Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘freelance

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.

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The Luxuries and the Poverties of the Freelance Life

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It’s just gone a year since I went completely freelance.

Last year I was made to leave my job as a scriptwriter at a Chinese TV company. It was around February or March.

For over a year now I’ve been self-employed. I’ve not had “work” to go to — an office which demands time obligation. I’ve had no schedule other than that fixed by my own internal compass (a hazy, inefficient compass). I don’t wake up to an alarm. I don’t fall asleep feeling guilty about the lateness of the time. And I’ve had a freedom both luxurious and, at times, incredibly burdensome and crushing.

I feel no desire to wax and shine the wonders of the freelance life or working for oneself. If you want one of those crass, “inspiring” articles about “quitting the office job” to go freelance, please go read one of those.

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Why did I move to Beijing?

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I moved to Beijing basically on a whim. If you have read previous blog posts, you may know that originally I had decided to move to Beijing in the autumn of 2012, after finishing university, and that, upon arriving, I knew exactly four people in the city, had no job and no concrete plans. That narrative is already established.

If you ask many of the students, the expats, the foreigners who have come to China, why, for all purposes, did they happen to choose China – So why China?” is the conversational fallback – they will often mumble out something.

They might mention the economic miracle, how it’s good to get to know China and Chinese and the culture, how employers might find it useful or at least you’ll stand out from the crowd. They might mention interest in learning the language, or an affection for Asian culture more generally. Or they might have come because they heard about others doing it, and it’s a good place to teach English to earn a bit of money.

A lot of people in Beijing, the migrants, the foreigners, don’t really know why they are here. Two and a bit years after arriving I feel now is a good time to identify why exactly I decided to come here, for myself, to work it out.

The reasons why of course reflects vast forces of which we’re barely aware. The confluence of economic, political and social factors far too large to comprehend on a macro level. It’s one of the tasks a journalist and writer should have in fact, trying to untangle this web of influence, to make clear the strands that tie people, politics and the decisions of every day, together.

The reason why I came here is obviously bound to that. China is big and large, important and vital. It made sense journalistically, and trying to make sense of it all presents great opportunities for the freelance journalist. But this is not why I came to Beijing. It is and it is not. Just like you may choose a job or a partner based on a checklist of reasons (because it offers better promotional offers; because she has a good family background), it does not really speak to the truth, the gut instinct of why you chose to do what you did.

I think the bigger part of me chose to move to Beijing because for the need of adventure, for experience, and for a narrative greater than that offered by the humdrum exactitude of the everyday. You may find such a reason laughable in its innocent sincerity, but such romantic ideals, I guess, are the ideals in which I find most fascination.

In Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed, she talks about a theory of the novel based on Miguel Cervantes’ classic novel of adventure Don Quixote: “The novel form is about the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favourite books”.

Likewise, I find great empathy with the sentiment expressed by a reviewer writing in the New York Times about Jack Kerouac: “He trusted, finally, in his own energy, but it was an energy produced from the finest sources: great books, adventurous friends, high moral purpose and wide experience”.

That is what I live for. And when I set out, at 23, to go far away, to a new city, I guess a part of me instinctively knew it was the right decision to make, despite the subsequent misery of the first three months after arrival and some of the later moments of being here.

Why did I move to Beijing? Because anything else would’ve been easy. And the quest never is.

Blog posts from last January, 2014:

3 month update: freelancing in Beijing

Great journalists and great journalism: how to make a name for yourself pt. 2

How I got my first ever paid freelance gig

The Greatest Article about Freelance Journalism Ever Written

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The author of the article is a guy who has won awards – who freelanced a front page splash for the New York Daily News. A guy who wrote crazy opening sentences about ‘boobies and gay Jews’ in the New York Times.

Someone who freelanced for seven years. And then got a job at Gawker.com and quit after the first day. Who once got paid $100 a word but who other times is so poor their dinner is a soup made from vitamin pills. Who once wrote entire features on a first-generation iPhone for almost a year, because they couldn’t afford to replace a broken laptop. Without further ado, here it is:

Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or, How To Make Vitamin Soup.

It is a piece of writing that inspires me every time I read it. And it makes the thrill of chasing a story, of pursuing bylines and writing, the very act of writing, seem like the most rock’n’roll fucking thing you can do. Richard Morgan, I salute you!

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 1, 2013 at 12:00 am

What exactly is a freelance foreign correspondent?

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Let me try and define it.

You go to a country. You might stay long. Or not for long before returning ‘home’.

You’re in China. In Beijing. And you explore the society and journalism topics about it all, and you pitch and write about them, about China. You grow your list of clients. But you’re also interested in South Korea. About their hi-tech but traditional society. So you read up about it. Maybe make some Korean friends. To ask questions.

Then maybe you hit on something you find fascinating. And salable. An idea you can sell. So you find contacts and maybe a Korean translator with journalism experience. You sell the idea. You book a ticket to Seoul. You find other ideas to make it worth your while. And you do your reporting while gazing at the skyscrapers and wacky advertisements and strutting South Korean girls in their converse shoes, miniskirts and perfectly arrayed hair.

Yes, you look a lot at those girls. Somehow exotic and yet familiar.

You do your reporting and you jet back ‘home’.

You become known for your interesting subjects and your unique take on China. You are also noted for your diversity (South Korea, maybe Japan and south-east Asia too).

You stay a year in China.

You become ‘famous’.

You decide to go to Brazil.

Because why not.

It’s lovely, the sand is warm. And heard you something about the…

 

For part two in this series go here

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 30, 2013 at 12:10 am

6 things I learned about the freelance journalism market while I was in China

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There is still a massive demand for information, news and stories

Publications are hungry, starving for new and exciting information and stories. If you are placed in a niche or location that’s in demand, then you could be hot property. Say you’ve taken an interest in computer hacking, or maybe the latest developments in south-east Asian fashion. And generate even a casual expertise and a few contacts in this area, and dig around for stories and news unknown to others (and trust me, there is a lot of stuff that is unknown to editors), then editors will be clamoring for your attention.

If you’re a freelancer based in Latin American, South Africa or South Korea, say, then you’ll have access to stories that lots and lots of publications will want. Make sure you roam around topics and subject areas and find suitable publications accordingly.

There are holes and niches to be filled even at the biggest and most renowned publications

One regret I have is that I didn’t try to pitch more publications while China-bound. The areas I’m most interested in – culture and society means a lot of my potential markets are high-brow magazines like Prospect, New Statesman and broadsheet newspapers. Hard markets you may think. But because I was on the ground and had the balls to pitch them meant my potential for commissions was higher. The fact that you are there in a foreign locale (and China is massively in demand as a news source) and have ‘local’ knowledge makes you immediately sexier to editors.

You have to make the best use of your location and specificity

Simply because I was based in China, I felt like I had the access and privilege to write about the whole Asian continent. I wrote an article for The Guardian about job prospects in Asia, I wrote about India’s economics and entrepreneurs and of course about China. I did not have to be in China or Asia to have had written these articles. But simply by being there, my authority  to write about them increases.

Specificity? That means making the most of your skills and potential. For example, writing about politics, technology and business is quite difficult unless you have sufficient contacts and experience. Certainly you could try – for smaller magazines, websites and B2B papers, but the bigger papers will be harder to entice.

What subjects interest you? And what about those subjects could you write that is feasible? Will you be able to get access to interviewees and enough information? Think small to begin with – insights, observations about trends, culture, little aspects of society of the country you’re in before jumping into 2000-word features about the sex trade in Brazil for example.

Money is and probably always will be an issue

When you’re young and starting out, don’t expect to be making lots of money. By all means, please please don’t write for free. But don’t expect to be living comfortably off your earnings. Being based in China helps. Most things are dirt cheap, but I still ended up in debt once I got back to England. You are making a name for yourself – writing about a different country, translating that foreign news to an audience is massively impressive. You will be read by thousands, or even if it’s just hundreds – foreign news is consumed by elites and influential people. It’s about the kudos and the glamour, not the money.

Having journalist friends opens an exponential amount of doors

While in Beijing, I befriended several journalists. I used LinkedIn, personal recommendations and events to connect with my fellow journos. I’ll write about how easy it is to do this in a future blogpost. One contact was particularly helpful – he gave me advice, introduced me to a news agency journo (who emailed me potential freelance opportunities) and also put me in touch with editors looking for more China stories. It’s a knock-on effect. Be generous, be helpful, connect people.

Freelancing is super f-ing fun and empowering

I had a blast. I’d have 2000 words to write in a day. The anxiety and pressure was…uncomfortable. But I felt awesome. The freedom to write articles you’ve come up with, to delve into topics you’re fascinated by and to talk to and meet people whose experiences outweigh your own is like the crack-addiction of a cocaine fiend.

It’s exciting, free and opens doors to experiences that you could never pay for. Enjoy the ride.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 27, 2013 at 8:00 am

What happened last time I tried to be a freelance foreign correspondent

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I finished university last year. After a busy summer (presenting, Olympics, work exp at The Guardian), I decided to go to Beijing,

I had no definite plan, no accommodation and I knew exactly four people who lived there, one of whom was a stewardess I had met a couple months prior. I had vague ideas about brushing up on my Chinese, exploring new opportunities and freelancing.

The first couple months were kind of miserable to be honest. I had few friends and I was just hemorrhaging money. I made very little progress journalistically and I was aimless and wondering what exactly I should be doing.

I then answered a chance call-out for interns for The Beijinger, a listings magazine aimed at expats that pre-dated Time Out. How wonderful, you might think, being an intern! Great!

But it was an opportunity. I still wasn’t making any money, I made enough just to cover rent. I was in the office three days a week. The managing editor of The Beijinger was a loud, rambunctious 30-year-old Manc, and his deputy was a very tall and louche Scouser. No, I am not making it up.

December came and I chanced upon a publication online called The Gateway. It’s a business newspaper aimed at students. I immediately dashed off an email to the editor asking if she would be interested in business articles focused on the booming economies of China and south-east Asia.

She would.

Meanwhile, a Chinese girl I was courting ended things abruptly. And that stewardess? Well, she was always flying everywhere, that’s the problem with stewardesses.

Anyway, January was my best ever month for freelance journalism, in terms of pure £. It was a grand whopping total of £700. But by then I had been given a full-time role at The Beijinger so I received a modest pay rise. I wrote some of those freelance articles in the office – something I would not recommend.

I spent a total of 7 months in Beijing, going to some great events, learning a lot (about magazines, staff banter, freelancing, women) before my visa ran out. I even got two great big commissions from The New Statesman which I royally fucked up. Lesson there: if you’re working on something ambitious, be sure to have already done some groundwork on it before pitching.

In a future blog, you’ll find out why I’m returning for a second round.

For more about my experience at The Beijinger, see here.

The Beijinger office.

The Beijinger office.