Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for the ‘Life as a foreign reporter’ Category

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

Rethinking purpose

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Recently I scribbled something to help provide a little clarity and direction to my wayward freelance lifestyle. It is designed to placate, as I have a tendency to overthink, and so creeping anxieties arise. This document is mostly for my benefit. But I thought I would share in case other freelancers might find it of use. I believe occasionally scribbling something that summarises what’s important to you may help in fending off distraction and give you a boost in motivation to move forward with purpose.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 10, 2019 at 6:14 am

While I was in Beijing

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I have a friend who is incredibly organised, has an adorable dog, likes baking, and possesses a property portfolio. We met while working for the same creative agency in Beijing; she had a fulltime job as an account director, and I was a copywriter on a temporary contract.

We kept a low-level friendship on social media, although we became friendlier as we commented on each other’s posts. She is several years older than me and is happily settled with husband and career.

While I was in Beijing, for work, in early July, we arranged a swimming meet-up. I am a keen swimmer and I had seen that she was learning to swim front crawl. She invited me to join her at her gym, on a Sunday morning, during her swim lesson. I looked forward to this more than I could say.

After the swim, and while my friend got changed, I snapped this photo of the sunlight filtering through the gym from the large windows.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 5, 2019 at 11:43 am

The work is the reward

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Dear reader,

I write you from Seoul, Republic of Korea.

I want to talk about a few ideas that have been coalescing in my mind. They are to do with money: income and expenditure. But I eventually realised it wasn’t really about that, at all. Money shouldn’t enter the picture.

(I caveat this by disclosing I have no dependents, no mortgage, and no desire for those things at the moment.)

To that end, let’s just talk about work.

I enjoy my work and I don’t mind doing some of it every single day. But there are some things I need to get better at. These are:

  1. To get better at continually stringing together series of commissions.
  2. Find more “anchor clients”.
  3. Re-orientate my thinking so that I believe the work itself is the reward, rather than thinking the money (or acclaim) earned from the work is the reward.
  4. Take time off to focus on my own writing — creative writing.

Let’s talk about the craftsman attitude: this is where you devote focus to your craft and take a rarified approach to the work. The theory is that if you adopt this approach enjoyment, flow, and meaning should naturally arise. Then the material rewards — such as money and acclaim — come about as mere byproducts.

The main reward is simply the reward of focusing deeply on what is in front of you.

Second point: taking time off to focus on my own writing. Another problem of being a writer is professionalisation.

Writing shouldn’t only be thought of as a source of income. Writing is a craft and an art. But writing only articles and being a professional writer — that is being paid for written works — can diminish the feeling of it being a source of enjoyment and pleasure.

To that end, perhaps I should take more time off to concentrate on my own creative writing. I believe that might be very important to my ongoing journey as a writer.

I believe, then, my sense of time might expand. And the anxiety will diminish. Chase only the work, the process, nothing else. Find the joy in being lost in all the opportunities, and creative problems, that arise from being a valued writer.

Forget everything else and bring your focus to bear on the task at hand.

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Otherwise, please do leave a comment. Are you a freelancer and also feel anxiety about financial remuneration? How do you deal with it? Has this blog post made any sense whatsoever? Let me know in the comments and we’ll talk. You can also email me or tweet me. More details in the About section.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

July 14, 2019 at 1:53 pm

Taipei, Taiwan: why I stayed 55 days in the same place

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The answer? To focus on writing.

I have been here 53 days and I leave the day after tomorrow. I’ve been here almost two months, which was not part of the plan. Originally, I had intended to travel around Taiwan; heading to the central mountainous region, the food meccas of the south, and a smaller island where I was hoping to take pictures that I could potentially sell. After that, I had hoped to go somewhere else — the Philippines, most probably — on the way to Beijing, which is where I need to be at the end of this month, to cover a business event for a US magazine.

All of that came not to pass. I stayed in Taipei. I learned that June is a terrible month to travel around Asia, as most everywhere, excepting northern parts, are in rainy season. Oh well. And so, I’ve spent all of the time, apart from one Sunday, in Taipei, where it has been hot, rainy, and mostly overcast.

(Pictured: That one time I left Taipei. Thanks Rei Rei for taking me!)

But that’s just how life is sometimes — it pulls you to places you had not planned on being pulled. In my case, I’ve followed my desire to be productive; to create, rather than to consume. (Like I said in my previous post, travel is another kind of consumption.) Instead of traveling around Taiwan, I decided to dwell in Taipei, and I have not even left my neighbourhood much, so I can concentrate on creating.

Over the course of my stay, I’ve finished writing a nonfiction book proposal. This entailed completing a 10,000-word sample, a synopsis, and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. It’s quite a lot of work but I got it done, and by staying in one place, not venturing far and doing routine things — such as eating sweet potatoes for breakfast bought at the convenience store around the corner; going swimming at the local sports centre; walking around nearby gardens — it has helped my productivity.

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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