Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for the ‘Life as a foreign reporter’ Category

The Waning Wanderlust of a Serial Traveller

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I shot this on my iPhone SE near my hostel.

It’s been almost a month since I arrived in Taiwan. I arrived May 2.

Although I have visited this island-nation before, I did not remember how affordable it is. I have been living in the same hostel now for about three weeks. It costs 350 TWD per night (£8.76/night).

I’m living in a student area, with leafy environs, some comely cloud-topped mountains in the near distance, and a bustling night market just around the corner.

I have enjoyed going out with hostel mates, hiking with an Icelander, chatting to a Canadian old-timer, watching movies with a Korean doctoral student, and meeting local Taiwanese luminaries.

A lot of the time I’m in the hostel working away on my laptop, drinking the free oolong tea (the stuff is addictive), and going out to exercise and walk around. I go to watch movies at the cinema, go swimming in the local sports centre, and eat out very cheaply.

It is a comfortable life and Taipei has surprised me with its easy-going, cosy nature.

I keep meaning to go somewhere else, and I will eventually (hopefully) make it to Kenting, which is right on the southern tip of Taiwan, as far away from Taipei as it’s possible to be on this island.

I genuinely don’t feel the pull, the pressure, to do all the travelling things, of having to find fun. I just do routine things.

And honestly, travel itself is a kind of consumption. In fact, it may be the defining consumption mode of the twenty-first century.

Whereas before people bought clothes and luxury brands, people now compete to outdo each other in experiences. On Instagram and Facebook and WeChat, people post pictures of their travels and their experiences. I do it too, of course.

But it is only a kind of consumption. And for those creative types, is it not better to create rather than to consume?

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 29, 2019 at 11:19 am

Update: 8th May – in Taiwan

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I am currently living in a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan.

Taiwan is a sweet potato-shaped island in the South China Sea that is a de-facto independent nation, but is not officially recognised as such by many countries.

It has a complicated relationship with mainland China. But unlike its large neighbour, it is a developed democracy, and the home to Foxconn, the company that makes Apple’s iPhones.

It is barely bigger than Hainan island, which is a Chinese holiday resort island, and is home to 23 million people who use traditional Chinese characters (rather than the Simplified version used on the mainland).

Before I arrived in Taiwan, I was living on a friend’s couch in Wanchai, Hong Kong. There I stayed for two weeks. I went to Sonar music festival. My friend had a house party and I went to some seedy expat bars with her Russian roommate.

Hong Kong is a marvel of engineering and 7.5 million people live in a compact area, and yet it all manages to work. But the city is an expensive one and I couldn’t afford to tarry.

So I find myself in Taiwan. It’s a place I first visited 11 years ago, in 2008, when I stayed for six weeks. Back then, I found it a nice place, but a little dull, as it lacks nightlife and bars.

It still doesn’t have the kind of nightlife that Beijing does so well.

From 2014 to 2016, Beijing’s bar, club, and cafe culture peaked. And discussing with a friend the other day, we realised that Beijing might have been the best party place in Asia.

No other place rivalled Beijing, during those years. The combination of cheapness, the expat to locals ratio, the diversity of bars, and the undeniable sense that this was an exciting time to be. The Gulou area of Beijing had a scene. And it was great.

Nowhere else had that. Seoul is more pricey and caters more to the locals. Southeast Asia can be sleazy and caters more to backpackers. Beijing was up-and-coming, and the scene was buzzing, before it got abruptly shutdown from late 2016 onward.

The local authorities started bricking up bars and denying licenses to a host of restaurants, cafes and bars that had sprung up. In the space of a few months, a scene that was beloved by the bohemian Beijing crowd was quickly squashed out of existence.

It still exists, but is a shadow of what it used to be.

Taipei, Taiwan, is a nice place, no doubt about it. It is comfortable, affordable, and orderly. But it lacks the grit, the pure excitement of what Beijing had during its brief golden years.

But that is okay, I am quite enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of Taipei, for now.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 8, 2019 at 4:58 am

Thoughts on a hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam

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Last year, in the second half of October, I stayed in probably the best deal of a hotel I have ever stayed in.

I stumbled on it purely by accident.

My friend and I had just come from nearby Da Nang, a seaside city in the middle of Vietnam. It was the afternoon when we arrived, by taxi, into Hoi An.

Over a late lunch, I checked for hotels on booking dot com, aiming for one that occupied the perfect zone between the vectors of location convenience, goodness, affordability.

We walked around for a bit then I told my friend to stay with our luggage and wait, while I went to look at a couple of hotels that were nearby. I abandoned looking for hotels online and simply used my eyes to see what was around. And I happened to see the outside of a hotel that was nestled away from the road which looked okay.

I went inside and asked the clerk to show me around the rooms. I was happy with what I saw and I went to negotiate a price with the receptionist.

The hotel had a pool. The price was inclusive of breakfast. The rooms were large, with shower and a big bathtub, and comfy double beds.

It was while I stayed there that I started to wonder what it would be like to stay at this hotel long term.

I would wake early for the buffet breakfast. I’d return to my room and open the glass screen-doors, letting the breeze in. I would sit at the desk and write. I’d sit there and write, in my room. After a period of writing, I’d go for lunch. Then I’d come back and read. Or take a nap. After that I’d go for a swim. Then I’d lounge on the pool-side chairs and read. Then I’d shower and towel myself off in my room, and write some more. For dinner, I’d amble around the pretty town of Hoi An and find something good and cheap to eat. After that, walk some more, get a drink. Then maybe a massage. Then back to the hotel and deep, comforting sleep.

The hotel cost about 20 pounds for a double room, per night, including the breakfast. So, my fantasy is quite doable, at least for a few weeks.

Just a thought…

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 23, 2019 at 5:06 pm

Update: April 15th, 2019

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Hi reader, I’m writing you from the couch (also my bed) of my friend’s small but cosy apartment in Wanchai, central Hong Kong.

It’s been over a month since my last post, so sorry about that. In the whole of the previous month of March, I did not do any journalism. I wrote no articles for news publications.

I did spend three weeks in Spain, most of that time at the house of one of my best friends. She lives in the countryside with her husband, two kids, and an array of animals.

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At her house, I worked on my own writing, for competitions and publishing initiatives. We shall see if they go anywhere.

I wrote an essay for a writing competition. I put the finishing touches to a short story for another competition. I applied to initiatives, schemes, and opportunities. It’s all for the aim of my long term goals.

I did some copywriting for the ongoing work I have with a digital marketing company, for some income.

It was great to spend time with my friend, after the kids had gone to sleep, sat around the miraculous fire-machine they have (Spanish nights in March are still chilly), with some wine, and just talk. It was great to just talk.

I then went back to England for a week where I bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific. A direct flight that cost a little too much, but the food and service was satisfactory. Since I’ve been in Hong Kong, I’ve been working on a couple of journalism stories, and a book proposal.

I’m staying with my friend who works for the South China Morning Post, and her roomie, and we went to a music festival on the weekend and we had a house party. So that was good.

For a freelancer, some nights socialising, drinking, and partying can underpin a kind of easy-going happiness. It replaces the socialness of an office. And the fact I’m moving around again also seems to be the basis for a type of joy and happiness, if not contentment, that can serve to fulfil the whole point of freelancing: freedom to look ahead, at unhemmed horizons, and a licence to roam.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 15, 2019 at 2:40 pm

What’s summer like for a freelance journalist?

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South Korea’s gleaming capital Seoul

It is the 29th of July, France won the World Cup, we’re over halfway into 2018, and I’m still a freelance writer and journalist living in Beijing.

I went to South Korea in the last week of June for eight days. Four years ago I visited North Korea, for the same amount of time, and it became a hugely profitable trip. Going on a tour of the “Democratic” People’s Republic of Korea is quite expensive but I managed eventually to recoup what I spent and more.

Did South Korea turn out to be as successful a freelance trip? Originally I had set out to visit only for travel’s sake but I eventually thought of a saleable article idea, and I emailed my editor with the idea and he approved. It was then a process of finding a fixer. I used Twitter, and I got myself someone who could help me with research, fixing, and interviewing (I cannot speak Korean).

Seoul is a wonderful city, perhaps the most modern I have visited. It was a marvel of city planning and architecture, with a sense of space and flow that left me deeply impressed. I visited the offices of The Korea Times, the country’s oldest English-language newspaper which started following the aftermath of the Korean War that divided the peninsula. I ate Japanese food and drank Irish stout. I ate stupendously good Korean fried chicken. I made friends with a Korean journalist and we watched the Korea v Mexico World Cup game in the centre of the city, on the grass, with hundreds of other Koreans and a surprisingly large number of Mexicans in the middle of the night.

It was a great trip, and I managed to get my article done, and it will make me more than what I spent on the trip, so all in all I consider that a success.

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I have just come back from a trip to Inner Mongolia. It is China’s third largest province (twice the size of France) and is located north of Beijing, spanning west to east.  I had been aching to get to a particular part of this province since I first heard about it last year.

I am hoping to write something about the experience, and sell it, but I have not yet begun to pitch it out to editors.

It was a place of endless grass, undulating hills, an enormous number of insects, and horses, Caucasian Chinese people, and fresh mutton barbecued to astounding flavour.

It was great to get out of sweltering urban Beijing and head to a temperate grassland of breezes and fresh air, and huge blue skies.

Now I’m back in the city and itching to work and write.

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Lately I have come to a conclusion so obvious and simple that it left me wondering why I hadn’t thought of it before.

For someone whose sense of identity is bound to whatever it means to be a writer, I do very little actual writing. I do read a lot. I read widely and constantly.

I have a friend (a published author these days) who once advised me to write something at least once a day, even if it was just a long email, just write something.

That was a few years ago. But now that I am writing fiction seriously, I realise the trueness of this advice more than ever. To get better I have to practice. To become a better writer I have to write, at least a little, every single day. Dancers dance, painters paint, writers write.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

July 29, 2018 at 9:12 am

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:

  • Traveled a lot
  • Made 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 than for journalism. 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.

It was a good year. 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 incredulity 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 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