Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘China

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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Do you want freedom?

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Over the past three weeks I have flown to Hong Kong, Chengdu, and Qingdao. It was for leisure and a little bit of business. Writing and traveling.

Tonight I was at my friend’s apartment playing a board game and during our game one of my friend’s flatmates repeatedly made mention of the fact that it was to be Monday the next day. The fear and the dread.

I did not share in her dread.

Monday, for me, means getting up at any time I want. Monday means setting my own goals and schedule for the coming week. Monday means not setting my day according to an arbitrary alarm telling me when I should get up, and, thank my lucky stars, no hellish commute.

The freedom I have gained is due to three circumstances. Three things that have allowed me to enjoy a bounteous sense of time and space:

  1. I am a writer & I work freelance.
  2. I live in Beijing so my money stretches further for basic things like food and socializing, and my money isn’t sucked up by sky-high renting fees.
  3. My skills as a writer, and the contacts I have built up, have been slowly accrued and the fact I can use these skills to their most freedom-giving advantage took me years to deploy properly.

The last point is by far the most important.

The fact I moved abroad allows me to leverage my expertise more quickly because my skills in China are more in demand than they would be back in the UK (everyone speaks and writes English in England; fewer do so in China).

That’s the basic principle of supply and demand.

This is also compounded by the fact some companies specifically will want someone who is based in that foreign country, and for me that’s China.

A little expertise in business, marketing, PR, technology, and especially any niche industry, will stand you a long way in China especially as many companies would like to gain or utilize a bit of that expertise in the world’s second largest economy.

Language skills are a definite plus. The number of native English speakers with fluent Mandarin are still very few in a country that’s a huge economy with over a billion people. You do the math about how someone who could:

1. Speak good Chinese.

2. Has a little expertise in any of the above mentioned industries.

3. And can leverage contacts and their expertise to fully utilize those abilities.

Just think how incredibly valuable that person would be.

That is how you become an in-demand person.

To be honest I have not done this very much. For someone who is trying to write a novel and become a good writer I’ve not really paid too much attention.

I think this is for a few reasons. I prioritize the fact I am living a good life where I make the choices I want to make, without outside influence, and I can fully enjoy the little things that mean the most to me.

Why would anything else be important if you’re not enjoying the life you’re living?

This blog post started as a post about freedom before it turned into a discussion about expertise, skills and leverage (standard modern day career talk) before resolving into an ending about how I might not fully care about those things.

But of course the balance of it is that you can do all of those things. But some people I know seem to be busy accruing all these credentials and symbols of their worth when the very busyness of their life means they don’t get to fully enjoy those things that they enjoy.

A recent interview I read was a calming influence on this modern day obsession with “worth”, “value”, and career chasing.

It was with Kevin Kelly, the founder of WIRED magazine (an influential tech publication), and someone who had a profound influence on the early Internet with one of the earliest online communities.

The interview with Kelly mentioned how he’d been a college dropout who spent his 20s and early 30s traveling before landing a job editing a magazine. He is now 63.

How lovely that would be. To not care so much about “building value” for yourself as a career professional but to just spend your time slowly navigating the world, deciding what’s important to you, before landing some place where you can exert truly meaningful influence.

Kevin Kelly, it has to be said, was a pioneering and self-motivated soul who pursued many projects while he traveled in his youth.

For sure the world has changed since 1984, which is the year when Kevin Kelly got that editing job. Many career advisers now for example say you should use your 20s building value and expertise as those who don’t might lose out.

But that doesn’t mean that his perspective about how you spend your 20s isn’t a perspective that like a little sprinkle of salt on the huge pasta dish that is the advice and anxiety of modern careerism, just adds a little more taste to life.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 19, 2016 at 5:07 pm

A city by the sea

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I am in Qingdao a coastal city roughly equidistant between Beijing and Shanghai on China’s eastern seaboard; population nine million.

It’s a fair city with nice weather and sea mists. My school friend from the UK lives here and I have been staying with him and his American girlfriend. He loves Qingdao with a passion. A somewhat irrational passion but we all have friends with an eccentric passion.

I’ve known him since age 11 as we went to the same secondary school. I remember us both working at a Chinese takeaway in our local town aged 17; he as a delivery boy, me as a receptionist and dishwasher. Much has changed since then.

He has studied at McGill in Canada, lived and worked in Burkina Faso (west Africa), and now resides in Qingdao from where he freelances. We are both freelancers but he is of a different kind: work focused and very busy. He speaks three languages and is working on a fourth and is doing a part-time Masters in public policy and management. He sleeps at 11pm and wakes early. He often says I should be less lazy (a little unkindly I must say).

Having lived with him for a week I can see that our lives differ a lot. Some of this is due to the differences between Beijing and Qingdao, and some of this is due to our differences in temperament. He will be successful and wealthy in the future. Of that, I am sure.

I have no regrets.

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Immediately prior to Qingdao I was in Chengdu.

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, a province about the size of France, and it’s found in southwest China.

I was in Chengdu for a corporate writing gig for a content marketing agency (the client is an elevator company).

A friend of mine lives in Chengdu having moved there from Beijing where she’d lived for six years before returning to her home province.

In Chengdu she’s started her own business, a small food company that makes and delivers salads and other healthy food. She says Chengdu is like what Beijing was five years ago. And that’s what makes it exciting.

Opportunities exist in big cities with emerging demographics, and a gold rush can ensue.

Living in China I have often thought about cities as a crucible for dreams and ambitions. And in China those dreams are fast moving and the horizons in which they play out always shifting.

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It was while I was eating a bowl of noodles near my friend’s apartment in Qingdao, under tall buildings recently built, that I realized something.

China is a great country.

It’s the third biggest in the world and if you were to choose a nation to represent Earth, China may as well be it, especially with its number of people.

In 1989 — a generation ago — China’s economy was worth $344 billion.

It’s now worth over $9 trillion.

Chinese students have been going abroad to the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere in ever increasing number. Chinese smartphones take up coverage on US tech websites. Chinese companies are moving to the American south to take advantage of cheap labour.

It’s quite obvious that the achievements of this country to turn itself around with such audacity, verve, and speed, is phenomenal.

No other country on this planet can lay claim to such a heady brew of statistics, history, and enormity of change.

I feel good to have been a part of it, in my youth, and it a part of me, irrevocably expanding my imagination and horizons.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 15, 2016 at 9:05 am

18th May — In Beijing

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It’s 28 degrees outside and hazy. Beijing’s spring is the shortest season. Soon the sweltering heat will arrive. Blue skies have been fairly common and it’s always good to see the city suddenly green.

I finished two books recently: John Updike’s Rabbit Redux and Evan Osnos’ Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. 

The latter is a nonfiction title that is the most comprehensive, evocative, and insightful book on contemporary China I have read. The author was China correspondent for the New Yorker. He is widely regarded as brilliant.

His book is a page-turner, written with narrative drive, and telling the China story with great human stories. He had incredible access to some of China’s most notable and influential figures. And the story he has carved out; of rising fortune, middle class excess, and, later on, spiritual searching, manages to capture China with something approaching the greatness of a novel.

Checking out the book’s Notes on Sources I was awed by Osnos’ depth of research and reading. This guy seemed to have read everything. Was he just reading and writing all the time?

I put this question to a friend of mine, someone who has met Osnos, and who knew his Chinese assistant. My friend told me that the assistant told him that Osnos just wrote all the time, from morning to night.

And it was such a basic realization: to be outstanding, you have to work extremely hard.

It’s obvious of course. But we kid ourselves by imagining secret elixirs, fabled shortcuts, magic ingredients. It’s baloney. Only through work can accomplishment be achieved.

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I haven’t been working so hard. I’ve been having a great time.

I’ve been socializing with friends, drinking and partying. We went to a music festival that was very enjoyable. I’ve been working out and tried out boxing and Muay Thai. This year so far has been a hoot.

I’ve had very little journalistic published this year.

Last week I finally finished an essay I spent two months laboring over. It’s 2000 words long. I sent it to the editor but he has not deemed to reply yet, not even to acknowledge that he’s received it. I know editors are busy people. But for a freelance it can be demoralizing and frustrating to hear such silence. All I can do is patiently wait. And hope.

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Next week I am going to Hong Kong to meet up with someone. It’ll be a vacation. Someone asked not long ago how can I afford to travel so much. I didn’t know quite how to respond. Truth is I don’t really know. I do not receive parental handouts. And the money I make is not by any means a great amount. In fact it’s only around a little more than double what my rent is.

I think it may be psychological. It is true what many of those travel bloggers say, that travel actually is not as expensive as what people may imagine. And that as long as you account for accommodation and things like flight tickets travel is just like being home — you still have to eat and get around and the usual expenses but you’re just doing it somewhere else.

I think that mindset is good to have. You always have to buy things to eat and in Asia that’s usually cheap. Hostels and even hotels can also be similar to what you pay for a monthly apartment. So travel is only restricted by time and busyness, your conceptual perception of how much time you have. For a freelance, who thinks in freelance ways, it comes easily. I don’t burden myself too much though, on the frugality, while traveling. Because, what’s the point?

2015: A Year In The Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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2015 was strange. For me at least. It was the quickest feeling year I’ve ever experienced, when months announced their arrival with the thought: “It’s April already?!”

I arrived back in Beijing in mid-January. And I went to Burma in mid-February for 18 days. I then reentered Beijing and into March, after travel, like leaping over stepping stones instead of passing time step by step.

Burma was a delight: charming, hot, earthy, and quite magnificent. It reconfirmed for me that travel, when done, is rarely regretted. In Burma I was fortunate to meet and hang out with a fellow freelance correspondent and his crew. It was wild and reminded me of stories expats tell of Beijing twenty years ago, when parties were mostly of the house kind and simply living there was pioneering.

I envy my Burma counterpart because that southeast Asian experience seems more reminiscent of the kind of old-school correspondence conjured by the likes of Graham Greene novels. Burma is like a country wrapped in amber, suffused with a golden light, and I do hope I make it back there sooner rather than later.

The year was also one of hardship. In March, I left a job that had been my main source of income for over a year. From March onward I depended entirely on my freelancing income and the transition was not a smooth one. Financially it was difficult, but the transition was the more harder simply because the routine of commuting and office hours that my former job had given me was suddenly stripped away. I was alone.

April through to July was difficult. That’s four months. Four months where I felt, at times, a great weight of loneliness and isolation. I would go so far as to say despair, especially when there seemed to be long hours which I spent just lain on my couch, dressed in nothing save denim shorts, sweating and thinking. That’s an image for which I am thankful as I now have a mental picture of myself that I hope never to reproduce.

Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty.

But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing. However, the freelance income from the previous year was supplementary to the income earned from my other job (the one I quit in March), which meant that, overall, this year I still earned less than what I earned the previous year.

There have been other milestones. But I do not wish to bore you, patient reader, with a list of achievements. Rather I wish to convey what being a freelance journalist abroad has meant to me.

And 2015 has felt like a transitional year. And educational, for reasons that are not so clear to me now but that I think, in retrospect, will probably guide me in the future.

Certainly, there needs to be a helluva lot more planning for 2016 if I am to make the most of my time, to make the most of what I can experience and to make the most of what I can do.

I have only realized, in the past week, that I had mislaid a small but significant resource. And that is the simple to-do list. For much of the time I have been in China, I have relied on to-do lists, dutifully scribed in my small Moleskine notebooks either in the morning or before I went to sleep. Never underestimate the power of a to-do list. It provides structure to your day and a sense of purpose.

This blog continues to be a source of solace and power. By making a timeline of 2015 for myself (a previous blog entry), I could see the year all the more clearly, laid out in front of me. It’s a great tool as I can objectively examine the time I used, to see what could be learned, what themes and patterns might be picked out, and what could be improved.

And writing in this blog is always a great way to work things out for myself.

Finally, theluhai.com (I pay annually for the URL) has paid for itself many, many, times over in freelance commissions from editors, and others, who have found me via this website. If that doesn’t sway you, if you’re a freelancer, to start your own website — the lure of work and money — then I don’t know what will.

Seminal posts of 2015:

The weekend of February 13th: getting ready for Myanmar

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

I’m still broke

Trying to cobble together a sustainable freelance writing career

Is this goodbye Beijing?

There is much to look forward to and next year I hope to be more footloose. Being trapped in Beijing, to where I will probably return in the spring, is not good for the soul. And traveling is a great way to slow down time as it focuses you on the present. However, I will still need to base myself somewhere, and will probably need my own place to call “home”, so reconciling wanderlust and home comforts will be a defining tension, as is common for wandering writers.

Beijing itself has been the great uncaring mass it has always been. The spring was lovely, with uncommonly blue skies, summer was hot and sweaty as usual, autumn was very mild, and winter was very cold and very polluted, although this offered journalistic opportunity.

I have been traveling and basing myself in Beijing for three years now and I am tired of the place. I’d quite like to base myself somewhere else now to be honest. But what I want, as is common for all people, does not accord with what others may want. This is a reference to the nature of foreign correspondence. Editors want journalists who have a native expertise and that means Beijing, and China, and the knowledge and contacts I have accrued from being there are what makes me valuable to them.

There is a meeting I have in London in early January that is important for me and I don’t want to say too much for fear of unnerving myself. But I’ll reveal more once we get to it.

For now, happy new year. And thank you for reading.

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The previous year’s summary

A video showing a year in my life, compressed into five minutes

Smartphone photography

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All the photos in this blog entry were shot using my LG G2 phone. Many of them have been edited using the app VSCO. This shot was taken in Bakery88 in Dali, Yunnan.

Lately, I’ve taken to using my smartphone as my photographic device. At the moment, I’m in Yunnan and have been traveling around the province. The photo you see in the below post, in the previous blog entry, was shot using my phone, edited on my phone, and uploaded onto this blog with my phone.

For work I still rely on my trusty Canon S120. The camera is what I use on journalism assignments. But for everything else, my phone replaces it. Much of this has to do with the fact my phone is always on me.

But even while traveling in Yunnan, where my camera is readily available in my rucksack, I’ve left it in there, in the hostel locker, while I’ve traipsed around, phone in pocket ready to be fished out.

Why a smartphone is better than a digital camera as a travel camera

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 23, 2015 at 7:27 am

Cangshan, Yunnan — 17th November

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