Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘North Korea

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.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

July 29, 2018 at 9:12 am

Satisfying moments when freelancing

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 20, 2015 at 6:12 am

VIDEO: A year in the life of a freelance journalist abroad

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In early 2014, I decided to buy a new camera. With it I started to take short videos that captured how life unfolded. I would record at dinners, while I was commuting, when I’d travel and so on. It wasn’t every day, but over a year I’d collected enough footage to make a short film about my life as a freelance journalist.

The video shows what Beijing is like, my horribly cramped former living quarters, what I get up to on my off-hours, and includes footage from my North Korea reporting trip and other travels. I hope to make more videos for my YouTube channel this year, so please consider subscribing.

This blog is a guide on becoming a roving freelancer, as well as a chronicle of my journey. The above video, I hope, fills in some of the blanks: a visual record. A written round-up of 2014 can be found here: Freelancing in Beijing: One Year On.

The video was shot on a Canon S120 and edited in Windows Movie Maker. These are the tools I currently have, and I intend to make the most of them. For more on this, see these posts: 6 journalism resolutions for the new year, and getting into video storytelling: using a cheap compact camera.

Part two: what exactly is a freelance foreign correspondent?

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Riding the Pyongyang Metro.  Going to North Korea has so far been my only instance of travel + journalism. I aim to remedy this.

Riding the Pyongyang Metro. Going to North Korea has so far been my only instance of travel + journalism. I aim to remedy this.

So far this year I have traveled to Thailand twice, but entirely not for journalism reasons. But I have also traveled to North Korea and this was for journalism. I filed two stories and a photo gallery. But they were features. I did not seek out war zones or conflict areas, natural disasters or political turmoil. I did not attend any riots or charter a plane to any typhoon-hit areas. When news happens, foreign correspondents will scramble and make a dash to the area affected.

Later this year I am planning to go to Myanmar. It seems a fascinating country (the second largest in southeast Asia) on the cusp of so many developments. I want to go and explore, seek out stories and get to know the place better. I had been developing a Myanmar story for months now, checking up on it, cultivating a source, and a major newspaper was interested in the story. But then someone beat me to the punch with a similar but not-quite-the-same story and the newspaper declined, so now I will attempt to sell it elsewhere.

There’re a lot of unknowns so I feel like I have to go there to get a better nose for the angles that might sell, that might interest editors who don’t really care. They worry not about how interesting something is, but how relevant and resonant a story might be.

I should do a lot of background reading (and video watching) to get a better sense of the country, arrange to go there, talk to as many people as I can find while there, and travel around inside. It might take a month or so. I cannot simply parachute in and expect to write things.

Should a freelance foreign correspondent be expected to dig into time and funds in pursuit of stories while living awhile somewhere new?

I don’t know. I only know what I want to do. And that’s to go to Myanmar. To see what it’s like, find stories and write them. But I will have to try to ensure the best chance possible of being published and being paid. Travel without publication and payment for a traveling journalist is not sustainable and an untenable luxury.

For part one in this series go hereA post on travel + journalism is here.

4 awesome things about being a freelance journalist and 4 terrible downsides

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The Awesome 

The freedom

Go to North Korea? Sure, why not. Write about entrepreneurs in China just because it interests you and you might learn something and get paid for it? Of course, yes! So take a 20 day trip to Thailand. Take a break. Think about things you want to do, the “bucket list” kinda stuff. Do them. Write about them. Get published; get paid.

The variety

Here are the five most recent articles I’ve had published:

The ability to live vicariously

From doing journalism, I’ve learnt that it’s possible to move abroad to a foreign country and in two years start and sell off a business. I know it’s possible to live on a farm in Wales and just make videogames for a living. I know what it’s like being a tour guide in North Korea. How tough and incredible it is being a British charity worker in Burma. What it’s like to travel southeast Asia first as a freelancer, then as a correspondent. The methods and tactics of how to catapult yourself into becoming a media brand and a TV chef in China. I know all of that simply because I have a good enough reason to search someone out and talk to them.

The ability to give it all up should you want

‘Cause maybe one day you’ll want the opportunity to work in a normal environment. Those jobs don’t come for free though, so you’ll have to be eagle-eyed and work hard at making sure you’re so good they can’t ignore you.

The downsides

The bittiness

A piece there, a feature here, a report there. Freelancing can be piecemeal work and can sometimes leave you frustrated. Where’s my opus? you wonder. Where’s the work that I’ll be known for or at least acclaimed for in the short term? Staff writers have a greater chance of becoming known, to be appreciated and perhaps find fulfillment. But to be honest, the antidote is to start writing books. That’s the ambition, always.

The small-time salaries

It is possible to make a decent salary from freelancing alone, although you’re just as likely to see a shooting star in the morning. I’ve copped out a little bit by having another job which makes me about 40% more than what I earn from freelancing. This gives me leverage in what I want to write about: the freedom. But unless you have a very diversified freelance portfolio, are very productive or a star writer then it’s quite hard to be a wealthy freelance journalist.

The seeming lack of progression

If you work at a newspaper, progression is more obvious. The editor starts you off writing short pieces, nibs, round-ups, before giving you meatier reporting gigs, and then you become better known and start writing weighty features. When you’re freelance, progression is less clear. How do you move up as a freelancer? It’s a question I’m trying to answer. I’ll let you know when I’ve found it.

The overabundance of freedom

If you’re going to be a successful freelance journalist you’d better make damn sure that you’re organized, diligent and disciplined, independent and in possession of a giant’s store of initiative. For every well-chosen break or indulgent stroll in the park you should be working on the weekend pushing out that article or making plans in your “free time” to meet up with sources and always, always trying to make new contacts and rooting out possible stories.

An update on North Korea: the costs of freelancing from the Hermit Kingdom

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So I traveled in late April to North Korea for a week. I wrote about it on this blog here. The trip, all inclusive, was through a Beijing-based tour company (tourism to NK is only permissible via these tour operators), and it cost me 1100 euros.

A North Korean greeter from the port of Nampo. Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang (2014).

A North Korean greeter from the port of Nampo. Copyright: Lu-Hai Liang (2014).

It was a significant outlay. 1100 euros (875 British pounds or 1448 US dollars)  is a lot of money and I dug into my overdraft to stump up the cash. Yes, I did want to go anyway, but I knew I would have to find ways to recoup the costs. How would I do that? By selling stories based on my trip of course. I am a freelance foreign correspondent after all.

However, at the time, I hadn’t been commissioned for anything. No editor at any newspaper, website or magazine was expecting Korea-related copy from me. This is, in short, not the way to do things.

A freelance should really have stories already booked in before s/he travels. And then he does more research and maybe pitches one or two more. After he comes back from said travel and has filed his commissioned stories, he digs around his head and thinks up further angles.

At the least, you should recoup what it cost; all the expenses that it took to go. For North Korea, I have not yet done that. I have in fact paid off 79% of the 1100 euros I spent.

This comes from three sources: a profile of a manager of one of these NK tour companies; an investigative feature on the growth of North Korean tourism; and a photo gallery.

The profile was published online by The Telegraph, and fetched me 150 pounds. Al Jazeera published both the feature and photo gallery, and the two together was worth $900 (both items each making up half that number).

The photo gallery was a useful reminder of how to diversify. If you have video or photos, it always pays to ask your editor if they want an edited together video or a photo gallery. Always ask if they’ll pay for it though – never believe your stuff should be free!

I haven’t yet pitched anything revolving around something like a travel narrative on my experiences traveling in North Korea, but that’s quite hard. It’s already been done quite a bit, so I’ll have to come up with a unique angle. But it’s good practice for next time, and for future trips. Travel + journalism is fun, yo.

Links:

Is North Korea On Your Tourism Bucket List? – Aljazeera  (includes photo gallery)

Bringing the world closer to North Korea – Telegraph

North Korea – a journey in 8 photos

North Korea: a journey in 8 photos

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I spent eight days in North Korea, so here are eight photos from each of the days…

Day one

With our North Korean guide Ms. Jong and the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il at Munsudae Hill in Pyongyang.

With our North Korean guide Ms. Jong and the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il at Munsudae Hill in Pyongyang.

 

 Day two

A street scene taken from our tour bus. We were allowed at times to walk the streets but not often.

A street scene taken from our tour bus. We were allowed at times to walk the streets but not often.

Day three

Another street scene. This was taken in Kaesong, a city close to the South Korean border.

Another street scene. This was taken in Kaesong, a city close to the South Korean border.

 

Day four

A performance by schoolchildren for tourists.

A performance by schoolchildren for tourists.

 Day five

A photo taken while riding the Pyongyang metro. The two North Koreans are flanked by my fellow tourists of our tour group (19 of us).

A photo taken while riding the Pyongyang metro. The North Koreans are flanked by my fellow tourists (19 of us in the tour group).

 Day six

Dancing with the locals in a park in Pyongyang. It was a national holiday (May 1).

Dancing with the locals in a park in Pyongyang. It was a national holiday (May 1).

Day seven

Women in military uniform - not an uncommon sight - at a tourist location.

Women in military uniform – not an uncommon sight – at a tourist location.

 Day eight

The view from my hotel (floor 39, room 19)  at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, in the capital Pyongyang. The colour tint is due to the fact I used my sunglasses as a filter for my camera to cut down on the haze.

The view from my hotel (floor 39, room 19) at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, in the capital Pyongyang. The colour tint is due to the fact I used my sunglasses as a filter for my camera to cut down on the haze.

 

Apologies for not updating this blog for a while. I got back from a trip to North Korea last Sunday. The trip programme packed a tight schedule. I took hundreds of photos and made videos too. It was a great tour. I will write about it in time – sometimes a bit of distance helps. Hope you all enjoy the photos but please do ask permission should you want to re-post or use them, thanks – Lu-Hai Liang.