Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Retreating into smaller comforts

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In the month of February, I spent too much money, and made it worse by not doing any work. I spent a full 30 days in Thailand (I arrived in January) and ate, drank, and indulged. It was enjoyable. But now, in April, I am paying the cost. I’m stuck in Japan, living in a hostel, and as I write this I am in arrears.

So, I’ve drastically reduced spending and have been budgeting hard. I’ve been spending £25 or less per day, including my accommodation costs, which is not bad for Japan. I’ve also enjoyed these quieter days and I have enjoyed working more. Every day I’ve been pitching more and working hard on commissions. I need to earn that cash and the side effect has been a leaning-in to the work, which I’ve embraced, gotten into a routine, and enjoyed the process.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been watching a lot of Netflix and listening to music. I am reading less, but writing more, which is how it should be. Consuming less of other people’s words and creating more of my own. I’ve been working on an essay, a piece of short fiction, a couple of commissioned news features. It’s weird because I am averaging a huge six or seven hours of screentime per day. But it’s because my iPad Mini — one of my best purchases ever — is my entertainment centre as well as a capable computer. In fact, sometimes I prefer working on my iPad (using it with a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard) over my laptop, although for serious writing and editing the laptop still reigns supreme.

My days look like this: getting up around noon, coffee, laptop. Work until around 4pm, eat brunch. Have dinner around 8 or 9pm. Yes, it’s not very healthy. But it has felt good, if sometimes stressful. I’ve been getting by on one or two meals a day. I’ve lost weight. But I feel more focused than I have for some time. It feels like I’m trimming off the fat and regaining focus.

These quieter days, with less busyness, have inspired a quietness within me too. What were we all so busy for anyway? I mean, really. What was it all for? Consumerism encourages you to spend beyond your means, to buy things you don’t need. During these pandemic times, do you really need that Gucci bag, that expensive watch, the latest gadget? The people who have the most have the most to lose. But there is a joy in appreciating the things that cannot be so easily bought. Having a Zoom pub quiz with some of my oldest friends, over three different time zones. Daily calls with K. Enjoying the fact I have writing as my job, passion, and money maker.

We have been spoiled. As an expat in Beijing, I would eat out all the time. Partly out of necessity (I did not cook often and eating out is cheap in China) and partly for enjoyment. Socialising with friends on the weekend and we’d go to restaurants and bars. Our parents would not have dreamed of such luxury, especially on such a frequent basis. What I miss though are not the luxuries. One of the memories I’ve been feasting on is when I was in Chiang Mai, in February, walking alone around a square filled with tables, people, and the conviviality of early evening. I wandered around looking for something to eat and found a stall and ordered off of their limited but specialised menu. It was northern Thai cuisine and I ordered a dish of liver with rice. It arrived after a while, while I checked out everyone, people watching. The liver was tender, the spicing delicious, and the rice gave the soft background the dish needed. It didn’t cost the earth, but my memory lingers over that dish (my mouth is watering as I write this!) — it is not just the food, but the feeling of pure freedom that accrues in retrospect. The freedom was the ultimate luxury. The memory of it a moveable feast.

Lately, I’ve survived on sweet potatoes (nourishing, nutritious, feel-good food) and I have been cooking more. Egg-fried rice, cup noodles, these cheap fairy cakes that offer great calorie-to-yen value. But I also cooked fish. Splashed on pineapple. And lately, I have bought beef. I season the beef well, heat the pan with a generous amount of oil. I whisk a couple of eggs in a bowl. I place the beef into the hot oil, to sizzle the outside on both sides, and then put the beef into the eggs. I make sure the beef is properly drenched in the egg, covered with its yellowy goodness, then finish off the beef in the pan, and put the eggs in with them, and scramble those eggs with the beef. I serve my steak and eggs, and reader, it tastes fantastic. Simple, pleasurable, joyful. Each mouthful a world of savouriness.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 26, 2020 at 4:56 pm

The Wandering Freelance Journalist In A Pandemic: Stuck in Japan and Staying Productive

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Hi reader,

I write you from a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan. I have been here a few weeks. Same hostel, same city. Fukuoka is in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan’s five main islands.

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Since I arrived, I have seen borders close and citizens in cities around the world stuck indoors. We are living through a pandemic, which is defined as the worldwide spread of a new disease. Pubs and schools are closed in the United Kingdom, something that seemed unthinkable. Wuhan, the origin point of the virus, a city of 10 million, was placed under strict lockdown. America and Germany saw infections balloon. France, Italy and Spain have borne the brunt of fatalities. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK, whom I interviewed 10 years ago when he was mayor of London, is in intensive care.

And me? How has it affected my freelance career; my wandering life?

I am fortunate that Japan has a relatively low number of cases. Although a state of emergency has been declared by PM Shinzo Abe, the government here is unable to enforce strict lockdowns due to civil rights abuses during World War Two, and protection of such rights was enshrined in the post-war constitution. Museums, art galleries, schools are closed, but many shops and restaurants remain open here in Fukuoka.

Freelance copywriting work from China has dried up, as many agencies have been affected by clients scaling back their budgets. Many journalism publications, meanwhile, have been under huge pressure to keep up with Coronavirus-related content.

I was supposed to have left Japan, flying from Fukuoka’s airport, on March 23 but my flight was cancelled (still waiting on that refund, Air Asia!). I am glad it was cancelled anyway as my next destination was Kuala Lumpur but the Malay government is not accepting foreign entrants at this time.

I have friends who are currently stuck in Tokyo. After being forced to delay their return to Beijing, where they live, they took refuge in Singapore but had to leave due to finishing visas, but as soon as they left the Singaporean government closed their borders. Now they’re in limbo, with their stuff scattered across two countries. My family in England meanwhile are all at home: with shops and schools closed.

A novelist friend of mine has had her book marketing tour cancelled. Many of my acquaintances and journalist colleagues describe hellish working conditions, as they bury themselves in a deluge of coronavirus reports, or their commissions have all but dried up. A fellow wandering journalist, who had lined up reporting assignments all over India got stuck in Goa, India, but took a hail-mary flight back to London via Rome. Travel journalists, meanwhile, seem the most severely affected. Thankfully no one I know has been terribly affected by the virus, health-wise (touch wood).

Japan

So this is my first time in Japan. I lived in Beijing for six years, but funnily enough I never made it to the Land of the Rising Sun. I always thought it was too expensive, and my suspicions have been confirmed. Truthfully though, Fukuoka at least is not awful in terms of costs. Accommodation and food prices are not as cheap as I’d like but it’s certainly not as costly as, say, the UK.

Everything here is neat, tidy, extremely safe and well organised. But honestly I am not one of these people who are obsessed with Japan, some of whom I have met in my hostel. I’ve never been a Japanophile although it’s always interesting to visit a new country and I was genuinely curious about what this east Asian country would be like. I always find it interesting to compare/contrast China with its historical rivals.

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An island in Japan. (All photos copyright: LHL 2020) 

But Japan doesn’t reach into my soul like places in other parts of Asia do. The symbols and motifs of Nepal; the distinctive light of Burma; the colours of Thailand; and the sultry food of Malaysia and Singapore all sing to me. The “exotic” aspects of southeast Asia speak to my heart.

However, highlights so far have been going to a random restaurant and having my opinion of tempura completely changed. Consuming a superlative bowl of ramen (which cost £7). Visiting an island and meeting an interesting Australian guy and his wife. Seeing the Sakura bloom — I really didn’t expect them to be as splendid as they are.

I know I should visit Kyoto and Nara, and I will at some point, but I think I prefer to save my money for future travels. Tokyo is also on my wish-list but the museums and art galleries there are closed. Getting around Japan is expensive.

My writing life 

While I have been in Fukuoka, I have filed one article, a feature for BBC Worklife. I finished it during an evening in my hostel, while an Australian guy chatted to me about heeding his government’s call for Aussies to return home, and the next day it was published. That article, I’ve been told, has received over 300,000 clicks.

Recent bylines:

How Viruses Spread in Offices – BBC Worklife

How Covid-19 led to a nationwide work-from-home experiment – BBC Worklife

I’ve started work on an essay for which I was contractually commissioned by a literary journal. It has a very long lead-in time (deadline is months away) so I am enjoying this, and Iimg_2936 am excited to write this essay as it marks a first for me.

This week I will work hard on pitching. I worked out I am living on around £25 per day, so I need to file a certain amount of articles per month to keep this show on the road. And I hope the roads will open up soon.

I have seen many writers and freelancers complain of being unable to work and be productive while this pandemic is in swing, but I have found it a clarifying force. I cannot control borders and government ministers and the movement of viruses so I don’t think about them. But I can control my routine. I can control my schedule. I am lucky that I am still able to go outside and wander the parks so I make the most of that. I have a friend here in Fukuoka so we hang out.

Still, I waste a lot of time watching Netflix and bouncing around the various social media. But one doesn’t need to be too hard on oneself. A few days I just spent lounging: reading and Netflix-ing. Watching Snowpiercer and re-watching The Godfather; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Finishing a novel, All That Man Is by David Szalay. Downloading a game, Forgotton Anne (that’s not a typo), on to my iPad. Sometimes you just gotta settle into a simpler rhythm and enjoy the things you have.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 7, 2020 at 1:46 pm

Life Before Work

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Do you remember the time when you were a student? I don’t mean a university student. I mean A-levels — for Americans, it would be high school. Or even earlier, when you were a pupil. Or do you remember when you’d just finished all that, when you had a bit of work, but was waiting around for the next big stage of life?

I remember lying crossways on a leather chair I had in my bedroom, my legs hanging over one side, and in this position, propped against the other side, I’d read Bill Bryson’s travel books. I’d spend what felt like hours in this position, happily entranced by Bryson’s pleasantly amusing narratives.

Or else I’d listen to music on my bed, lying there trapped between my Sennheiser headphones, getting high on the drums of John Bonham or the wild solos of Hendrix.

The iPhone had yet to be released and there were no phone notifications to take you away from these things. If you wanted to check in on Facebook you had to open up your computer and log on to see what people might have posted on your Wall.

Reading those books on my leather chair was an undisturbed experience. It felt like there was so much time. That time was irrelevant really. Because it was endless.

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As a professional writer and journalist my work involves lots of reading. Research. Finding people. Tracking them down. Getting in touch. Interviewing. And writing it all up, sometimes late into the evening.

It resembles actually the work we did at university. It resembles homework.

Because school isn’t just about creating better, more rounded, cleverer human beings. It is also, actually, about preparing a generation of young people for the demands and rigours of work. It steadily introduces more and more work into your life: at school, we might write a two-page essay; A-levels, it’s three to four pages; university, 10,000 words.

By then, we’re used to it. We’ve gotten used to the fact life must be equivalent to work. School says to us we cannot always play. We must work.

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Work can sometimes feel like play. If you are lucky enough.

I am lucky in that I like my job. I like working (although, obviously, not all of the time).

Right now, literally millions of people are working under different circumstances. For office workers, it means working from home.

Working from home. It’s what we did as kids, doing our homework at home. Afterwards, we might turn on our PlayStation. Or log on to MSN Messenger. And we’d relax. We would play. Our thoughts did not focus on the work we had just done. That was behind us.

It’s something we did, but we didn’t do it thinking that the homework was us. That the History essay we had to finish was who you were. That finishing up maths equations defined your identity.

But when you’re an adult, your work becomes you. You are a marketing expert. You are an accountant. You are a legal professional. You are a journalist.

We feel like it never leaves us behind. It’s attached to you, even when you are on holiday. Even when you are picking up rocks on a largely sandy beach, it never quite leaves you. Because you know, deep down, you will have to get back to work eventually.

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But what if you could return to that state? The one of play. But not just play. That feeling that now is forever and forever is now. Getting lost in a book, feeling like there’s nothing else needed to be done.

It’s about time really. Maybe we’ve forgotten, in the endless stream of connectivity and notifications, that time is not in service to that. Social media has trained us — like school did for work — that we should always be “connected”.

But maybe we can use the time to be properly connected: to our closest people, to our community. And also just get lost in solitude. Or to play. Or to just look out the window and think that time should not be spent in thinking that we need to be using it for something.

Because time

Actually

is endless

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 27, 2020 at 5:28 am

February: freelancing woes (and salvation); Bangkok & Taipei; and my hunger for some time off

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cafe in bangkok

This year February is longer than usual. And the leap day falls on a Saturday. Will you do something special with this twenty-ninth day?

It’s been a while since I wrote you, reader. And last time we met I was in Chiang Mai chafing at the idyllic nature of it all. After Chiang Mai I went to Bangkok and I simultaneously missed Chiang Mai, its luscious nature, and felt glad to be away from it. Such are our contradictory natures. 

I arrived in Chiang Mai on the 22nd January and I left Thailand, via Bangkok, on the 21st February. I spent 30 days in Thailand, unexpectedly extending my stay by several days.

I write you from a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan. It is the same hostel I stayed in for over a month last year. Next Monday I leave and travel back to the Philippines. I won’t explain all my comings and goings to you, but just know that traveling is sometimes based on whims and it is perilous to ignore those whims.

A week ago or so I had a bit of a crisis. Basically I was having a meltdown because I had spent too much money in Thailand and I had no work booked in. The pitches I had managed to send off in the past month had all been rejected and I even had had one commission cut off. The money going out was not being replaced by money coming in. This is not sustainable.

I even thought about quitting journalism and just finding some stable and safe job. Then I hustled. I pitched. I worked. I have mostly stayed in or around my hostel, venturing out only to buy food, to go running and swimming. Salvation came via a commission that wasn’t even my pitch. It was from an editor who I contacted via Twitter last August while I was in Singapore, and with whom I arranged a coffee-meet. Since then I have kept in touch with this editor, pitching her on occasion, and finally I have received paid work. I have received more work, copywriting, via my network too. In Chinese this is known as guanxi — a term that goes beyond the western-equivalent word: networking. To develop good guanxi is key to a good life.

So I will have money coming in again, which is good. Money is always good.

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a park in taipei

I also feel like I need to settle down somewhere for a while and work on literary writing. That is really important to me. To find some space and move away from the commercial writing (journalism) and to seek the solace and joy of working on my own stuff. I am still not sure where this place will be. I’ll let you know…

I’ve been a journalist for over seven years and a full-time freelancer for five. Maybe it is natural that my thoughts turn to some kind of career break. It would be great to hear from another journalist, or anyone, who has taken a break of this kind, and what they learned from the experience, or even maybe transitioned to doing something completely else. I always enjoy hearing other people’s stories. 

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 29, 2020 at 5:57 am

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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What I’ve been reading #2

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Near the Cliffs of Moher (all images LHL)

It’s been over 8 weeks since my last round-up of interesting articles, but here is a selection, plus an update on my writing life. First up, this piece on BBC WorklifeWhy some people are impossibly talented

Super science-writer David Robson (he’s also been a commissioning editor for me) writes about the secrets of polymaths, and how you too could learn to be more multi-talented.

Modern society teaches us to specialise; to become highly skilled in a niche as an expert in a specific subject or skill comes with a certain cache. But it seems that having diverse interests might be better for creativity and life satisfaction. A key tip I gleaned was that shifting between different interests might boost overall productivity. So no need to feel guilty if you decide to take a short break from writing to practice the trombone.

Next, an interview on LitHub with one of my all-time favourite writers — John Jeremiah Sullivan: There’s No Such Thing as Wasted Writing

Sullivan is an Southern American writer whose sentences have a cocaine-like* quality in their smooth clarity and whose paragraphs flow and sing like no other is a bit of a hero of mine ever since I stumbled onto his journalism collection Pulphead.

*don’t do drugs, kids!

It was interesting then to learn that he finds the act of writing torturous: “I sit down to write the way you’d sit down with your parole officer. Any buckets are for puking in”.

Sullivan knew writers from a very different generation: the kind of writers who walked in the shadow of giants like William Faulkner and it was instructive to hear him talk about one of these geezers: “I felt grateful to know people like Lytle, who had come from a previous era that possessed a kind of egomaniacal passion we hardly have access to now. Lytle was someone who talked about prose as a vocation, with no irony. It wasn’t florid either, it was very…tough, you know?”

Lastly, I’ve been reading Nikesh Shukla’s writing tips newsletter. Shukla is a novelist and screenwriter who came to prominence for editing the landmark anthology The Good Immigrant. His advice about editing (don’t edit as you go) and “what’s it really about” I found especially useful.

My writing life 

Last month, in November, I wrote thousands of words for a nonfiction book sample. I also did some copywriting for a few clients. Journalism work has been thinner. In the past couple of weeks, I dashed off a couple of articles for two publications. One is a feature about life as a freelancer in Beijing, the realities versus expectations, and the other is about a video game.

I’ve just got back from a holiday to Ireland with a few friends. We drove around, stopping in scenic villages and driving the western coast. Ireland is very beautiful and the people are lovely. We were blessed with good weather seeing lots of clear skies and sunshine, and although it was cold, it was very cosy to get to the evening and finding yourself in an Irish pub looking forward to a hearty meal and a pint of Guinness. (It really does taste different in Ireland.)

Tomorrow, I journey to London for a writer’s lunch and afternoon meeting, which I am looking forward to. We’ll be having dim sum and we’ll talk about our work and I hope there will be some readings.

While I was on holiday, one of my friend’s made mention that it’d be nice to live in one of those small coastal towns, overlooking the sea, while writing a book. To me, and everyone else, that didn’t sound too bad.

These days, I am reading a lot more poetry than I ever did before, which isn’t difficult as I hardly ever read the stuff. I bought Ocean Vuong’s poetry book; John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone; and in Ireland I picked up a collection of W.B. Yeats. The movement and movie-like quality found in poetry I’ve found hugely edifying. It’s entire stories and narrative compressed into strange, mythical shape. I really recommend getting into poetry, especially if you’re starting out as a writer. There is no other form that is more potent.

To end, here is a 2,000 word feature I wrote about money for the BBC, which has just been published.

5 December, BBC FutureDoes e-money make you spend more?

I pitched the idea for this article in Taipei, in July, and I conducted some of the interviews for this piece while living (alone) in a four-bed hostel room. Such is the glamorous life of a nomadic freelance writer. I filed it while living in a friend’s house in Beijing. And after receiving feedback from my editor, I finished off the piece with edits while living in a pod hostel in Singapore, in August, where I happened to meet an Irish girl who I caught up with while I was in Ireland, in Dublin, just a few days ago. Such is the rhyme of life!

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 7, 2019 at 6:37 pm

Writing 20,000 words

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There was a time when writing 10,000 words seemed like a major undertaking, an academic slog, a marathon. Writing the dissertation for my journalism degree, around 10,000 words, seemed quite a big deal. And it doesn’t ever become a tiny thing. Yes, as a professional writer I regularly accrue many thousands of words. But these are for separate articles. One sustained piece of writing that clocks up 8,000 words or more is not a piece of cake.

It is doubly hard when you’re writing a piece of creative nonfiction, as opposed to journalism with its formulas and expectations. Writing a reported feature about expats living in Paris, to take an example, poses different challenges to writing a personal exploration of what it is like living in Paris as an expat. One requires research and interviews: reporting; while the other is memoir and creative nonfiction.

Obviously, if you wrote bad memoir, a long rambling piece that no one wants to read, then the task would certainly be a walk in the park, but to write originally, compellingly and atmospherically requires considerable attention and skill.

I wrote 10,000 words over a few weeks, while living in a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan, in June this year. It was for a nonfiction book proposal. I also wrote an outline and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown.

I sent it out to a few agents. I got a rejection by one. A couple of non-replies. And one expression of interest. The agent that got back to me asked me a question about the project. And the question was a useful one.

But it took me a while before I really understood the nature of the question. The question concerned the vision I had for the book. And how I answered would determine my success with said agent.

To cut a story short, I am now rewriting the book sample. I am writing another 10,000 words, from scratch. Now the whole project has a different prospect. It is a slow process, but I try to put in the work on a daily basis. Every day I try to get words down on the page.

Some days it’s only 300, 400 words. Some days, it’s 700, 800. I rarely exceed that. But taken over 30 days, a month’s work, that racks up to 15,000 words (assuming an average of 500 words/day).

I can’t write much more than 1000 words a day – in this form – because I just find it really hard. But maybe there will come a time when this changes.

There was a time when I would’ve thought writing 80,000 words for a novel, or 10k words for a nonfiction book sample, an insurmountable challenge. I wouldn’t know where to start, and, more significantly, not know how to create anything approaching original, interesting to readers, or compelling.

But this rings true for many things. Back when I was still a journalism student the idea that I could turn in a 1000-word news feature about a complex subject, with a range of reporting and research, within 24 hours, would’ve seemed outlandish — but that’s what I did recently for this news feature for WIRED. These are within my capabilities.

It takes time to hone that craft. But actually, more than practice, it takes a kind of inner development to really push through to take on challenges you never thought you could take on successfully.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 17, 2019 at 12:32 pm