Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for the ‘Guest Post’ Category

A Quick Trip South: a newspaper reporter in Cambodia takes a weekend break — by Brent Crane

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I wanted to get out of the city last weekend so I went down to Kampot, an old colonial town near the coast and the Vietnamese border. I left Saturday morning and would be meeting friends from work who had arrived there the day before. I took a Sorya tour bus that left at 8:15 AM for $7. It was to be a four hour drive. The seats were spacious and well-cushioned, with a generous air-con and Khmer music was played only intermittently and at a fair volume.

I was anxious to get out of Phnom Penh. It is an odd thing for me to be gainfully employed in an Asian country or to put it another way, to be immobile in one. Had this been China a year ago I would have seen the whole south coast by now. As it is, I’ve barely been able to explore Phnom Penh.

The other day, in preparation for future travel, I bought a fold-out map at a bookstore. When I open it up and gloss over the names they make me hotfooted: Battambang, Ratanakiri, Kratie, Sihanoukville, the Cardamon Mountains—how exotic, how alluring! But for now, they remain destinations for weekend jaunts and precious vacation days.

On the road to Kampot I took in the scenes and tried to make sense of them. In Phnom Penh I could learn a lot but a huge part of the Kingdom remained outside city limits. Being in a capital city is often more useful in showing you what a country isn’t than what it is. It is most always a haven for the elite, the middle class and, certainly it is true in Phnom Penh, the expats. The true face of the country is in the boonies. In Cambodia, eighty percent of its nearly fifteen million people are farmers. They live in stilted huts and look to the cycle of the rains like an investment banker watches the stock market. Life has changed little there. Mother Nature still rules supreme and superstition is prevalent. In China they would call it “backwards”. It is a place of witchcraft and magic, where authorities might accuse a man of trying to murder his neighbors with a bewitched plant; where victims might respond to an unjust land-grab by cursing the thieves. Some aspects of the modern world have trickled in, like cellphones and TVs, but they tend to be absorbed into the belief system rather then change it, being presented as offerings to dead ancestors or becoming possessed by spirits.

Being in a capital city is often more useful in showing you what a country isn’t than what it is

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A response to “DSLR vs Point-and-Shoot” — by Brent Crane

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The author with rebel soldiers in Laiza, Kachin state in November, 2014.

The author with rebel soldiers in Laiza, Kachin state in November, 2014.

I first started getting into photography while I studied abroad in southwest China in 2011. I had a Sony Cybershot HX9 point-and-shoot camera. With that I was able to get some really strong, high-resolution photos, arguably as good as any mid-range DSLR could do. A couple of years later I upgraded to a Nikon D5100 DSLR, which is my main piece today. There are differences.

As Lu-Hai said, the DSLR is less discreet. You have very little time when you arrive on a scene to snap truly candid photos before people notice that a photographer is in their midst. The point-and-shoot is not immune to this, but it’s easier to sneak by undetected with one than a DSLR, if that’s what you’re trying to do. Typically, I don’t worry about hiding my picture taking. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken they should be able to see me doing it and let me know themselves (and many people have).

Another point. It’s assumed DSLR photos are always going to be of a superior quality but this isn’t true. Point-and-shoot technology is really fantastic these days. Makers like Sony and Leica produce some superb point-and-shoots that can capture as good or better images than mid-range DSLRs. Really, what makes a DSLR better depends on the lens you have on it.

I was unimpressed with the stock lens that my D5100 came with so I bought a $140 Nikon 50mm prime lens from Best Buy. It was incapable of zoom or auto-focus but it took in a lot of light and produced some really high-resolution photos—when you got the focus right. Its limited frame, inability to zoom and manual focus made it a challenge but also a teacher. I learned to take care in each image and, while I lost a lot of potentially good photos to blurriness, that lens made me a better photographer.

It was the only lens I had on a recent jaunt through China and Burma and I got a bunch of photo essays published with it. I was able to capture images that I probably wouldn’t have thought of taking with my compact. It didn’t necessarily allow me to take better photos, but its limitations forced me to adopt a different perspective. In photography, that’s everything.

Brent Crane is a journalist with bylines in The Atlantic, Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane

His previous guest post is here.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 25, 2015 at 6:05 am

How I became a novelist in Beijing — by Carly J. Hallman

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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.

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.

Later this year, through some mysterious cocktail of luck, hard work, and sheer determination, my first novel will be published in the U.S. ‘Year of the Goose’ is a dark comedy about the Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful fictional corporation. The novel weaves together tales of a deadly fat camp, a psychopathic heiress, a hair extension tycoon, a Tibetan monk reincarnated as a talking turtle, some witches, and an anthropomorphic diary-penning goose, among others.

I dreamed up the original idea for the novel back in America, sparked by a short story I wrote while still a student (about the aforementioned fat camp). I’d traveled and lived in China before, and, hailing from a boring small town in Texas, found it to be a treasure trove of inspiration — China is a place where things are happening, present continuous tense.

After I graduated I lived in Los Angeles for a while, where I worked as a glorified babysitter, sent out endless “real job” applications and resumes, and struggled to find my way out of a bad relationship. At twenty-four I gave up and got out, and moved back in with my parents. Depressed, disillusioned, directionless. The only thing I knew I wanted — needed — to do was to write that novel.

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A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia – by Brent Crane

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Brent Crane (pictured) is an American journalist who traveled through China and Myanmar for six months. Along the way he published stories with the DailyTelegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He also shot for the BBC. This is his guest post for the site.

Brent Crane (pictured) is an American journalist who traveled through China and Myanmar for six months. Along the way he published stories with the Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He also shot for the BBC. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com. This is his guest post for the site.

I landed in Beijing on June 16th, 2014, in the early afternoon on a one-way ticket from Boston. I had just turned 24. China was not new to me. I’d been before in 2011 when I had studied in Kunming and also before that in 2010 for the Shanghai World Expo. But this was my first time in the nation’s capital and I thought it’s very grey here.

I stayed with a friend from a study abroad program at the Beijing University of Science and Technology. When she and others asked what I was doing in China I’d get shy and mumble, “freelance journalism”, and felt like a five year old saying, “I want to be an astronaut”.

I wasn’t confident because I really didn’t know what a freelance journalist was or if I could even be one and I usually stumbled when I tried to explain anything. I’d come to China off a whim and depending on who I was talking to they’d either be impressed or think I was an idiot.

Now, seven months later I can answer people with more assuredness. I have written and shot for the Diplomat, the Daily Telegraph, VICE, Al-Jazeera and the BBC, among others. In the name of “journalism”, I have been smuggled into rebel-held territory in Myanmar from China, toured refugee camps, reported on one of the year’s largest and most daring democracy movements, sampled hairy stinky tofu and tracked down a Hunanese peasant who claimed that a tea brewed from animal feces had cured her cancer. I sampled that too.

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Freelancing in Istanbul: the breakthrough – by Samantha North

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For this newbie freelance journalist in Istanbul, July 1 was a day of celebration in more ways than one.

Istanbul

Istanbul

It was the day I received a much-awaited delight by mail. My residence permit, (ikamet in Turkish), the document that has been the bane of my Turkey life for the last two months. This, at last, makes me a fully legal foreign resident of this country.

But that was not the only good news. July 1 was also the day I got published by a UK national newspaper. It was the day I felt like I’d finally arrived in journalism.

Ironically, it was the bane of my life that produced the winning story. I wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph about the difficulties expats have been experiencing in Turkey as they struggle to obtain residency.

The ikamet situation seemed too serious to go unreported. Expats, including myself, were unable to leave Turkey while waiting for their permits to arrive. Any situation where expats are stranded in a country through no fault of their own, but due simply to poor bureaucracy, surely merits reporting.

During my own limbo period in Istanbul I saw numerous foreign travel opportunities slip through my grasp, including one which would have been my first ever visit to the United States. This left me feeling frustrated and on edge.

I got in touch with other expats on various forums and Facebook groups, searching for a solution to this problem. I discovered that an awful lot of people were in the same boat, many of them Brits like me.

That’s when the idea of pitching to the Telegraph came to mind. This kind of issue would be a perfect fit for their Expat section.

A fellow freelancer gave me the editor’s email address, and I pitched the idea to her. I had no clue what to expect.

But a couple of days later, she replied with enthusiasm, asking me to go ahead with the story.

I spent the next couple of weeks trawling through the Turkey forums, interviewing expats by Skype and Facebook, trying to wheedle out the truth from among the many rumours and red herrings.

It was a challenging story to write, mainly because the truth was so hard to pin down. The Turkish residency rules literally seemed to change on a daily basis.

My first version of the story came back from the Telegraph asking for a lot of edits. So I chased further information, verified as many things as possible, and added extra quotes. The Telegraph’s standards are high, and it was a great learning process for me.

Finally, the piece was watertight and ready to go.

On the day it was published, my story was most-viewed on the Expat section. It was shared all over the Turkey online forums and Facebook pages. I received plenty of comments and, so far, no abuse. There’ll be enough of the latter, no doubt, once I get something published in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section…That’s one of my next goals.

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Read Samantha North’s previous guest post: Why I moved to Istanbul

Samantha North is a British freelance journalist based in Istanbul. She specialises in city branding, and also writes about travel, culture and expat issues for Time Out Istanbul and the Daily Telegraph. Her website is samanthanorth.com and her Twitter handle is @placesbrands. 

Why I moved to Istanbul – by Samantha North

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It was a wet and windy Saturday afternoon in Istanbul. Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), Istanbul’s main tourist artery, was crammed with people waving colourful flags, shouting and chanting.

Samantha North (pictured) tries freelancing in Turkey.

Samantha North (pictured) tries freelancing in Turkey.

The police hovered close by with their riot shields and tear gas guns. Looming behind were the giant vehicles used in Gezi Park to water cannon protesters out of the way like rubble.

But this time everything stayed peaceful. The good-humoured crowd were yelling in Ukrainian and Russian for Putin’s exit from Crimea. They sang songs and posed for photos.

Some of them paused in their chanting for interviews with Turkish media. All the time the rain was lashing down on the crowds with their rumpled umbrellas.

Spending the weekend in the middle of a political protest is probably not everyone’s idea of a good time. But for me, a freelance journalist new to Istanbul, it was a timely reminder of why I’d moved here in the first place.

One might question why any newbie foreign journalist would move to a country notorious for jailing others in the same profession. Indeed, a recent Al Jazeera feature described Turkey as the “world’s biggest prison for media” – right up there with well-known offenders Iran and China.

Recent announcements from the government suggest that the the situation is only going to get worse. Parliament’s passing of a bill to tighten internet control has become the latest cause for concern.

From last month onwards, the authorities can now take down any ‘unsuitable’ website, without warning. There has even been talk of banning Facebook and YouTube, under claims of ‘immorality and espionage’. Clearly, this sets a worrying precedent and has sent many Turks back to the streets in protest.

Street protests are becoming a regular feature in Turkey these days. In fact they are becoming an integral part of the country’s national image. But protesting as a way to express discontent and cause social change appears to have lost much of the impact it had during last year’s Gezi events. It also seems to have little effect on government policy-making.

So why would a journalist head to a place like this? It’s pretty obvious really. Turkey is a key geopolitical player in the Middle East. It’s safe, stable and foreigner-friendly; especially when compared with neighbours like Iraq and Syria.

Those places are accessible from Turkey if the foreign journalist feels so inclined (I don’t, yet…). Iran is close by, as is Israel. Even the Crimean peninsula, where Russia’s latest power play is currently unfolding is just a short hop over the Black Sea. There are plenty of stories to be dug up by the bold and imaginative foreign journalist.

For a Brit, one big advantage is being an English speaker. If you’re a good writer and have some ability in editing, work with Turkish publications is out there. Opportunities can usually be found by doing a bit of strategic networking. And don’t forget to network with other journalists in town, especially the really experienced ones.

In a future post I’ll go into more depth about getting started in Turkey. It’s still very early days for me and my lofty dreams of writing for the Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph are yet to be made reality. But I’ve just started freelancing regularly for an international print magazine…so more news on that to follow.

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Read Samantha North’s follow up: Freelancing in Istanbul: the breakthrough

Samantha North is a British freelance journalist currently based in Istanbul, where she writes for Time Out magazine. She is founder and editor of the website PlacesBrands, which specializes in issues concerning soft power, public diplomacy and country branding. Samantha has lived in Qatar, Belgium and China over the past eight years, before moving to Istanbul in February 2014. Her website is samanthanorth.com