Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘alec ash

The literary dream of Beijing

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When you’re young and ambitious, keen on literary adventure, the idea of moving to a new country and becoming a writer is hugely romantic. You may not be the next Hemingway or Graham Greene, but the ghosts of those greats –- men who drank, chased women and saw their art as their masculine fixation –- leave long seductive shadows.

Beijing is not London or Tokyo, Tangier or Rome. It doesn’t have the transparent allure of LA or the colourful chaos of Mexico City. And it sure as hell ain’t Paris. It doesn’t look beautiful in the rain and the architecture lacks all grace and subtlety. Beijing is unrelenting in its grayness, and filled with poor decisions about infrastructure and basic city planning. It’s a city so mired in reality that any charm pours straight into its drains, which are too few and badly designed. Yet journalists and writers have flocked here. Why?

I was born in the southern city of Guilin in 1989. Before I was born, but after I was conceived, my father swam from China to Hong Kong. Well, almost swam there. He didn’t quite make it. He was picked up by Hong Kong water police after nine hours in the water, trying to reach the fabled British colony. If you want to read more about this family history, you can find it here. Suffice to say politics was involved in his decision to escape China. I moved to England, and met my father for the first time when I was five. At the age of twenty three, I reversed his journey and moved from Britain back to China.

For anyone who decides to move abroad, it’s impossible to fathom how much you learn, how much you experience, the amount of misery you endure, but also how much optimism sustains you.

I landed in Beijing in 2012, just as autumn began its brief spell. I had vague plans to improve my Chinese, get more bylines, explore job opportunities. The first two months were miserable and lonely. I had few friends –- I think I had one, maybe two –- no job and a small rented bedroom to live in, where I could touch both walls at the same time. I went to cafés, read the internet, sent a few emails. Sex, literature and food were the three preoccupations orbiting my imagination. Late at night I would write in my mind, dreaming up plots and fine sentences that describe but move no story, like a red ribbon bowed upon nothing.

Eventually I landed a paid internship at a listings magazine, which, in retrospect, was the perfect gig when you’re new to a city. There’s almost no pressure and it’s your job to attend events, explore new areas and meet new people. The editor there, a loud and rambunctious Mancunian, took a liking to me and gave me some breaks. The internship became a fulltime gig, albeit only marginally better paid. I supplemented my income by writing economics and education articles for a student business magazine. I didn’t make a lot of money.

There have been times when circumstances were dire. For one week in my first November, I survived on sweet potatoes bought from street sellers for breakfast, lunch and dinner while I waited for some money to hit the bank account. I roamed the streets, walking blocks sometimes, in search of the rural migrants who sold them from three-wheeled trikes, oil drums on the back turned into makeshift ovens. Sometimes I haggled over the price, then realised I shouldn’t. I picked the potato I wanted and ate all of it, the crispy caramel skin and the soft, warm flesh.

After a year, I had learned so much. Within two years, Beijing had become a second home and the start of a career. I had created a life for myself, in a city far away from home, and the knowledge of that will always redeem my pride. For anyone who decides to move abroad, it’s impossible to fathom how much you learn, how much you experience, the amount of misery you endure, but also how much optimism sustains you. How you trust that eventually everything will be alright, and in the end it generally is.

Beijing is a city full of memories that burnish your twenties into an elegant nostalgia, ready to plunder when you settle down elsewhere. When you’re dancing in some sweaty disco and the lights are green and crazy and the Chinese girls are swaying to those odd personal rhythms slightly out of sync with the music and you’ve drunk several pints of cheap Chinese beer, warm and watery, your mind inexorably drifts toward wondering how you arrived at this bizarre moment. You know it’s an illusion, but also your immediate reality. You want to write, but don’t do it enough. You want to seem well-read, but don’t have the time. You want to go everywhere, if you only had the money, but don’t want to work in some crappy job.

Your twenties fly past like a blizzard. Beijing is a vessel into which we pour our ambitions and desires. It’s a landscape where foreigners can skim the cream, make expedient connections and live out their choices free of the expectations of home. It’s a wide canvas, and adventurous souls have always come to paint their projections upon it. When later the dream sours and you’ve drunk away yet another afternoon in a Sanlitun bar, you come to realise Beijing has corrupted you. Worse still, you’ve gotten used to it, and thoughts of Dayton or Hastings or Frankfurt, or wherever you’re from, have diminished into a box that you’ve tucked away under “life back home”.

If I sound jaded after less than three years, it’s because I’ve fallen out of love with that first sense of discovery. What initially seemed novel and wondrous has become habitual and muddy at the edges. The distance between foreign and local lifestyles is cavernous. When I’m in Jing A, a popular microbrewery teeming with Americans enjoying craft beers in the sun, I can’t help but feel disillusioned. I’m not going to do anything drastic like move away, but Beijing can mar the soul. The city is straightened by huge roads and grid-like blocks, with few pockets where you can just sit and be. I have a theory that you can tell how cozy a city is by the proportion of benches to people. London has benches galore, and corners overflow with accidental pockets of respite. How many benches are there in Beijing?

Still, there have been moments of clarity. A star-pocked night, revelry in the air and the Great Wall of China lit up by lights. Sneaking into the VIP section with a couple of friends at a music festival. All the sitting in cafés. How we kid ourselves with coffee, the ritual of it mollifying the metallic glare of the laptop in front of us, while we think of what to write.

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This post originally appeared on The Anthill. It was written while I was in some despondency in the summer of 2015.

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Part two: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Kate Burt is a freelance writer and editor for publications including the Independent (“where I’ve also been a commissioning editor – so I know the other side!”), and the Guardian. She also blogs at yourhomeislovely.com

Publication: Melody Maker (RIP)

Fee: About £30 as I recall!

What were you doing at the time?

I was a staff writer on a teen magazine, my first proper journalism job. Then I met the editor of Melody Maker [a now defunct music publication] on the bus to work, which I took every day, and he kept on at me to write some freelance reviews for the mag as we’d always chat about music on the bus. It became a regular thing and started me on the road to full-time freelancing.

How did you get the commission?

My first commission following a pitch – rather than bus chat – was for the Guardian Guide. I had pitched dozens of ideas to them for months and been rejected over and over but it was my dream to write for them at the time. I learnt that I needed to give them something no one else would – so I offered an interview with the then obscure Derren Brown whose first late-night C4 TV show was called Mind Control or something.

I got the PR to provisionally agree that I could interview Derren if the Guardian said yes so I could put that in the pitch, which is important (what if they say no after you’ve pitched?). I outlined an idea that I would try out six of his mind control tricks on various strangers and write about how it worked. No staff writer had the time for that, it was quite quirky and funny and introduced a new talent that fitted the Guide’s entertainment remit. Getting the word “new” into a pitch, I learned, is key, as is being game to get out there and understanding what is a good fit for the publication.

Make your idea unique to you

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Why I blog – by Alec Ash

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This is a guest post by Alec Ash, a young British writer who came to Beijing in 2008. He studied Mandarin and started a blog about Chinese youth. He has been published in The Economist, Prospect, Salon, Literary Review, and is a correspondent for The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is currently working on a book for Picador.

George Orwell, in his essay Why I Write, said there are four motives for writing of any kind: (i) Sheer egoism, (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm, (iii) Historical impulse, and (iv) Political purpose. I figured I’d do the same kind of list for why I blog.

I’ll keep this short and pithy, imitating Orwell with four bullet points based on his above motives (he was a born blogger). Part of the point of this is to try and tease out if there’s a difference between writers (i.e. authors, columnists), journalists and bloggers, when it comes to why we put pen to paper, finger to laptop, in the first place. So…why do I blog?

(i) Sheer egoism. That’s right, no need to change the first and most powerful motive for any writer. Anyone who deludes themselves that what they have to say is of such interest to the world that they simply must put it down permanently is more than a touch vainglorious. When it comes to blogging, even more so – no one invited you to write, and likely no one’s paying you to do it. Hardly anyone will be reading it either, to begin with. Why bother? Because deep down you think you’re shit hot, and want other people to know that.

Blogging in China adds the extra incentive of expat status – something to set you apart, so you can show you’re not just another English teacher, that you know China, that you’re following the latest news everyone’s talking about, and you’ve met all the big name expats, and know all the cool bars, and your Chinese is crazy good. I should add that journalists, especially news reporters, who blog as part of their job are less vain and egotistical than your average garden blogger.

(ii) Community enthusiasm. Did I just make China bloggers out to be a pack of vain pricks? I apologise. That’s not what I think at all. The English language China “blogosphere” (how I loath that term) is one of the most vibrant out there, full of people who are contributing to our collective understanding of China in a very meaningful way. In that sense it’s a community effort, with blogs linking to and building on each other’s research and analysis in a form of crowd-sourced journalism. Whether that’s a productive conversation or a “circle jerk”, as some would have it, it’s something that writers want to be part of.

(iii) Journalistic impulse. Anyone living in China is confronted every day with things that just beg to be written about. It might be a conversation with a Chinese friend or stranger, a new piece of information that nuances your understanding of an issue, or something you found on the Chinese internet and want to share. One way to tell if you’re a writer at heart, for better or worse, is if when you see or think of something interesting, you feel a need to set it down in words for others – that somehow the experience or thought is incomplete until you put it into language.

In China, those interesting things are hitting you in the face every day. What’s more, most of them won’t get written if you don’t write them, especially if you’re somewhere other than Beijing or Shanghai. The country’s just too big, and professional journalists can’t be everywhere at once. So the journalistic impulse to record your impressions on a blog is especially strong here.

(iv) Corrective purpose. A lot of China blogs, I feel, exist in part to correct or add nuance to what mainstream opinion gets wrong. Maybe the press have gotten their facts mixed up, but you’re there on the ground with access and time to pick at the details. Maybe the mainstream narrative is over-simplified or single-sided, and you have something to say about that. Maybe, God forbid, Tom Friedman (a columnist for The New York Times) has written about China again. Whatever the spur, correcting the generalisations and misconceptions about China that are so legion is an important reason why we do this.

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There you have it. My changes from Orwell’s wording are small. “Historical impulse” becomes journalistic impulse, because bloggers know they’re not recording for posterity, only for the moment. “Political purpose” turns into corrective purpose, because we also know we won’t make a difference, and are often only talking among ourselves. “Aesthetic enthusiasm”, i.e. the joy of crafted writing, plays less of a part in blogging, which is more conversational and hastily knocked out – but bloggers enjoy the act of writing, too. In fact, another big motive for keeping a blog, myself included, is to galvanise yourself to write regularly, and to write better and faster.

Alec Ash will be speaking at The Bookworm Literary Festival (2014) for “Blogging China”, a panel discussion featuring notable Beijing blog founders. More info can be found here. His website The Anthill is an online publication for China-based writers. 

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

March 7, 2014 at 9:38 am

Money: or rather the lack of it when you’re trying to freelance

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A Beijing hutong (alleyway). Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang.

A Beijing hutong (alleyway). Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang.

Until very recently I did not have a regular income and though 2013 was marked by great experiences (some of the best ever in fact), it was not one that saw me in great wealth. I won’t go over the details but there were periods where I had to subsist on the cheapest foods and debt seemed unending.

Poverty. Not many of us actually know it and know it well, and I would not be one to claim expertise. But a couple of things I saw recently helped to reaffirm my position toward the accumulation of cash. The first was a quote I saw in Tom Bissell’s book Magic Hours. In an essay about writing and writers he quotes author Natalie Goldberg: “I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work”.

The second thing was a video of an interview with a musician who said: “If I have enough to pay rent, buy groceries then that’s cool – I can just concentrate on my music”.

Being ‘poor’ is relative. We live in an age of bounteous opportunity. Being so-called poor provides a clear set of options. How? Well, it frees you to concentrate on what most matters.

A month ago I published a post on WannabeHacks.co.uk, a website for aspiring journalists. There I set out the argument that in order to freelance, especially in the early stages of your career, one of the best things you can do is go and live in an emerging economy country.

In writing this blog, I have already made contacts with fellow freelancers who are doing what I am doing: taking a risk, moving to somewhere exciting where things are rapidly changing and kickstarting their journalism career. Someone I know (met via this blog) decided to relocate to Istanbul and has already been commissioned multiple times for a major magazine.

But it can be difficult, especially financially. It helps to have some money saved up. But one of the best things about living in a country like China or Turkey or Malaysia or Mexico is that although economies are growing things are still relatively cheap. In China I eat out almost everyday and party hard. If I were freelancing in London, I’d probably already be dead. Due to starvation and exposure (’cause I couldn’t afford a roof over my head).

Kate Hodal (Guardian) sold most of her possessions to finance a move to south-east Asia and was so hard-up on so many occasions that she almost went home. But she persevered and now has the envy-inducing job of being South-east Asia correspondent, meaning she gets paid to fly to places like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines from her base in Thailand. Jonathan Kaiman (also Guardian) had to survive on a low-paid internship and a visa that forced him to take a bus full of Mongolian tradesman to Mongolia every month for almost a year, but he got bylines in the New York Times, LA Times, Foreign Policy and is now one of the most talented China correspondents around. Alec Ash, a Brit and correspondent for The Los Angeles Review of Books, wrote for four years for free on his blog about China from his home in Beijing. Now he’s living it up on an advance for a book he’s been signed to write.

Having the ability to purchase that new phone or buy that bag makes people happier. But it doesn’t, not really. You have to switch your mindset around to focus on what’s really going to drive you forward. Those shoes or that expensive meal might seem important but the enjoyment is absolutely inessential. You cannot, must not, think short-term material goals at this stage. What is important and infinitely more satisfying is recognition, appreciation of your work; the attainment of value.

To want more and more stuff is unerringly shallow. Invest in yourself. Buy what you need to hone your craft, no more. Spend on experiences…but spend wisely.

Being rich is meaningless if it doesn’t make you better at what you do.