalism is the construction. The feeling of building out an article. It’s a whole process: coming up with and honing the initial idea, development, tweaking structure, deciding on how to begin. Yes, thinking about how to begin. The opening — so important. Moving paragraphs around. Getting it all done, ready to be filed. Getting feedback and making changes: not always so fun. And, finally, the gratification of seeing it published, for all to read. That feeling is great, of seeing it published, and it lasts for a fleeting time, before you want to do it all over again.

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The start of my successes in South Korea

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The National, Apple and Samsung duke it out in South Korea 

It’s one of those strange things that I visited Pyongyang before I visited Seoul. It was in 2018 that I first travelled to the Republic of Korea, aka the Land of Morning Calm. It turned out to be a great trip. I made friends with a reporter from The Korea Times and we watched South Korea play Mexico at midnight on a field in the centre of the city with thousans of Koreans and a surprisingly large number of Mexicans (Mexico won).

It also turned out to be a highly remunerative trip. The week before I was due to arrive in Seoul, I sent a quick pitch via my iPhone to the editors of a UAE-based newspaper. I wanted to investigate why Apple took so long to open an Apple store in South Korea, one of the most technologically advanced nations. From a call-out on Twitter, I managed to find someone who acted as interpreter/fixer to help me with the story. It was fun to work with her, chatting to Koreans in the newly opened Apple store, before the management noticed us and told us, politely, to stop. We stopped people on the street outside Seoul’s only Huawei store. It took a long time to get paid, but for this story I was paid over £1,000.

A surprising comment over dinner sparks the idea for a story 

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Inkstone, The surprising place some Korean women are going for a career boost

Last year, I returned to South Korea. There was no big reason to do so. I was headed to Beijing, for a magazine assignment, and I was looking ahead to what was the next step. Seoul is a few hours flight from Beijing, in Gwangju the Swimming World Championships was taking place, and I could see my friend again. Good enough reasons.

I spent half a month there. I went to watch world-class swimmers compete (I am a keen swimmer), went to a concert given in the Demilitarised Zone, invited by my Korean friend, and had dinner with an ex-Shanghai-based Korean journalist. It was over dinner that she told me something that sparked another story idea.

She had worked in Shanghai for a few years and I just casually asked her about how she had found the experience. She told me that she had created a group for Korean women working in China and she’d told me that the majority of them preferred working in China over their native Korea. This was a bombshell. So many questions… Why? How? Etc.

I thought about this anecdote for a long time, brooding over it. It definitely had story potential. Eventually, I got the contact of an editor whose publication I thought would fit this story idea; got some contacts from the ex-Shanghai-based Korean journalist (who is now a friend), and the rest is history.

 

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Recently, I listened to a podcast conversation with Tony Hawk, the skateboarder. Hawk is 52 years old, the most famous skateboarder in the world, and a multimillionaire. But what came through was just how much he still loved skateboarding. When he began skateboarding, the hobby was just a hobby. It wasn’t really a sport and it was not at all clear that it would lead to a professional career. Hawk just skated because he loved it.

The interviewer made the point that Hawk has been both part of the skateboarding phemonenon across the entire world (the sport is always going to be bigger than just one individual) and yet at the same time this one guy has undoubtedly been a spearhead of this sport. I grew up skating in my childhood (I was never very good) and also played many hours of Tony Hawks Pro Skater 3 on my PS2. These videogames also made the sport more popular.

Hawk mentioned that there are skateparks in Ethiopia (because the interviewer was unaware of how widespread skateboarding is and brought up Ethiopia as an example) and how there is a skating academy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hawk said he’d visited them. He was also supposed to have flown in as a commentator for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, because skateboarding is for the first time included in the Olympics.

The interviewer said that it must feel good — that in his lifetime he’s witnessed the growth of this sport (or art-form, as some “purist” skaters prefer) and become a worldwide phenomenon. Hawk was glad, yet his tone remained humble, and grateful, that he could just continue to skate another day, doing what he loves.

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Writing a long piece for the BBC 

BBC Future, Does e-money make you spend more?

The BBC is part of the furniture for a Briton. And it was great to get this 2,000-word feature published by the Beeb, last year. I spent a long time chewing over this piece: researching, thinking, wondering who I should speak to, emailing a bunch of people. It took a long time for it to be published too, several months. But once it did, it was very gratifying.

The most thorough reporting of 2020 so far 

BBC Worklife, Life after lockdown: How China went back to work 

Of the articles I’ve written this year, so far, this feature for BBC Worklife, a vertical focused on life and work issues from a global perspective, feels like the most impressive. It tells quite a lot, and has wide-ranging sources, and a lot of information. The beginning of the piece is quite informative and personal too.

And the present day, June 2020

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The National, Japan’s ‘touchless economy’ set for growth as pandemic era promotes use of sensors 

I’ve been in Japan since mid-March and I have been sheltering in place. This piece about Japanese tech and sensors, during the pandemic year, is my most recently published article.

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I do not know for how long I can, or will, continue freelancing. Sometimes I feel I could do this for another ten years such is the variety, interest, and autonomy it provides. Other times, I tire of it, and wish for a regular nine-to-five and a stable income with a settled apartment and a gym membership. Being nomadic can be very lonely and yet I’ve found I can endure it. Sometimes I yearn for more community and camaraderie, such that office colleagues can enjoy. I just don’t know. But while I have this thing going, I’ll keep at it. And skate on.

2 Responses

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  1. Lu-hai!! Woooow this is so awesome. Loved the links to the best pieces you’ve written – I’ll read them one by one (I’ve seen the latest BBC article), but I didn’t know you went to NoKor – well that’s quite an achievement already.

    Now I’m kind of locked in writing about international education (which is very educational haha, I kind of like talking to educators and young students) — but somehow there’s a big part of me that misses doing proper journalism pieces, like what I did when I worked in TV and radio.

    And that point regarding constructing articles — you hit the nail on the head. I would say the me of 2013-2014 would find it difficult, but now, it’s deliciously exciting.

    Andy

    June 1, 2020 at 11:36 pm

    • Thanks for the comment Andy! Yeah, the feeling of construction is difficult, especially when starting out, but it’s like a puzzle. Once you’ve completed it, it feels great. And you want to do it all over again. I think you could still put together pieces like that for your blog or freelance for outlets in Beijing and elsewhere. But it’s no small thing you have a decent job in this current climate, and it sounds like a good ‘un!

      Lu-Hai Liang

      June 5, 2020 at 4:47 am


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