Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for the ‘Life as a foreign reporter’ Category

Chiang Mai, productivity, and the need for fixity

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I have been in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two weeks. We have entered February and I have begun to feel the need, urgent and rising, to start getting my nose to the grindstone.

January was taken by time spent in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand. And it was a wonderful month.

The time I’ve spent in Chiang Mai, so far, has been good. I have succumbed to all the sensations this country, and city, is so well-equipped to provide. But I remember now why I didn’t quite gel with this place in the first place (I first visited Chiang Mai in 2016). It’s to do with the blissfully chilled-out vibe; the sultry heat; the jungle air. This place pulses with a certain energy, like a powerful narcotic, that makes it extremely difficult — for me at least — to be productive.

It really does feel like straining against a strong drug, or a seductive spell, that has slipped over me, and I need to fight and make enormous effort in order to break free of this enchantment. As a freelancer, and a traveling one, I need to work and to slip back into productive schedules otherwise I can kiss this lifestyle goodbye.

Different people gravitate towards different energies. Some people fall in love with Chiang Mai: attracted to its wonderful combination of nature, cafes, traveller, hippie/Thai qualities. Although many people have remarked that my own personality would be a good fit for this place (I generally seem laidback, easy-going, and even, perhaps, lazy) it is a misjudgement. I find myself leaning more towards grittier, dirtier places with dynamism to spare. There are limits. Manila, capital of the Philippines, probably has too much grit than I can take.

But Beijing, where I was based for six years, was gritty and dirty, until it was cleaned up in the past few years. Most travellers are not very fond of Bangkok, preferring natural Chiang Mai or the lazy paradise islands of the south, but I like Bangkok and its superior energy, the pace, the grittiness of its daily life.

Chiang Mai has wreaked havoc on my productivity and I find myself wanting to leave this place.

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Last year, when I travelled to five different places over four months, my most productive time was spent in Taipei, Taiwan. There’s a good reason for this. I was living in a hostel, which I ended up staying in for over a month. The hostel allowed residents to be quite self-sufficient and I quickly found local landmarks. I fell into a routine. Oolong tea to wake up with, brewed in the common area at my hostel. Go out for a sweet potato bought from the nearby convenience store for breakfast. Walk around for a bit. Return to the hostel to work, or else head to a nearby café to work. Lunch at a local cafeteria which was cheap as chips. Have a bubble tea in the afternoon. Nap. Or swim at the local gym. Evening, head to the night market for dinner. Night-time: work in the kitchen of my hostel, which was quiet and low-ceilinged, and which was conducive to long bouts of writing.

The month I spent in Singapore was also fairly productive; ditto for the half-month I spent in Seoul. But Taipei was king of a productive me.

I find myself in want of this kind of schedule now. I will continue to travel, but I am aware that I may need to make some kind of big change. To find a spot to settle in, in order so I can work and achieve the goals that are important to me. I cannot stay in Chiang Mai. This place destroys my sense of achieving goals. But today, I am faring better, as I write this blog post. But having a fixity — a fixed place; a stable routine — is something I will need to find again. But where shall I go? What city shall I call my temporary home? This is the other question that haunts me. Recommendations welcome.

My writing life

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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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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 learned from five months of freelancing and travel

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This year, I left England in April, and I travelled for five months. I stayed in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks where I slept on a friend’s couch. I left for Taiwan where I stayed for almost two months, in a hostel, in a student district of Taipei. Next, I flew to Beijing, for an assignment, where I dwelled two weeks at a friend’s apartment.

After that I went to South Korea for half a month, stayed in a hostel. Finally I went to Singapore, where I stayed for just over a month, in hostels and a friend’s apartment. Overall, I travelled to five different places.

  • Hong Kong/last two weeks of April — I wrote a feature (Dynamic Yield) for a newspaper based in the UAE and an interview feature (Hao Wu documentary) for a UK magazine.
  • Taiwan/May & June — I started writing a big feature (Money) for the BBC, and wrote a nonfiction book proposal. I completed two more features (coffee culture in China & virtual banks) for the UAE newspaper.
  • Beijing/July — I worked on an assignment for a US college magazine. And finished off the big BBC feature (which has still not been published, although I have been paid.) I also successfully pitched a feature idea (videogames) to the UAE newspaper.
  • South Korea/July — I successfully pitched an article idea (migration for work/life) for a UK website. I also went to Gwangju for the 2019 FINA Swimming World Championships, and caught up with a friend. I met someone who gave me the seed of an idea for another article.
  • Singapore/August — I met up with a BBC editor; pitched a significant number of unsuccessful article ideas; and successfully pitched the idea (feminism) that originated in South Korea to a HK-based web publication. And pitched another big feature (Time) to the BBC.

I came back to England on 6th September. It’s nice to be back, enjoying the late summer sun and the beginnings of autumn. I am fortunate that I have a family home where I can stay when I am back. It is probably the basis of my ability to travel in the way I do; so I recognise that I have this fortunate foundation.

The biggest lesson I gained from the five months of freelancing was that geography and timeline doesn’t draw as tight a connection to successful pitches and feature ideas as I thought. That time and geography are pretty flexible for a freelance feature writer.

For example, I can pitch an idea in Beijing, start writing it in South Korea, write more of it in Singapore, and finish the article and file it in England. Similarly, I can get the germ of an idea while in South Korea, pitch it while I happen to be in Singapore, and research and interview sources in England.

This is a useful lesson that I will put into effect on future freelance forays. Here are some other things I learned:

  • It always takes time to adapt. It wasn’t until halfway through my time in Taiwan that I finally became comfortable with my nomadic freelance schedule. I came to embrace it.
  • It’s important to remember what you’ve achieved on a daily basis (ticking off or writing down the things completed that day). This gives you a sense of progress and stops ennui.
  • Twitter remains a valuable resource for generating article ideas and making professional contacts. But too much of it is a real downer.
  • It’s a good idea to meet editors in real life. Just for a quick coffee. The physical meet-up remains a powerful networking tool.
  • Accommodation prices in first-tier developed cities are exorbitant.
  • Never be afraid to renegotiate fees or ask for more money.
  • A little bit of praise can go a long way.
  • I have a tendency to tarry so I need to get better at scheduling.
  • South Korea has a lot of Dunkin Donuts and it is hella good.

There is probably more stuff but I can’t remember all of them. I will now probably stay at home for a bit. But already, after two weeks at home, I can feel myself starting to get restless. Soon enough I will be on the road again. To write, to connect, to experience. Onward.

Singapura

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Singapore’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Botanic Gardens. Image taken on a Fuji X70. All images: LHL

Initially, I was joyful to see the sunny dispositions

of Singaporeans

and their warm, unwavering, spotless streets.

It looked prosperous, clean, multicultural, industrious.

Excellent infrastructure, a well regarded greening policy, a much admired economy.

It took me a little while — a process of slow but inevitable discovery —

to see the unsunny side.

The darker, more complex reality.

Here follows a WhatsApp text conversation, over a period of a couple of weeks, between me and a Singaporean woman of similar age to me, whom I met while I stayed in Singapore. She is Chinese Singaporean, speaks Chinese and English, and works in a bank:

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 8, 2019 at 5:52 am