Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

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Surfing in Salvacion

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We stepped through the sandy dirt leaving flooded footprints, amid rain-soaked palm trees, our bare feet leading us to the beach. I carried the piece of carved polystyrene foam, heavier than I expected, the shape long and sinuous and coloured a baby blue.

It was 6am in the morning. The night before I’d slept with my companions on the second floor of a bamboo hut; preparing makeshift beds on the hard wooden floor; the mosquito net suspended above us endowing an instant cosiness.

The palm jungle lent the air a distinct energy as an endless supply of rain lashed down. The air was warm but gradually shed its heat and humidity as the sky lightened.

So we trudged toward the sand and the surging waves of early morning’s high tide. Kinkin, the local surfer, guided us into the water. The sea was a steely kind of grey; having substantial character and mood. It was overcast and windy. The rain pattered down on our bodies, our boards, and the waves.

Surf to the right, said Kinkin, pointing out a row of mangroves to the left-hand side that one would not want to be entangled. The waves cut across to the right. It was something I’d not really noticed before: that waves have changing characters and shift so much. And sometimes there is a freak wave, or more, that cuts against the grain, taking the opposite course to its previously breaking siblings. Kinkin would tell me which direction to go, always pointing out the danger of going too far left, which the channels would draw us to.

The rain, the elements, the slight cold, and the heat of paddling. The effort of paying attention to standing up and holding position, keeping the knees bent, riding the wave. Wiping out. Doing it again. My chest chafing against the board. Riding a sweet one, getting it right. The sea surging with the moon-energy of high tide, collecting the fresh water of rain and me smelling it all, breathing in this opportunity.

img_1432One of my favourite books is Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan, a memoir of his life as a surfer, teacher and journalist — growing up in Hawaii, traveling the world looking for waves, getting political in South Africa, becoming a writer and eventually a correspondent for The New Yorker.

In Barbarian Days there are many words spent discussing water, the ocean, reefs, and endless description — technical, idiomatic, and poetic — of waves and their nature. But it never gets boring. His achievement is to sustain a supreme kind of elegance throughout the hundreds of pages. Reading his memoir was a gateway into a poetry of nature and an impassioned life and I would include some quotations except my copy of the book is thousands of miles away.

It is that kind of achievement to which I aspire. But, lately, I’ve been a little blocked. Not just blocked in writing — actually, I can still write, just the motivation has been a little lacking. But, more troubling, it’s my reading that has suffered.

Ask any dedicated writer and they will tell you that reading is just as important as the act of writing. But for whatever reason I’ve found my ability to read is not as strong as before; my motivation to get stuck into a book is at its lowest ebb for as long as I can remember.

Meanwhile, my subconscious and its store of creativity feels shallower than before, and so I have been convalescing: doing yoga, surfing, swimming, and the physical, natural things our bodies require in order for us to be fully human. The mind-store will replenish. That is just a matter of time. Maybe I have simply read too much and need to write more in order to rebalance the scales. Meanwhile, activities like surfing allow the mind to relax.

We surfed for a couple of hours. Afterward we rode the pickup back to town, the rain still going, the countryside rice paddies getting their necessary deluge. The local girls in the pickup who’d kindly adopted me (the solo traveller) were in high spirits, laughing and bantering, teaching their friend from Manila, the manager of the hostel where I was staying, the local Visayan language. I felt grateful to be among them, glowing from that morning’s rain-soaked surf.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

January 19, 2020 at 4:28 am

Update: January 8, 2020

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Dear reader,

I write you from a hotel in Cebu City. It’s 29 Celsius outside; the TV is on in the background showing a movie about pioneering black US airmen, and I haven’t yet gone outside today despite it being 4pm.

I left my home in Sussex, England, ten days ago. I wanted to get a steal on the new year so I flew with Emirates, via Gatwick and Dubai, on December 29th, to Hong Kong, arriving on the penultimate day of 2019.

I celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends in Hong Kong, attending a house party, going to a fancy bar for free cocktails before leaving for a packed-out street in central where we counted down for 2020. It was a great evening.

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On January first, I woke late, then accompanied my host for a late breakfast of Vietnamese food. Then we joined the march. On New Year’s Day, Hong Kong saw hundreds of thousands of people on a sanctioned protest: a river of humans collectively demonstrating for “five demands” and their right to freedoms they do not wish to see eroded. It was a powerful feeling to walk among them. My friend and I did not stay too long. But I was glad to have seen the enormous civic pride of the Hongkongers.

Later, in the evening – hungover and lethargic – we walked to the cinema and watched Knives Out. It’s an enjoyable movie with a leading lady who lights up the screen, as she did in Blade Runner 2049. The acclaimed original featured set designs partly based on Hong Kong’s unique urban landscape.

img_1321I stayed in Hong Kong for a week. I went to the Hong Kong Museum of Art. We ate hot pot and drank at a rooftop bar overlooking the central skyline. I ate at a fast-food steak joint. I hung out with a local who attended tertiary education in the US and the UK and who talked about long-distance friendships, something about which I know too. I caught up with someone I met in Taipei, last summer, who now works for Bloomberg. I did some shopping. The malls were noticeably quieter — still quite busy but not as mad-crazy busy as usual. The numbers of mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong have been lower. Hong Kong’s economy is discussed alongside recession.

It was colder than I expected. The forecasts said 18C but it felt colder. I didn’t pack much warm clothing. Then I flew to Cebu. I will be going to Siargao tomorrow, for sun and surf. In a couple of weeks I will be flying from Manila to Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It’s a place I’ve been to before, Chiang Mai, and I didn’t quite bond with it the first time. But in retrospect the place has certain charms and I look forward to the consolations of the jungle. The Thai City carved from the rainforest.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

January 8, 2020 at 9:14 am

Year in review: 2019

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Singapore’s Botanic Gardens are well worth a visit

2019 was framed by two (long) periods of staying at home, while the middle was occupied with four months of travel, where I stayed in Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Seoul and Singapore.

This period of travel felt exploratory, where I was making steps toward a different lifestyle. I guess it could be called digital nomadism.

I used to live in Beijing. The capital of China kickstarted my freelance career. It is where I spent six years and the reason why this blog was born. To give aspiring freelance foreign correspondents insight and advice. I didn’t leave out the worst moments. Within these columns you’ll find posts about the hard, tough times I had. If you don’t see too much of those these days it is because I learned the ropes, sailed through the rough seas, and found stable ground. This year I’ve navigated new challenges and different ways of thinking. Beijing was my base and teacher, but it’s behind me. I left it as my home last year, in December, exactly 12 months ago. Now it’s December 2019 and I am excited, very excited, for 2020.

Next year, I am certain to do things very differently and I will be on the road much more. I’ll go into this a bit more in another post. But let’s look at what I published this year and how much I got paid for them. Other journalists are revealing their rates on Twitter right now (this one by Anna Codrea-Rado, who writes a popular newsletter about freelancing, is very revealing). It will help us all if we’re a little more aware of the rates that are paid out so that you don’t under-sell yourself. Freelancers who don’t negotiate for higher rates create a downward pressure on the market, which doesn’t help the profession. So, toward this end, here’s a run-down of what I did this year —

January

I had no journalism published this month, but was commissioned for one piece after sending out 12 pitches. I worked on my own writing: nonfiction and short stories.

February

Wired UK, dating games in China (Rate: £320)

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What I’ve been reading #2

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Near the Cliffs of Moher (all images LHL)

It’s been over 8 weeks since my last round-up of interesting articles, but here is a selection, plus an update on my writing life. First up, this piece on BBC WorklifeWhy some people are impossibly talented

Super science-writer David Robson (he’s also been a commissioning editor for me) writes about the secrets of polymaths, and how you too could learn to be more multi-talented.

Modern society teaches us to specialise; to become highly skilled in a niche as an expert in a specific subject or skill comes with a certain cache. But it seems that having diverse interests might be better for creativity and life satisfaction. A key tip I gleaned was that shifting between different interests might boost overall productivity. So no need to feel guilty if you decide to take a short break from writing to practice the trombone.

Next, an interview on LitHub with one of my all-time favourite writers — John Jeremiah Sullivan: There’s No Such Thing as Wasted Writing

Sullivan is an Southern American writer whose sentences have a cocaine-like* quality in their smooth clarity and whose paragraphs flow and sing like no other is a bit of a hero of mine ever since I stumbled onto his journalism collection Pulphead.

*don’t do drugs, kids!

It was interesting then to learn that he finds the act of writing torturous: “I sit down to write the way you’d sit down with your parole officer. Any buckets are for puking in”.

Sullivan knew writers from a very different generation: the kind of writers who walked in the shadow of giants like William Faulkner and it was instructive to hear him talk about one of these geezers: “I felt grateful to know people like Lytle, who had come from a previous era that possessed a kind of egomaniacal passion we hardly have access to now. Lytle was someone who talked about prose as a vocation, with no irony. It wasn’t florid either, it was very…tough, you know?”

Lastly, I’ve been reading Nikesh Shukla’s writing tips newsletter. Shukla is a novelist and screenwriter who came to prominence for editing the landmark anthology The Good Immigrant. His advice about editing (don’t edit as you go) and “what’s it really about” I found especially useful.

My writing life 

Last month, in November, I wrote thousands of words for a nonfiction book sample. I also did some copywriting for a few clients. Journalism work has been thinner. In the past couple of weeks, I dashed off a couple of articles for two publications. One is a feature about life as a freelancer in Beijing, the realities versus expectations, and the other is about a video game.

I’ve just got back from a holiday to Ireland with a few friends. We drove around, stopping in scenic villages and driving the western coast. Ireland is very beautiful and the people are lovely. We were blessed with good weather seeing lots of clear skies and sunshine, and although it was cold, it was very cosy to get to the evening and finding yourself in an Irish pub looking forward to a hearty meal and a pint of Guinness. (It really does taste different in Ireland.)

Tomorrow, I journey to London for a writer’s lunch and afternoon meeting, which I am looking forward to. We’ll be having dim sum and we’ll talk about our work and I hope there will be some readings.

While I was on holiday, one of my friend’s made mention that it’d be nice to live in one of those small coastal towns, overlooking the sea, while writing a book. To me, and everyone else, that didn’t sound too bad.

These days, I am reading a lot more poetry than I ever did before, which isn’t difficult as I hardly ever read the stuff. I bought Ocean Vuong’s poetry book; John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone; and in Ireland I picked up a collection of W.B. Yeats. The movement and movie-like quality found in poetry I’ve found hugely edifying. It’s entire stories and narrative compressed into strange, mythical shape. I really recommend getting into poetry, especially if you’re starting out as a writer. There is no other form that is more potent.

To end, here is a 2,000 word feature I wrote about money for the BBC, which has just been published.

5 December, BBC FutureDoes e-money make you spend more?

I pitched the idea for this article in Taipei, in July, and I conducted some of the interviews for this piece while living (alone) in a four-bed hostel room. Such is the glamorous life of a nomadic freelance writer. I filed it while living in a friend’s house in Beijing. And after receiving feedback from my editor, I finished off the piece with edits while living in a pod hostel in Singapore, in August, where I happened to meet an Irish girl who I caught up with while I was in Ireland, in Dublin, just a few days ago. Such is the rhyme of life!

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 7, 2019 at 6:37 pm

Writing 20,000 words

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There was a time when writing 10,000 words seemed like a major undertaking, an academic slog, a marathon. Writing the dissertation for my journalism degree, around 10,000 words, seemed quite a big deal. And it doesn’t ever become a tiny thing. Yes, as a professional writer I regularly accrue many thousands of words. But these are for separate articles. One sustained piece of writing that clocks up 8,000 words or more is not a piece of cake.

It is doubly hard when you’re writing a piece of creative nonfiction, as opposed to journalism with its formulas and expectations. Writing a reported feature about expats living in Paris, to take an example, poses different challenges to writing a personal exploration of what it is like living in Paris as an expat. One requires research and interviews: reporting; while the other is memoir and creative nonfiction.

Obviously, if you wrote bad memoir, a long rambling piece that no one wants to read, then the task would certainly be a walk in the park, but to write originally, compellingly and atmospherically requires considerable attention and skill.

I wrote 10,000 words over a few weeks, while living in a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan, in June this year. It was for a nonfiction book proposal. I also wrote an outline and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown.

I sent it out to a few agents. I got a rejection by one. A couple of non-replies. And one expression of interest. The agent that got back to me asked me a question about the project. And the question was a useful one.

But it took me a while before I really understood the nature of the question. The question concerned the vision I had for the book. And how I answered would determine my success with said agent.

To cut a story short, I am now rewriting the book sample. I am writing another 10,000 words, from scratch. Now the whole project has a different prospect. It is a slow process, but I try to put in the work on a daily basis. Every day I try to get words down on the page.

Some days it’s only 300, 400 words. Some days, it’s 700, 800. I rarely exceed that. But taken over 30 days, a month’s work, that racks up to 15,000 words (assuming an average of 500 words/day).

I can’t write much more than 1000 words a day – in this form – because I just find it really hard. But maybe there will come a time when this changes.

There was a time when I would’ve thought writing 80,000 words for a novel, or 10k words for a nonfiction book sample, an insurmountable challenge. I wouldn’t know where to start, and, more significantly, not know how to create anything approaching original, interesting to readers, or compelling.

But this rings true for many things. Back when I was still a journalism student the idea that I could turn in a 1000-word news feature about a complex subject, with a range of reporting and research, within 24 hours, would’ve seemed outlandish — but that’s what I did recently for this news feature for WIRED. These are within my capabilities.

It takes time to hone that craft. But actually, more than practice, it takes a kind of inner development to really push through to take on challenges you never thought you could take on successfully.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 17, 2019 at 12:32 pm

Makeshift offices and portable magic

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A late night dinner of delicious beer and chips, washed down with an episode of Stranger Things. A micro-brewery in Seoul.

In July, while I was in Seoul, I bought a gadget that has made my freelance life better. I bought it in the only Apple store in Seoul, which I first visited in 2018 for a business feature I was reporting, a feature that paid out very well. Anyway, in July, in this Apple store in Seoul, which is located in the Gangnam district, on a famous street called garosu-gil, I bought an iPad Mini.

Seoul is a good place to pick up Apple products. You begin with cheaper starting prices compared to the UK and you also get a 10% tourist tax refund at the airport. I picked up an iPad Mini, a Bluetooth Logitech keyboard, and a Pencil.

I have found the iPad Mini a great addition to my gadgetry. It syncs seamlessly with my iPhone SE, so websites opened on my iPhone can also be found on my iPad browser, for example. The iPad Mini has an extremely fast A12 processor chip (the top-of-the-line iPad Pro has the A12X), a True Tone screen, and is a relative bargain compared to the overpriced iPhones.

I also downloaded the GoodNotes app which I use with the Apple Pencil to sketch down ideas, create PDFs and make annotations. I have Apple Arcade which I enjoy — playing Sayonara Wild Hearts paired with a PlayStation 4 controller, and headphones, is serious fun: an aural and visual delight.

In Singapore, I relaxed with a can of Harbin beer, at my friend’s apartment where I was staying, lounging on the veranda in the tropical evening, watching Netflix on the iPad.

I also use the iPad Mini for work. I find working in vertical orientation quite pleasing, and typing on the Logitech keyboard on the Mini is fun. I can put the iPad and the keyboard into a little sling bag, and it is a very portable set-up. I remember pulling it out for an impromptu typing session on the street using an outside table in Seoul. The machine is fast and capable and battery life is very good.

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Using my iPad Mini in a Dunkin Donuts in Seoul.

When you’re freelance many tables can become your office. And some of the tables I worked on when I was traveling seemed innocuous enough. The Dunkin Donuts “office” reached by escalator and opposite the Gangnam-gu Office subway station, in Seoul, offered fantastic doughnuts and decent coffee.

The café with a window which overlooked the river.

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A café where I worked one afternoon in Singapore.

 

The wooden “table” where I placed my notebook and wrote one of these blog posts.

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A makeshift office.

All of these, despite being banal and somewhat mundane things — a table, a chair — have picked up a kind of retrospective magic.

What I’ve been reading #1

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This is a roundup of interesting articles I’ve read recently, a collection of ecletic pieces that come with my recommendation.

First up, this article in WIRED — Why Are Rich People So Mean?

Christopher Ryan weaves together a tale involving his personal recollection of traveling through India combined with scientific and anecdotal evidence that being rich might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

He profiles Silicon Valley millionaires, successful and wealthy men, who feel unfulfilled and stressed out from a life that should be charmed and gilded with happiness. It is a rich, powerful, and redemptive read.

I was in India the first time it occurred to me that I, too, was a rich asshole. I’d been traveling for a couple of months, ignoring the beggars as best I could. Having lived in New York, I was accustomed to averting my attention from desperate adults and psychotics, but I was having trouble getting used to the groups of children who would gather right next to my table at street-level restaurants, staring hungrily at the food on my plate.

Next, a much shorter article in The Guardian which I found relatable — ‘I swapped a job in Cumbria for blogging from the beach in Bali’

For those of you who don’t know, Cumbria is a county in the northwest of England, famous for the Lake District. A regular series that looks at how people spend and save their money, it was an insight into the decisions that led to such a move. I have never been to Bali and it was interesting to get a glimpse of the life there, and to see, in detail, the income and expenditure of someone who decided to swap the cloudiness of Cumbria for the surf and sea of Bali.

Name: Stephanie Conway
Age: 29
Income: About £1,700 a month
Occupation: Digital marketing

I booked a £300, one-way plane ticket from the UK to Bali in May. I didn’t tell my family I was leaving at first as I was worried it might seem irrational.

A soulful and perspective-changing read from One Zero MediumOn Using Tech While Poor

The writer John Bogna details how he gets by using tech he can afford, such as a laptop from 2009 which he still uses. It was a peek into how much technology can mean to people, how something we might take for granted might mean a world of difference.

Reading the article reminded me of the days when I used a super crappy smartphone, back when I was heavily intent on saving money as a newcomer to Beijing, and without job and income.

It was a model with a low-res screen, crappy rear camera (front-facing selfie cameras were not common back then), and I remember it even had an aerial! Yes, a radio aerial that you could pull out from a hole, and which I played with distractedly.

Still, this smartphone was the first Android device I ever used and it was a gateway to a social life, the Internet, and the low-res pics I took on that phone are ones I treasure.

Finally, a long read by Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker — a profile of an actress —  Constance Wu’s Hollywood Destiny.

Here, the fact the author of the article is herself Chinese-American gives the piece a more perceptive and dynamic charge. It is not, and has never been, correct that a profile or an interview should be 100% objective (it’s not even possible, in fact). We relate to other people as people and thus a successful profile piece should see the writer really engage with her/his subject.

People are not just objective facts. To really see the person behind the celebrity, the wealth, the achievements, a writer has to subjectively gauge the truth. Truth and facts are not the same thing. And in this wonderfully perceptive profile, Fan allows us to glimpse the true Constance Wu, a version that we may never otherwise see, with the details she decided to include in her piece.

To end, here are some of my own pieces I have had published, which may be of interest.

10 October, WIRED (UK)Blizzard and esports can’t win the battle against Chinese censors

Sport has always had moments when politics has suddenly invaded the athletic spectacle, and now the same thing is happening in esports, in what could be a watershed moment for the burgeoning industry.

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

1 October, Underpinned I chose to become a migrant, and learned to be a freelancer

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