Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

January, 2019

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I’ve spent most of this month indoors. Most people do. Whether it’s in an office or in the confines of a house, we are usually bound by four walls. I go running from time to time. I borrowed Karl Ove Knausgaard’s fifth novel in his tetralogy Min Kamp from Hastings library and ploughed through its 660 pages. He’s a Norwegian writer and writes about his life in fictive form but with the honesty and detail of autobiography. It’s been termed auto-fiction.

In this fifth book Some Rain Must Fall he writes about his time as a student living in Bergen attending a writing course, his low opinion of himself, his attempts at being a fiction writer set against the successes of two friends, who are younger and more precocious than him, and about his relationship with his older brother, his family, and his romances with women. Two things stand out from the book: despite being a good-looking, almost two-metres tall Norwegian writer with ambition, his extremely low self esteem, and the clarity and rhythm of his sentences that are so reflective of whatever he is writing about.

He is a writer who is attuned to nature. He doesn’t write the names of trees; he just refers to trees as “trees”, rather than as pines or oaks or whatever, and he uses descriptions of nature and weather very well.

When I go running it’s usually on country roads, or through a local wood, and on muddy fields. It’s cold in January, of course, and I’ve noticed that my mood is usually low and depressed this time of year, especially the initial couple of weeks. It always passes. Emotions are just like weather; they move and pass through.

I’ve spent January working on a piece of nonfiction for a writing competition and on short stories. I like writing literature and I hope at some point I can do it fulltime. It will take time.

For my freelance journalism “career” I’ve sent out 12 pitches to editors. I’ve received one commission, one expression of interest, two rejections, and the rest of the pitches I received no reply despite my follow-ups. As you can see that’s not a good hit rate. The trick is not to be disheartened, to persevere, and to make sure future pitches are better.

I’ve continued working for a marketing company as an editor, copywriter, and consultant. I enjoy it and I wouldn’t mind doing more of it. Having diverse income streams is a good idea for a freelancer.

For this year I would like to branch out more beyond journalism. I have some ideas and I want to test them. The road ahead is not very clear to me. But I will let you know how they turn out.

Lately, I read an interesting article. It’s headlined The Equation That Will Make You Better at Everything [link]. The equation is simple and it reminded me of something that I should apply to the things I do. That is get out of my comfort zone. If I find myself cruising, stuck on autopilot, and going through the motions, I should find work that challenges me. If you’re a freelance journalist, that means getting a commission that will make you feel slightly uncomfortable, slightly scared, and under pressure, because you know the task will demand more of you than going through the motions.

Feeling uncomfortable is the only way to grow.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

January 27, 2019 at 11:24 pm

Being Home Again

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These are not our horses.

I’ve been at home, living at the parent’s place, since the first week of December. The last time you encountered me was in Vietnam I believe. From October to November I was traveling. I went to the Philippines, Vietnam (where a friend joined me), and Malaysia (where I joined three other friends). I then went to Hong Kong and crashed on a couple of friends’ sofas for two weeks before finally heading back to wintry Beijing. I stayed there for a bit, did some work, socialized, collected much of my things, and then flew to sunny England.

While I was traveling, doing my “location independent thing”, I soon marvelled at how those travel bloggers and so-called digital nomads do it — not the work side of it, but the ceaseless moving around.

Anyway, now Christmas is over and soon this year will fold away into the past. And 2018 has presented me with some genuinely strange memories. Tragic, sad, wondrous, indelible.

I remember when I was in Seoul, Korea, on a vacation/assignment. I would do my reporting in the day when that was required of me, and meet up with a local journalist who I’d made the acquaintance of via Twitter. Damin is her name and she works at The Korea Times. We watched Mexico play Korea in the middle of Seoul, sat on the lawn, drinking beer with all the other Koreans, at midnight.

Other times I was alone, so very alone. And it often happens that when I am abroad and alone I sometimes feel lonely and a little wretched but these feelings are seldom overwhelming. But then I always look back on those times with positivity. As if that alone-ness was the utmost luxury: just pure freedom.

I’d walk the streets of Seoul. Just walking, lots and lots of walking. I think I averaged around 25,000 steps a day. When I’d eaten dinner, I’d walk for an hour or so, and then start thinking about heading back. I was staying in the lovely apartment of someone I met in Beijing who’d found a job in Seoul (he was out of town when I visited). When I got to my destination subway station, of the apartment, I’d head to a convenience store across the street where I’d buy a creamy bread and a couple of beers. I’d walk home with that. I’d load up a football game on my laptop. This was late June and the World Cup was on. I’d eat my creamy bread and watch the game and drink my beers. Then I’d go to bed and try to sleep but often wouldn’t be able to until around 4am. I’d wake around midday and repeat the process. Lots of walking, in the June heat. See a few sights. Have dinner. Buy creamy bread and beers for midnight supper. Football. Bed.

On my trip to the Philippines, which was surprising in many ways, I remember one day being taken to a beach by a local. I was on the island of Palawan, in El Nido. We arrived late in the day, just in time for the sunset. And then we walked on the beach while the sky turned from orange to beige and deepest navy, and she told me her sad story about her French boyfriend who she had a baby with and who wanted to marry her but she didn’t want to marry so young, and he had terrible mood swings, and so she abandoned him, and I listened while the surf washed softly over our feet.

It’s those kind of moments I remember.

That are full of adventure, soulfulness, spontaneity.

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That gorgeous beach near El Nido, Palawan.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 28, 2018 at 10:53 pm

Posted in Features

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Doing the location independent thing

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Dear reader,

I am writing you from Hoi An, Vietnam.

Last week I was in the Philippines, taking in El Nido, Palawan, and Manila. I am currently in Vietnam, having stopped in Hanoi and Da Nang. Next stop will be Malaysia. From there it might be Cambodia next, once we reach November, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.

I am working while on the road, traveling with a regular-sized backpack and an H&M carry-on. Vietnamese 4g is excellent by the way.

I’m not rich. The flight ticket from Beijing to Manila was cheap. From Manila to Hanoi, it was just over half that: about £60.

I’m currently staying in this hotel, and it costs £20 a night for a double room including breakfast (and the pool of course).

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For October and November I will be traveling and making money with my location having nothing to do with my work.

But I’ve been able to make this change due to having spent a large amount of time accruing value and contacts in Beijing. That is my foundation.

Beijing is a massive metropole that is connected to international companies and the global economy. It is the capital city of the world’s second largest economy with many brands and businesses hoping to tap into such a large consumer base. It is a good place to make contacts, whether friendly or professional (they can often be the same thing), and a large enough entity to find valuable professional niches.

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being a tourist in hanoi

I have a like-hate relationship with Beijing, but I’ll always recommend tapping into the commercial opportunities inherent in such a large, dynamic, and globally connected city that’s a spearhead of a developing nation.

I migrated to Beijing in 2012 looking for adventure and new experiences. I learned a massive amount in six years. This is what many young people do: migrate for work. It’s a rite of passage for many citizens of the world. Whether it’s trying out Manchester or London; or going further afield in Berlin, Budapest, or Bali, there are opportunities available across the world. All it takes is a little courage.

Location is both important and not important. The modern knowledge economy is based on technology: the Internet to be exact. But having some expertise — how to market to Chinese consumers, or the language, for example — gives you greater value. That’s why I think accruing some sort of expertise before you start blogging your way around the world might be a good idea, or traveling with that mindset to begin with.

But I don’t have all the answers. Next year I’ll probably try the location independence thing longer term, with an emphasis on journalism. One of the great things about freelance journalism is traveling with a sense of adventure and mission; to discover new things that might not look so photogenic on Instagram, but that is often more rewarding.

The adventurous life of a freewheeling photojournalist

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Although primarily a freelance writer; I’ve also made money from photography, selling photo galleries to CNN, Aljazeera, Dazed.com, etc, as well as printed in two editions of Marie Claire using this Canon S120.

What if you could travel the world in search of hidden sights; uncovering secret stories, and journeying to places few have ever seen? What if you had to tough it out bumping on rocky roads for hours on end, drinking vodka with lairy locals, and sleeping in godforsaken places, but always lit inside by the spirit of adventure?

This is the life Amos Chapple wanted. Amos Chapple is a New Zealander, somewhere in his 30s, and lives in Prague, Czech Republic.

Many photojournalists, however, travel. Over the years I’ve gotten to know a few. I once interviewed a photojournalist who I’ll never forget. I interviewed Nicole Tung who went into Libya during the civil war in her early twenties. Even over Skype, the preternatural confidence of someone who decided to venture, unassisted and of her own volition, into an active conflict zone, was clearly audible.

So why did this Amos chap intrigue me? It was because he did something different. It was because he decided to head into the field with a small, Micro Four Thirds camera (M43), rather than a large, full-frame DSLR.

M43 cameras use relatively small sensors (although still much bigger than the sensors found in smartphone or most compact cameras), than compared with the full-frame sensors found in professional-class DSLRs like Canon’s 5D series.

But they make up for this by having much smaller camera bodies and lenses.

In Chapple’s own words, they are, apart from not so great low light performance, all good: “The dainty size that no one is bothered by; the lightning-quick focus; the USB charging port that allows me to disappear into the wilds for days on end with just two batteries and a powerbank; the early adoption of Wi-Fi for zippy filing to social media and backing up pics on the run; the pop-up flash (I’ve never understood the aversion); the rock-solid reliability (ten years of full-time shooting and I’ve only had one camera fail in a rainstorm).”

And the results he gets are spectacular, with a filmic quality that lends itself to a documentary style. His photos have been published in most major news titles and before he went freelance he shot fulltime for UNESCO, traveling around capturing World Heritage Sites.

You can check out his stuff here, here, and here – including the story of how, at 27, he decided to transform his life to commit to a freelance photojournalist’s life.

I emailed Chapple to ask about his choice to shoot full-time with such a camera. Here is what he said:

I chose M43 because it’s IMO the best compromise between image quality and physical size. Maybe I could get cleaner photos on a bigger sensor but would I have enough stamina to go as far as I can with a tiny camera? Would I be able to get into the same intimate, touchy situations that the discreet cameras allow me to? Probably not, so I’m prepared to use a camera with a max usable ISO of 3200!

Good stuff!

Here is another example of a photographer who thought outside the box, and another story I felt inspired by.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 9, 2018 at 3:50 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

Notes about a full-time travel blogger

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Richelle is a blogger I met in Beijing a few years ago in Chaoyang park.

We connected on WeChat, and on occasion we would meet up and talk about life in Beijing, and our respective writing careers, which are very different.

It was so interesting gaining an insight into what it takes to make money from full-time blogging, and Richelle’s ambitions in this domain.

She was incredibly honest and open about her struggles; authentic in her worries and stresses, and so willing to share answers to whatever inquiring questions I had.

One of the most emphatic things I discovered was just how much work it takes to make it as a professional blogger. But I was also left with a sense of how determined and creative Richelle was, of how she was someone who had perseverance.

Now that Richelle has left Beijing (she is currently in Tanzania with her fiance, who is also a travel blogger and a lovely bearded Aussie) she is living the future she had so wanted when we talked about her plans. The life of a digital nomad, of a traveler, and a full-time blogger.

Richelle is someone who has combined her job with her life in a way that is intertwined. She is a freelancer like me, but we differ in our desires for how a freelance life should be. This is why she is living it the way she is. And that is always a brilliant part of what makes alternative lifestyles so captivating. To look into a pool of possibility and see what could be; of what might be, and what might never be.

It has been a while actually since we had cocktails for her departing drinks in Beijing and she has just written a blog post about the lessons she’s learned in six years of travel blogging. I recommend it highly.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 5, 2018 at 5:00 am

Canon S120 review: 3.7 years later

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This image was shot on my iPhone SE which, like this camera, offers impressive performance in an affordable and compact package

When the Canon S120 appeared in 2013 it was a technological marvel. It managed to pack a relatively large sensor, a useful 24 to 120mm lens, with a large f1.8 at the wide angle, and optical image stabilization, in a form factor that was impressively compact.

I bought it in February 2014 to replace a Canon Digital IXUS 980 IS (2008). The 980 IS is a legendary camera but technology advances and the S120 offered much improved image quality with its evolved sensor and brighter lens.

Since then I have used the S120 as my main journalism camera, bringing it with me to Nepal, Burma, and North Korea, where images were used to illustrate articles published in NewsChina, CNN Travel, and Aljazeera, respectively.

In fact, the North Korea trip has turned out to be the most profitable.

Images I shot there were printed in Marie Claire (Netherlands & South Africa) this summer, proving you don’t need a big, bulky DSLR to sell images to glossy magazines.

I still bring the S120 on reporting assignments, for portraits mostly, in case the newspaper for which I’ve been freelancing needs an accompanying photo.

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The ‘legendary’ Digital IXUS 980 IS which I used from 2008 to 2014

But lately I’ve been feeling the urge to upgrade.

The Sony RX100 and the Canon G7 X use sensors that are double the size of the one in the S120 with evolved imaging software that combine to produce DSLR-alike images in a frame not much larger than the S120.

But I am finding it difficult to choose.

The RX100 series are superb compacts that people rave about, and deservedly so, and from the fourth iteration onward manage to fit an awesome EVF into its svelte body. But I prefer Canon’s colour profile and the Sony camera’s focal range only extends to 70mm.

The Canon G7X II uses the same larger-sized sensor as the RX100, and has a longer 100mm lens reach, but I’ve heard it has auto-focusing issues and is a slower camera to use compared to its speedy Sony rival.

My other option is to upgrade to a larger camera where there are mirror-less options such as the Canon M6, the Fuji X series, and the Sony A6000. The latter two use colour profiles that are not to my liking, while the M6 could be a real option if it were a little cheaper.

The conclusion?

I think I will stick with the camera I have, at least until I see an option that is as good as the difference that I saw between the 980 IS and the S120, where there were no compromises and only improvement. I won’t get that with the G7X II, but maybe the third iteration or a new Canon mirrorless in the new year might sway me.