Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for the ‘Life as a foreign reporter’ Category

How to Become a Freelance Journalist in China

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This is a brief guide to the posts on this blog. I arrived in China in the autumn of 2012, and had just graduated a journalism degree. I learned the ropes of freelance journalism when I moved to Beijing.

This blog started in the autumn of 2013 after I had begun to freelance more professionally. The posts from previous years were written while I was still learning, but I hope that they may be of use to you.

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How do you get a visa as a freelancer in China? 

This is usually the most pressing question. And my guess is that this is the biggest hurdle for those thinking of coming to China to do journalism. The official J-visa (full visa status and accreditation as a professional journalist allowed to do journalism in China) is difficult to get. It’s not easy to get even with the full backing of a major news organization. Suffice to say that unless you are employed or sponsored by one of these large media companies, it will be nigh on impossible to secure a J-visa.

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Being a Freelance Journalist in China

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There is still a massive demand for information, news and stories

Publications are hungry, starving for new and exciting information and stories. If you are placed in a niche or location that’s in demand, then you could be hot property.

6 Things I Learned about the Freelance Journalism Market While I Was In China

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Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty. But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing.

A Year in the Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Part One: Freelance Journalists on their First Ever (Paid) Commissions

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Meet your fellow journalists
Find them on Twitter, LinkedIn – search out bylines and reach out to them. Most will gladly meet up for a coffee. Some may even share freelance and job opportunities down the line. You’re all in the same boat, so having that network can be invaluable.

5 Things To Do Upon Arriving in a New Country as a Freelance Journalist

There are many more posts about freelancing, and the experience of freelancing in China. Please have a browse of this site if you are interested.

2016: in review

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For me here are the most significant aspects of 2016:

  • Stayed in 5-star hotels a total of four times
  • Traveled quite a lot
  • Made quite good money from writing & editing that wasn’t journalism
  • Started writing fiction

This was the year I took a step back from freelance journalism. I have written many more articles this year for promotional materials and content marketing. I managed to publish a few journalism pieces; for The Guardian, NineMSN (two commissions), and Kotaku. I had one essay in consideration by the biggest name in western newspapers but it was finally turned down (I have since pitched it successfully to another publication).

I read around ten novels and a few other books, as well as re-reading some novels — an activity I highly recommend for writers. I wrote a few short stories, but the one I am currently writing, the most ambitious yet, is at a crucial stage where I feel I cannot approach it until I feel a way forward.

I stayed in five star hotels three times, and I paid for one the fourth time. The hotels were in Shanghai (Kerry); Bangkok (Sofitel); Guilin (Shangri-La); and Shanghai again (The Renaissance). They were experiences that I enjoyed a lot.

It was a good year for me. I know it has also been a tumultuous year — I’ll never forget the shock I felt after seeing the conclusion of the United Kingdom’s EU referendum. And my astonishment and incredulous amusement that that guy Donald Trump became President-elect of the most powerful country in the world.

But again, this year, 2016, has been good to me, especially in contrast with 2015 where I had several months of financial and psychological hardship.

I traveled quite a bit — I went to Valencia, Thailand (Phuket; Ao Nang), Hunan (Zhangjiajie; Tianmenshan; Changsha; my gran’s village), Chengdu, Qingdao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Thailand again (Bangkok; Chiang Mai), and Shanghai again.

Freelancing went quite well this year, and I made enough money to put some away. Not a lot but having some savings really does soothe the mind.

In terms of life in Beijing I have felt more comfortable than any other time in the years I have spent in this city. Next year I think I may be bolder and more adventurous, and look to newer experiences. I am hoping to make more of my freedom next year.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 31, 2016 at 8:36 am

Freelancing is lonely — that’s fine, just try to lay down roots wherever you can.

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The life of a freelance writer is categorized by loneliness, but this loneliness pervades all life, to varying degrees. And this depends on how much you feel it in the company of others, and how much you feel it in the company of yourself.

Traveling and staying in various places in Asia solo; waiting at the airport solo; checking into a hotel and staying there solo; eating at a restaurant solo; residing in a cafe solo, is something I’ve done many times. Note that I don’t use the word “alone”. Because I don’t often feel alone when I am traveling.

I often feel free and relaxed, rarely troubled, fixated on the present and the immediate future (“where shall I go to eat now?”). It’s just one of those things you learn about yourself, and that I only really accepted very recently, when I was in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

You realize that perhaps not needing company is okay.

There have been times in Beijing — my early days — when I was quite alone. It was tough, but not awful.

Sitting now, on my couch, typing this on my laptop that’s propped up on a desk chair, and looking out at my balcony — filled with the bright but cold light of November in Beijing — I feel fine. Healthy. Relaxed. Money is okay. There are things I want, but very little I need. My thoughts always bend to the future (the curse of an overactive mind), but I try to remain in the present and to enjoy it and to appreciate it.

Bangkok & Chiang Mai

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Last month I went to Thailand, for the second time this year.

I was in Bangkok for about a week in total, and several days in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city and about an hour away, by plane, north of Bangkok.

Jungle and hills surround it and it doesn’t feel like a city at all, more like an overgrown village with a temporary leasehold over the jungle.

Quite a few of my friends told me about their love for Chiang Mai. It’s a very chill, laid-back place with lots of cafes and guesthouses. But for me it was too chill. I prefer the raw energy of Bangkok which feels alive and visceral — intense — like life has been crammed into every inch.

In Chiang Mai I happened to meet up with Brent Crane, a fellow freelancer, who was on a journey traveling overland from Cambodia, where he’d spent a year at the Phnom Penh Post, to Nepal. Brent’s a prolific freelancer (and a guest contributor to the site) and by the time I’d met him in Chiang Mai he’d already sold features to The New Republic and Men’s Journal, making more than enough to cover his travel expenses.

I was taking it easy; reading and writing more of my novel. In Chiang Mai I didn’t do much of the things you’re supposed to do (elephant riding, trekking, jungle zip-lining, etc). I didn’t really have the appetite to do them so I didn’t.

If you’re there though try Counting Sheeps (sic) hostel. It’s comfortable, centrally located, and very good. Say hi to Goieurh too, who taught me how to play checkers. And you really should check out the Sunday evening market in the old town.

In Bangkok, I made a new friend who I came across playing Pokemon Go. It was on the steps next to Paragon, a shopping mall in downtown.

I also spent a couple of nights in Sofitel Bangkok, a five-star hotel. Having written for travel publications such as Wanderlust, CNN Travel, and NineMSN, I got a deal.

The suite they gave me was grand and lovely. It was the biggest hotel room I have ever stayed in. I was chauffeured to and from the airport in a Mercedes, which had WiFi and hot towels. I had my own personal butler and access to the VIP lounge, where there was served wine, canapes, fruit, cakes, cheese, prawn cocktails, and other beverages. There was a cool swimming pool, and breakfast buffet with a rack of honeycomb. The bathroom had Hermes toiletries.

It was the best I’ve ever been treated — a truly luxurious and memorable experience at the Sofitel Bangkok. Did I mention dinner on their rooftop restaurant L’Appart? It was elegant French fare — delicious scallops — and I had great company.

Having twice stayed in five-star hotels this year, the experience is rather agreeable I have to say and checking online the expense for these hotels in Asia isn’t as extravagant as you may think so it’s worth spoiling yourself sometimes. The experience really does linger long in the memory.

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The literary dream of Beijing

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When you’re young and ambitious, keen on literary adventure, the idea of moving to a new country and becoming a writer is hugely romantic. You may not be the next Hemingway or Graham Greene, but the ghosts of those greats –- men who drank, chased women and saw their art as their masculine fixation –- leave long seductive shadows.

Beijing is not London or Tokyo, Tangier or Rome. It doesn’t have the transparent allure of LA or the colourful chaos of Mexico City. And it sure as hell ain’t Paris. It doesn’t look beautiful in the rain and the architecture lacks all grace and subtlety. Beijing is unrelenting in its grayness, and filled with poor decisions about infrastructure and basic city planning. It’s a city so mired in reality that any charm pours straight into its drains, which are too few and badly designed. Yet journalists and writers have flocked here. Why?

I was born in the southern city of Guilin in 1989. Before I was born, but after I was conceived, my father swam from China to Hong Kong. Well, almost swam there. He didn’t quite make it. He was picked up by Hong Kong water police after nine hours in the water, trying to reach the fabled British colony. If you want to read more about this family history, you can find it here. Suffice to say politics was involved in his decision to escape China. I moved to England, and met my father for the first time when I was five. At the age of twenty three, I reversed his journey and moved from Britain back to China.

For anyone who decides to move abroad, it’s impossible to fathom how much you learn, how much you experience, the amount of misery you endure, but also how much optimism sustains you.

I landed in Beijing in 2012, just as autumn began its brief spell. I had vague plans to improve my Chinese, get more bylines, explore job opportunities. The first two months were miserable and lonely. I had few friends –- I think I had one, maybe two –- no job and a small rented bedroom to live in, where I could touch both walls at the same time. I went to cafés, read the internet, sent a few emails. Sex, literature and food were the three preoccupations orbiting my imagination. Late at night I would write in my mind, dreaming up plots and fine sentences that describe but move no story, like a red ribbon bowed upon nothing.

Eventually I landed a paid internship at a listings magazine, which, in retrospect, was the perfect gig when you’re new to a city. There’s almost no pressure and it’s your job to attend events, explore new areas and meet new people. The editor there, a loud and rambunctious Mancunian, took a liking to me and gave me some breaks. The internship became a fulltime gig, albeit only marginally better paid. I supplemented my income by writing economics and education articles for a student business magazine. I didn’t make a lot of money.

There have been times when circumstances were dire. For one week in my first November, I survived on sweet potatoes bought from street sellers for breakfast, lunch and dinner while I waited for some money to hit the bank account. I roamed the streets, walking blocks sometimes, in search of the rural migrants who sold them from three-wheeled trikes, oil drums on the back turned into makeshift ovens. Sometimes I haggled over the price, then realised I shouldn’t. I picked the potato I wanted and ate all of it, the crispy caramel skin and the soft, warm flesh.

After a year, I had learned so much. Within two years, Beijing had become a second home and the start of a career. I had created a life for myself, in a city far away from home, and the knowledge of that will always redeem my pride. For anyone who decides to move abroad, it’s impossible to fathom how much you learn, how much you experience, the amount of misery you endure, but also how much optimism sustains you. How you trust that eventually everything will be alright, and in the end it generally is.

Beijing is a city full of memories that burnish your twenties into an elegant nostalgia, ready to plunder when you settle down elsewhere. When you’re dancing in some sweaty disco and the lights are green and crazy and the Chinese girls are swaying to those odd personal rhythms slightly out of sync with the music and you’ve drunk several pints of cheap Chinese beer, warm and watery, your mind inexorably drifts toward wondering how you arrived at this bizarre moment. You know it’s an illusion, but also your immediate reality. You want to write, but don’t do it enough. You want to seem well-read, but don’t have the time. You want to go everywhere, if you only had the money, but don’t want to work in some crappy job.

Your twenties fly past like a blizzard. Beijing is a vessel into which we pour our ambitions and desires. It’s a landscape where foreigners can skim the cream, make expedient connections and live out their choices free of the expectations of home. It’s a wide canvas, and adventurous souls have always come to paint their projections upon it. When later the dream sours and you’ve drunk away yet another afternoon in a Sanlitun bar, you come to realise Beijing has corrupted you. Worse still, you’ve gotten used to it, and thoughts of Dayton or Hastings or Frankfurt, or wherever you’re from, have diminished into a box that you’ve tucked away under “life back home”.

If I sound jaded after less than three years, it’s because I’ve fallen out of love with that first sense of discovery. What initially seemed novel and wondrous has become habitual and muddy at the edges. The distance between foreign and local lifestyles is cavernous. When I’m in Jing A, a popular microbrewery teeming with Americans enjoying craft beers in the sun, I can’t help but feel disillusioned. I’m not going to do anything drastic like move away, but Beijing can mar the soul. The city is straightened by huge roads and grid-like blocks, with few pockets where you can just sit and be. I have a theory that you can tell how cozy a city is by the proportion of benches to people. London has benches galore, and corners overflow with accidental pockets of respite. How many benches are there in Beijing?

Still, there have been moments of clarity. A star-pocked night, revelry in the air and the Great Wall of China lit up by lights. Sneaking into the VIP section with a couple of friends at a music festival. All the sitting in cafés. How we kid ourselves with coffee, the ritual of it mollifying the metallic glare of the laptop in front of us, while we think of what to write.

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This post originally appeared on The Anthill. It was written while I was in some despondency in the summer of 2015.

A city by the sea

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I am in Qingdao a coastal city roughly equidistant between Beijing and Shanghai on China’s eastern seaboard; population nine million.

It’s a fair city with nice weather and sea mists. My school friend from the UK lives here and I have been staying with him and his American girlfriend. He loves Qingdao with a passion. A somewhat irrational passion but we all have friends with an eccentric passion.

I’ve known him since age 11 as we went to the same secondary school. I remember us both working at a Chinese takeaway in our local town aged 17; he as a delivery boy, me as a receptionist and dishwasher. Much has changed since then.

He has studied at McGill in Canada, lived and worked in Burkina Faso (west Africa), and now resides in Qingdao from where he freelances. We are both freelancers but he is of a different kind: work focused and very busy. He speaks three languages and is working on a fourth and is doing a part-time Masters in public policy and management. He sleeps at 11pm and wakes early. He often says I should be less lazy (a little unkindly I must say).

Having lived with him for a week I can see that our lives differ a lot. Some of this is due to the differences between Beijing and Qingdao, and some of this is due to our differences in temperament. He will be successful and wealthy in the future. Of that, I am sure.

I have no regrets.

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Immediately prior to Qingdao I was in Chengdu.

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, a province about the size of France, and it’s found in southwest China.

I was in Chengdu for a corporate writing gig for a content marketing agency (the client is an elevator company).

A friend of mine lives in Chengdu having moved there from Beijing where she’d lived for six years before returning to her home province.

In Chengdu she’s started her own business, a small food company that makes and delivers salads and other healthy food. She says Chengdu is like what Beijing was five years ago. And that’s what makes it exciting.

Opportunities exist in big cities with emerging demographics, and a gold rush can ensue.

Living in China I have often thought about cities as a crucible for dreams and ambitions. And in China those dreams are fast moving and the horizons in which they play out always shifting.

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It was while I was eating a bowl of noodles near my friend’s apartment in Qingdao, under tall buildings recently built, that I realized something.

China is a great country.

It’s the third biggest in the world and if you were to choose a nation to represent Earth, China may as well be it, especially with its number of people.

In 1989 — a generation ago — China’s economy was worth $344 billion.

It’s now worth over $9 trillion.

Chinese students have been going abroad to the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere in ever increasing number. Chinese smartphones take up coverage on US tech websites. Chinese companies are moving to the American south to take advantage of cheap labour.

It’s quite obvious that the achievements of this country to turn itself around with such audacity, verve, and speed, is phenomenal.

No other country on this planet can lay claim to such a heady brew of statistics, history, and enormity of change.

I feel good to have been a part of it, in my youth, and it a part of me, irrevocably expanding my imagination and horizons.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 15, 2016 at 9:05 am

A week in Hong Kong

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We met in Thailand when I asked you “where are you from?” and you replied “I’m from Thailand”. We agreed to meet again in Hong Kong, an island in-between us. You work in Bangkok and I work in Beijing.

We walked along the promenade of Kowloon harbour, looking at the lights that light up the sky. It’s a sight I’ve seen many times but it was the first time for you. You took photos and I was glad that you were there. That first night in Hong Kong was slow and easy, the next day we’d ride the ferry and watch the clouds reflect in the water.

The escalator is the longest outside escalator in the world. It transports you up the hill while either side are cafes and shops, bars and restaurants. Buildings are called needle buildings, tall and slender, reaching up. I look at them and marvel at their vertical structure, holding occupants whose lives I don’t know, each window a room.

We took a taxi to The Peak, which offers wide angle views of the city stretched out before us. I laugh when I hear an English friend refer to it as “the bay area” when I return to Beijing.

We stay up there, on The Peak, until the evening. The night is beautiful. We take a bus back down. Trying to remember chronologically now is not easy. Events in the memory just pop into my head. There was a cafe we stumbled into just before it started to rain. I ordered a latte. Outside the water drummed onto the streets and the cars. Inside the air conditioning made it a little too cold. It was an afternoon, just a week ago, and it’s already receding. The coffee was damn good though.

I ate a lot and felt hungrier than usual. You noticed. You were also sad sometimes and I couldn’t figure out why exactly.

On one of the days we took the metro to the island where the big Buddha sits. He was wreathed in fog looking majestic. I also took you to the Wisdom Path. I first went there nine years ago as a youth embarking on my first year abroad. I was eighteen and carried with me a copy of On the Road.

We sat and chatted one evening at the hotel. You were lying against the headboard of the bed while I sat at the desk. The TV was on. I said I liked Thailand because everything is so cheap. And you ranted (in your soft, gentle way) about how you didn’t like how foreigners said that, and you really didn’t like how your Korean boss would go to an expensive restaurant and order a lot and you had to join in and pay. “She don’t care about me, about us”, you said. I listened and smiled. I really appreciated that conversation. It pays to just listen sometimes.

I left the hotel first while you had to spend a day alone. My flight was earlier. You hugged me close and kissed me. You said “see you” and “bye bye” while I said nothing as I looked at your eyes and your head softly laid on the end of the bed. And I was gone.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 3, 2016 at 5:50 pm