Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Ode to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Wanderlust

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A few years ago, in the month of May, I took myself to Scotland. I went to the Cairngorms, Britain’s largest wilderness area.

I hiked mountains, rambled along wooded paths, and walked the shores of lochs. I was lucky to get fair weather and saw Scots sunning themselves, with some hardy individuals even braving the frosty waters of the loch.

Scotland is perhaps the only place in Britain where one can get lost in true wilderness, where the land rises and falls with a majesty and ruggedness found nowhere else on this compact island.

I remember walking through the woods, the beginning of a mountain path, and seeing a red squirrel, the endangered native squirrel of Britain, casually prance, like a bushy mouse-deer, across the sun dappled trail.

I remember buying a pack of sausages and a can of potatoes and cooking them in the hostel kitchen and swallowing it down with that fervid hungriness that accompanies a day’s hiking, when you eat with an enjoyment knowing that you’ve fully earned it.

I have to confess that for however long now I’ve been addicted to travel. Is it an addiction? That would imply that I can’t wean myself from it. That it’s a compulsion, a craving, even a dependence.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 27, 2020 at 7:17 pm

Taiwan & the convenience of travel

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The 50 NTD (£1.30) canteen in Shilin

Last year, I spent almost two months in Taiwan, or 55 days to be exact.

Earlier this year, I was back again: from February 21 to March 2.

2020 is a leap year so that was 10 days in total. I did very little while I was in Taiwan. I stayed in the same hostel in Taipei, in Shilin district, as I did last year. I went swimming and used the pool’s “spa”. I went to the gym (pay as you go). I went to a second-hand bookstore and bought a novel: David Szalay’s All That Man Is.

I met a local journalist, a Taiwanese-American, who I befriended over Twitter. I met a couple of friends (one of whom I met last year in Singapore, while another is a friend of the blog). I ate at a canteen where you can choose a meat and two veg dishes, from a selection, with rice and free soup — that costs about £1.30.

Mostly, I made sure to eat. I ate delicious beef noodles. Egg pancake things for breakfast. The freshest, best bubble tea on the planet. And I wandered the local night market, stopping at my favourites. Supping on milk papaya. Getting the local delicacy of grilled mushrooms. Trying a shack that did steak with Camembert. And I queued for the best bao I know of. These bao (meat buns) are just so good. I love them.

I was in Taiwan for 10 days and I mostly ventured within a 100 metre radius of my hostel. Why was I in Taiwan?

I was there as a stop-gap. I’d been in Thailand, and I was up on my 30-day tourist visa, and not wishing to extend another 30 days, I decided to fly from Bangkok to Taipei. It cost £68.29 and it’s a 3hr 45min flight. 10 days in Taipei. And then I flew from Taipei to Cebu (Philippines) for £35.70 — a 3hr flight.

I was in the Philippines for 11 days, eventually flying out from Manila to Fukuoka (Japan) for £45.80 — a 4hr flight.

All of this is to say something about how convenient travel is (or was). Some have wondered how I afford to travel like I do, but looking at these airfares you can see that international travel can cost about as much as train fare. In Europe, these airfares can be even cheaper, but Asia is a larger region than the EU.

And going from Thailand to Taiwan to Philippines really did feel more like taking buses to different stops in the land of Asia than it did proper international travel with its boundaries and borders. Planes collapse our sense of distance.

We all might know this in the abstract, but it’s a different thing when it’s lived experience. Looking back at my time in Taiwan, it feels so fleeting, and, in perspective, it was. It was just 10 days. Yet those 10 days, although I didn’t do a lot, shouldn’t be taken for granted. I want to zoom in on that short transit stay and blow it out, to honour it, now that such convenience is a past time. It was fleeting but those days were once my daily reality.

And maybe this interruption, as our society feels now, will one day also feel like it was a short transit to somewhere else, as it indubitably is, and all these months of worry and anxiety will come to be remembered as a fleeting time, but which was once all that you knew.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 25, 2020 at 4:29 pm

The wandering writer’s life – part 756

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In the late summer of 2012, I was excited and nervous about my upcoming move to Beijing. I had a flight booked for September and I was looking forward to it with trepidation & eagerness. Moving overseas felt like a major threshold, and a threshold that – until it was crossed – remained beyond direct knowledge.

At night, in my parent’s house over that summer, I had vague dreams about how my time in Beijing would unfold. But I had no real insight into the minutiae of this unfolding until I had made the journey into that great beyond.

If these sentences sound vaguely death-like, then moving to Beijing did capture a death of some kind. The passing of an old life and journeying to a new one. New beginnings, and all that. But I never would’ve countenanced that the experience of living in Beijing would be like dying over and over again.

Living in a too-small apartment was like dying. Surviving on too little income was like dying. Feeling lonely and anxious was like dying. Dreaming of succeeding and clutching tight to my ambition was, definitely, like dying. Because once I made it to the other side — moving to a bigger apartment; making more money; gaining a friendship circle; achieving some of my goals — all propelled me to a feeling I had heretofore not known: an utter aliveness.

This journey is so much about migration. How we all migrate: whether it’s from a small village to a big city (from Boscastle to Bristol, let’s say); or from a small town to the capital of China. It is a rite of passage so fundamental that it is wondrous to me that not more people take the opportunity to make such a journey.

Because to remain still, whether metaphorically or literally, is to be in stasis. Moving is the key. And it doesn’t always have to be forwards. Life may seem linear, but there are cul-de-sacs, weird ass wiggly bits, and looping circles. It doesn’t matter.

It’s now been about 18 months since I left Beijing. Since that time I’ve spent eight months at home in England, and about 10 months on the road. Looking ahead, once I’ve finally figured out what the next stage is, I have the feeling that I will come to see this time as a transition period. That this wandering writer’s life I’ve got going on feels like a meandering path, and doesn’t seem in itself like a definite life-stage, is curious. And I won’t draw any conclusions for now.

What is interesting is that I’ve gotten quite good at it. I have now been in Japan since March and I have not only survived but prospered. I’ve done pretty well at landing commissions to do with my host country (and Japan seems like a veritable bounty in terms of story ideas) but I also see how I can improve my freelancing processes. And all this is underpinned by the fact I’ve had to stay put for several months.

Two roads clearly diverged. (Because pandemic.) I was only supposed to stay in Fukuoka for 10 days before flying out to Kuala Lumpur, where I would’ve stayed for a week or two, before flying to Bali. Covid-19 put paid to all that and Japan has been my home since.

And so the meandering path has deposited me here and all I can see are circles ahead and not straightforward roads. But this is how, perhaps, I wanted it to be – secretly, wishfully – all those moons ago.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 5, 2020 at 7:52 am

iPhone SE (2020) – a journalist’s review

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In August 2017, in the UK, I bought my first ever Apple iPhone. It was to replace a stuttering LG G3.

This phone was the SE  – “Special Edition” – and shared internals with the iPhone 6S. It cost £299 with 32GB of internal storage. I loved it for its fluidity of use; its decent camera; and its compact size. The design: with machined speaker grilles, metal frame, and square-ish proportions, remains one of my favourites.

Unfortunately by June 2020 this iPhone SE had stopped working and I was forced to buy a new phone. I replaced it with the second-generation iPhone SE.

Five generations — the iPhones 7, 8, X, XS, XR — separate the old SE and the new SE. And it is the most modern phone I have ever owned. It shares the same processor as the top-end iPhone 11 Pro but costs far less. The 4.7-inch screen seems gigantic compared to the 4-inch screen I was using. I have to admit, I do miss the very compact size and lightness of the old SE, which didn’t move around so much in my pocket when I went jogging.

The new iPhone SE has an extremely fast A13 Bionic processor (although the latest version of iOS can be a bit buggy). The screen is colourful and contrast-y; the speakers could be better; it is water resistant; it is a bit heavy; the front-facing camera is quite good (7MP) which is important in this day of video-calls. The battery life could be a bit better but it’s not too bad.

I bought it in the Apple store in Fukuoka and it cost me £376.37 for the 128GB version.

From my freelance journalist’s perspective — we freelancers being somewhat price sensitive — I consider this a very good deal. I’m a fan of iMessage; the way the iPhone syncs with my iPad; the included EarPods, which have a decent mic and button controls; and the Apple ecosystem of apps, podcasts, etc.

It is not the most transformative gadget I have had. That accolade possibly belongs to the iPad Mini, which I snagged last year in Seoul. The iPad is my do-almost-everything gadget. I watch films on Netflix on it while simultaneously FaceTiming. YouTube is better on the bigger screen. Video-calls, such as Zoom, work better on my iPad than on my laptop. I have a Logitech keyboard which I use to write messages and emails, etc. I have an Apple Pencil to sign documents and to occasionally doodle. And I play Call of Duty, playing online Battle Royale and deathmatches. The iPad Mini was one of my best ever purchases. And the phone, for me, is of lesser importance these days, but I can highly recommend the new iPhone SE.

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July 21, 2020 at 8:36 am

The sushi chef

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I’ve been in Japan since March but I haven’t eaten sushi, at a restaurant, ’til this past week.

A friend and I went to a sushi restaurant. We ordered our selection. They brought the sushi carefully arranged on the plate. And each plate looked immaculate, as if it was art. I tried a variety, from their menu. For my second plate I ordered the salmon again. I put it in my mouth and chewed it slowly. The texture was like cream yet meaty; a careful savouriness engulfed my mouth, and the rice gave it a floury pillow. It was an intense enjoyment.

We drank green tea then shochu. We talked about the delicious food we’d eaten in times past. Around us were Japanese couples, friends, and work colleagues enjoying themselves. It was a wonderful evening.

As we got up to leave, my friend went to use the bathroom, and I stopped to look at the sushi chefs. They were held in the middle of the restaurant separated by glass from the diners. I looked at them and felt some complex emotions. I realised it was envy. I envied them.

But why?

I guess it was the simplicity of their job.

I have heard that it takes some time to become a sushi chef and it can take years of training. I am sure great manual skill is involved. But some of it sounds like sushi-chef propaganda. It is, after all, just cutting strips of fish and collecting rice together neatly. But I envied the physical aspect of their job. And its focus.

Journalism can be very tiring. I once heard that burnout most often occurs when you most care about the work. And these weeks have been busier and more exhausting than usual. I am not reaching burnout, but I am looking forward to a little holiday.

However, the yearning for a different kind of job remains. I’ve had this desire — medium-strength, like sake, or tabasco — buried for a few years. It as if the heart wants to live something else for a while. Like a hunter might want to switch things up the next season by being a fisherman; or the spear-fisher wants to try foraging for a while. It is not unnatural.

I looked at the sushi chefs and wondered for a moment what it would be like to switch places. Then we left and the moment passed. The desire won’t go away.

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July 17, 2020 at 8:07 am

Finding buoyancy as a freelancer

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I have been very busy. In the past week or so I’ve had up to five commissions. They all have different deadlines and I’ve prioritised them according to their various timelines. Initially, there was a panicky sense that I’d taken on too much, but that feeling has subsided. I knew things would have to change in my schedule and, surely enough, I adapted.

One commission is from BBC Future Planet; another from BBC Worklife. Two are from a new client — Business Insider — the UK version. And lastly, one commission is an unusual case. I’d been working on an article commissioned by a British online publication. I reported and wrote the article. After much patient waiting they eventually decided they had “no space” to run it. (I happen to think it is because the tone of my piece does not fit in with the tone of their publication.) However, they agreed to pay a kill fee and what’s more the kill fee would be the same amount they commissioned for. Additionally, they said they’d be fine with me selling the piece on. I put out a call for my article on Twitter and a journalist friend of mine suggested a contact of hers. I emailed this contact and sent him my piece. He kindly agreed to take it on. And so, I will be paid double for this piece. Everything worked out. Hurrah!

I am not usually this busy. But I have come to enjoy it. Weekends now genuinely feel like a relief rather than just another void in time and space. I get that “Friday feeling” a lot of full-timers talk about (also known as “Fri-yay”).

About that new client. That was also via Twitter. I followed this writer. He followed back. What ensued was a mutual appreciation society, over DM. He then mentioned that he had been recently appointed an editor at Business Insider so if I had any article ideas please send them. I did. And the rest is history. Again, if you are a freelance journalist, and you are not on Twitter actively looking for opportunities then you might consider it.

I am still in Japan, living in a hostel. I do not speak Japanese (although I’ve been commissioned for two articles about Japan-related topics, and have already had one published) so I do feel a language barrier living in this country. I now know what it must feel like for non-Chinese-speaking foreigners living in China. I’ve come to feel a greater sympathy for those monolinguists who lived in Beijing alongside me but could not communicate with the locals. Although I am sure a few of them spoke a European language, Chinese is altogether different to learn.

I, being of Chinese heritage, was able to pick it up, again, with relative ease. But being in Japan I have not made much effort to learn Japanese. I will begin to rectify this and do some study.

Sometimes I do wish I had been stranded somewhere like coastal Thailand and I would’ve been free to swim in the ocean, enjoying the bounties of nature. But being in Japan has had definite upsides, not least in the work I’ve gained.

Right now, work is going well. Socially, life-wise, things could be a little better. But I do not think mine is a unique case in this regard. But, overall, I am grateful for my position. And recognise that I should embrace the luxuries that I have, and not dwell on the things that could be. I am not entitled to everything. And working hard should be its own reward.

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June 30, 2020 at 4:10 am

Now is the time to be pitching

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I, horse riding in northeast China, two summers ago

If there is one piece of advice I would’ve given to my 20-something self, when I had started freelancing full-time, it would be to pitch more.

Pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch, pitch some more. Pitch. Pitch again. Re-pitch. Pitch.

Right now, although it’s a hard time for many media publications, editors are still crying out for fresh content.

They’re hungry, in fact, for new voices. Over the past week, I’ve seen dozens of call-outs for pitches, on Twitter, from editors at a smorgasbord of titles.

Journalism is as popular as ever, if not more so. More of the world is literate than ever before; Internet penetration continues to increase; and people are reading articles in the millions and millions.

So write the pieces you want to read; write the stories that only you can. Channel your energy and creativity into well-crafted pitches that will be greenlit. (Remember to negotiate for higher fees! You don’t want to sell yourself or other freelancers short.)

This week all I’ve been doing is pitching or re-pitching or refining pitches. I feel burned-out, in fact, from all the pitching. I’m waiting for the cows to come home.

Try to make each pitch well-crafted, interesting or original, and, crucially, well suited to the editor you’re pitching, the section s/he runs, and the publication. Don’t pitch a sex toy feature to the food section of a children’s magazine.

If you want tips and advice on how to pitch there is an abundance of material on the ‘net. Also on this blog — just use this tag: pitching.

Good luck. Any questions or comments, please write a comment on this post or email me.

Also, if you find these posts enjoyable, edifying or entertaining, why not support this blog? I’ve been creating content for this blog for several years and now it would be great if you could show your support. Please send appreciation to paypal.me/LuHaiLiang89 

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Those Beijing streets in 2013, when I first started blogging. 

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 11, 2020 at 7:02 am

Posted in Features, Journalism advice

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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.

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