Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘taiwan

Taiwan & the convenience of travel

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The 50 NTD (£1.30) canteen in Shilin

Last year, I spent almost two months in Taiwan, or 55 days to be exact.

Earlier this year, I was back again: from February 21 to March 2.

2020 is a leap year so that was 10 days in total. I did very little while I was in Taiwan. I stayed in the same hostel in Taipei, in Shilin district, as I did last year. I went swimming and used the pool’s “spa”. I went to the gym (pay as you go). I went to a second-hand bookstore and bought a novel: David Szalay’s All That Man Is.

I met a local journalist, a Taiwanese-American, who I befriended over Twitter. I met a couple of friends (one of whom I met last year in Singapore, while another is a friend of the blog). I ate at a canteen where you can choose a meat and two veg dishes, from a selection, with rice and free soup — that costs about £1.30.

Mostly, I made sure to eat. I ate delicious beef noodles. Egg pancake things for breakfast. The freshest, best bubble tea on the planet. And I wandered the local night market, stopping at my favourites. Supping on milk papaya. Getting the local delicacy of grilled mushrooms. Trying a shack that did steak with Camembert. And I queued for the best bao I know of. These bao (meat buns) are just so good. I love them.

I was in Taiwan for 10 days and I mostly ventured within a 100 metre radius of my hostel. Why was I in Taiwan?

I was there as a stop-gap. I’d been in Thailand, and I was up on my 30-day tourist visa, and not wishing to extend another 30 days, I decided to fly from Bangkok to Taipei. It cost £68.29 and it’s a 3hr 45min flight. 10 days in Taipei. And then I flew from Taipei to Cebu (Philippines) for £35.70 — a 3hr flight.

I was in the Philippines for 11 days, eventually flying out from Manila to Fukuoka (Japan) for £45.80 — a 4hr flight.

All of this is to say something about how convenient travel is (or was). Some have wondered how I afford to travel like I do, but looking at these airfares you can see that international travel can cost about as much as train fare. In Europe, these airfares can be even cheaper, but Asia is a larger region than the EU.

And going from Thailand to Taiwan to Philippines really did feel more like taking buses to different stops in the land of Asia than it did proper international travel with its boundaries and borders. Planes collapse our sense of distance.

We all might know this in the abstract, but it’s a different thing when it’s lived experience. Looking back at my time in Taiwan, it feels so fleeting, and, in perspective, it was. It was just 10 days. Yet those 10 days, although I didn’t do a lot, shouldn’t be taken for granted. I want to zoom in on that short transit stay and blow it out, to honour it, now that such convenience is a past time. It was fleeting but those days were once my daily reality.

And maybe this interruption, as our society feels now, will one day also feel like it was a short transit to somewhere else, as it indubitably is, and all these months of worry and anxiety will come to be remembered as a fleeting time, but which was once all that you knew.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 25, 2020 at 4:29 pm

Chiang Mai, productivity, and the need for fixity

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I have been in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two weeks. We have entered February and I have begun to feel the need, urgent and rising, to start getting my nose to the grindstone.

January was taken by time spent in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand. And it was a wonderful month.

The time I’ve spent in Chiang Mai, so far, has been good. I have succumbed to all the sensations this country, and city, is so well-equipped to provide. But I remember now why I didn’t quite gel with this place in the first place (I first visited Chiang Mai in 2016). It’s to do with the blissfully chilled-out vibe; the sultry heat; the jungle air. This place pulses with a certain energy, like a powerful narcotic, that makes it extremely difficult — for me at least — to be productive.

It really does feel like straining against a strong drug, or a seductive spell, that has slipped over me, and I need to fight and make enormous effort in order to break free of this enchantment. As a freelancer, and a traveling one, I need to work and to slip back into productive schedules otherwise I can kiss this lifestyle goodbye.

Different people gravitate towards different energies. Some people fall in love with Chiang Mai: attracted to its wonderful combination of nature, cafes, traveller, hippie/Thai qualities. Although many people have remarked that my own personality would be a good fit for this place (I generally seem laidback, easy-going, and even, perhaps, lazy) it is a misjudgement. I find myself leaning more towards grittier, dirtier places with dynamism to spare. There are limits. Manila, capital of the Philippines, probably has too much grit than I can take.

But Beijing, where I was based for six years, was gritty and dirty, until it was cleaned up in the past few years. Most travellers are not very fond of Bangkok, preferring natural Chiang Mai or the lazy paradise islands of the south, but I like Bangkok and its superior energy, the pace, the grittiness of its daily life.

Chiang Mai has wreaked havoc on my productivity and I find myself wanting to leave this place.

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Last year, when I travelled to five different places over four months, my most productive time was spent in Taipei, Taiwan. There’s a good reason for this. I was living in a hostel, which I ended up staying in for over a month. The hostel allowed residents to be quite self-sufficient and I quickly found local landmarks. I fell into a routine. Oolong tea to wake up with, brewed in the common area at my hostel. Go out for a sweet potato bought from the nearby convenience store for breakfast. Walk around for a bit. Return to the hostel to work, or else head to a nearby café to work. Lunch at a local cafeteria which was cheap as chips. Have a bubble tea in the afternoon. Nap. Or swim at the local gym. Evening, head to the night market for dinner. Night-time: work in the kitchen of my hostel, which was quiet and low-ceilinged, and which was conducive to long bouts of writing.

The month I spent in Singapore was also fairly productive; ditto for the half-month I spent in Seoul. But Taipei was king of a productive me.

I find myself in want of this kind of schedule now. I will continue to travel, but I am aware that I may need to make some kind of big change. To find a spot to settle in, in order so I can work and achieve the goals that are important to me. I cannot stay in Chiang Mai. This place destroys my sense of achieving goals. But today, I am faring better, as I write this blog post. But having a fixity — a fixed place; a stable routine — is something I will need to find again. But where shall I go? What city shall I call my temporary home? This is the other question that haunts me. Recommendations welcome.

My writing life

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What I learned from five months of freelancing and travel

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This year, I left England in April, and I travelled for five months. I stayed in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks where I slept on a friend’s couch. I left for Taiwan where I stayed for almost two months, in a hostel, in a student district of Taipei. Next, I flew to Beijing, for an assignment, where I dwelled two weeks at a friend’s apartment.

After that I went to South Korea for half a month, stayed in a hostel. Finally I went to Singapore, where I stayed for just over a month, in hostels and a friend’s apartment. Overall, I travelled to five different places.

  • Hong Kong/last two weeks of April — I wrote a feature (Dynamic Yield) for a newspaper based in the UAE and an interview feature (Hao Wu documentary) for a UK magazine.
  • Taiwan/May & June — I started writing a big feature (Money) for the BBC, and wrote a nonfiction book proposal. I completed two more features (coffee culture in China & virtual banks) for the UAE newspaper.
  • Beijing/July — I worked on an assignment for a US college magazine. And finished off the big BBC feature (which has still not been published, although I have been paid.) I also successfully pitched a feature idea (videogames) to the UAE newspaper.
  • South Korea/July — I successfully pitched an article idea (migration for work/life) for a UK website. I also went to Gwangju for the 2019 FINA Swimming World Championships, and caught up with a friend. I met someone who gave me the seed of an idea for another article.
  • Singapore/August — I met up with a BBC editor; pitched a significant number of unsuccessful article ideas; and successfully pitched the idea (feminism) that originated in South Korea to a HK-based web publication. And pitched another big feature (Time) to the BBC.

I came back to England on 6th September. It’s nice to be back, enjoying the late summer sun and the beginnings of autumn. I am fortunate that I have a family home where I can stay when I am back. It is probably the basis of my ability to travel in the way I do; so I recognise that I have this fortunate foundation.

The biggest lesson I gained from the five months of freelancing was that geography and timeline doesn’t draw as tight a connection to successful pitches and feature ideas as I thought. That time and geography are pretty flexible for a freelance feature writer.

For example, I can pitch an idea in Beijing, start writing it in South Korea, write more of it in Singapore, and finish the article and file it in England. Similarly, I can get the germ of an idea while in South Korea, pitch it while I happen to be in Singapore, and research and interview sources in England.

This is a useful lesson that I will put into effect on future freelance forays. Here are some other things I learned:

  • It always takes time to adapt. It wasn’t until halfway through my time in Taiwan that I finally became comfortable with my nomadic freelance schedule. I came to embrace it.
  • It’s important to remember what you’ve achieved on a daily basis (ticking off or writing down the things completed that day). This gives you a sense of progress and stops ennui.
  • Twitter remains a valuable resource for generating article ideas and making professional contacts. But too much of it is a real downer.
  • It’s a good idea to meet editors in real life. Just for a quick coffee. The physical meet-up remains a powerful networking tool.
  • Accommodation prices in first-tier developed cities are exorbitant.
  • Never be afraid to renegotiate fees or ask for more money.
  • A little bit of praise can go a long way.
  • I have a tendency to tarry so I need to get better at scheduling.
  • South Korea has a lot of Dunkin Donuts and it is hella good.

There is probably more stuff but I can’t remember all of them. I will now probably stay at home for a bit. But already, after two weeks at home, I can feel myself starting to get restless. Soon enough I will be on the road again. To write, to connect, to experience. Onward.

Taipei, Taiwan: why I stayed 55 days in the same place

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The answer? To focus on writing.

I have been here 53 days and I leave the day after tomorrow. I’ve been here almost two months, which was not part of the plan. Originally, I had intended to travel around Taiwan; heading to the central mountainous region, the food meccas of the south, and a smaller island where I was hoping to take pictures that I could potentially sell. After that, I had hoped to go somewhere else — the Philippines, most probably — on the way to Beijing, which is where I need to be at the end of this month, to cover a business event for a US magazine.

All of that came not to pass. I stayed in Taipei. I learned that June is a terrible month to travel around Asia, as most everywhere, excepting northern parts, are in rainy season. Oh well. And so, I’ve spent all of the time, apart from one Sunday, in Taipei, where it has been hot, rainy, and mostly overcast.

(Pictured: That one time I left Taipei. Thanks Rei Rei for taking me!)

But that’s just how life is sometimes — it pulls you to places you had not planned on being pulled. In my case, I’ve followed my desire to be productive; to create, rather than to consume. (Like I said in my previous post, travel is another kind of consumption.) Instead of traveling around Taiwan, I decided to dwell in Taipei, and I have not even left my neighbourhood much, so I can concentrate on creating.

Over the course of my stay, I’ve finished writing a nonfiction book proposal. This entailed completing a 10,000-word sample, a synopsis, and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. It’s quite a lot of work but I got it done, and by staying in one place, not venturing far and doing routine things — such as eating sweet potatoes for breakfast bought at the convenience store around the corner; going swimming at the local sports centre; walking around nearby gardens — it has helped my productivity.

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The Waning Wanderlust of a Serial Traveller

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I shot this on my iPhone SE near my hostel.

It’s been almost a month since I arrived in Taiwan. I arrived May 2.

Although I have visited this island-nation before, I did not remember how affordable it is. I have been living in the same hostel now for about three weeks. It costs 350 TWD per night (£8.76/night).

I’m living in a student area, with leafy environs, some comely cloud-topped mountains in the near distance, and a bustling night market just around the corner.

I have enjoyed going out with hostel mates, hiking with an Icelander, chatting to a Canadian old-timer, watching movies with a Korean doctoral student, and meeting local Taiwanese luminaries.

A lot of the time I’m in the hostel working away on my laptop, drinking the free oolong tea (the stuff is addictive), and going out to exercise and walk around. I go to watch movies at the cinema, go swimming in the local sports centre, and eat out very cheaply.

It is a comfortable life and Taipei has surprised me with its easy-going, cosy nature.

I keep meaning to go somewhere else, and I will eventually (hopefully) make it to Kenting, which is right on the southern tip of Taiwan, as far away from Taipei as it’s possible to be on this island.

I genuinely don’t feel the pull, the pressure, to do all the travelling things, of having to find fun. I just do routine things.

And honestly, travel itself is a kind of consumption. In fact, it may be the defining consumption mode of the twenty-first century.

Whereas before people bought clothes and luxury brands, people now compete to outdo each other in experiences. On Instagram and Facebook and WeChat, people post pictures of their travels and their experiences. I do it too, of course.

But it is only a kind of consumption. And for those creative types, is it not better to create rather than to consume?

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 29, 2019 at 11:19 am

Update: 8th May – in Taiwan

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I am currently living in a hostel in Taipei, Taiwan.

Taiwan is a sweet potato-shaped island in the South China Sea that is a de-facto independent nation, but is not officially recognised as such by many countries.

It has a complicated relationship with mainland China. But unlike its large neighbour, it is a developed democracy, and the home to Foxconn, the company that makes Apple’s iPhones.

It is barely bigger than Hainan island, which is a Chinese holiday resort island, and is home to 23 million people who use traditional Chinese characters (rather than the Simplified version used on the mainland).

Before I arrived in Taiwan, I was living on a friend’s couch in Wanchai, Hong Kong. There I stayed for two weeks. I went to Sonar music festival. My friend had a house party and I went to some seedy expat bars with her Russian roommate.

Hong Kong is a marvel of engineering and 7.5 million people live in a compact area, and yet it all manages to work. But the city is an expensive one and I couldn’t afford to tarry.

So I find myself in Taiwan. It’s a place I first visited 11 years ago, in 2008, when I stayed for six weeks. Back then, I found it a nice place, but a little dull, as it lacks nightlife and bars.

It still doesn’t have the kind of nightlife that Beijing does so well.

From 2014 to 2016, Beijing’s bar, club, and cafe culture peaked. And discussing with a friend the other day, we realised that Beijing might have been the best party place in Asia.

No other place rivalled Beijing, during those years. The combination of cheapness, the expat to locals ratio, the diversity of bars, and the undeniable sense that this was an exciting time to be. The Gulou area of Beijing had a scene. And it was great.

Nowhere else had that. Seoul is more pricey and caters more to the locals. Southeast Asia can be sleazy and caters more to backpackers. Beijing was up-and-coming, and the scene was buzzing, before it got abruptly shutdown from late 2016 onward.

The local authorities started bricking up bars and denying licenses to a host of restaurants, cafes and bars that had sprung up. In the space of a few months, a scene that was beloved by the bohemian Beijing crowd was quickly squashed out of existence.

It still exists, but is a shadow of what it used to be.

Taipei, Taiwan, is a nice place, no doubt about it. It is comfortable, affordable, and orderly. But it lacks the grit, the pure excitement of what Beijing had during its brief golden years.

But that is okay, I am quite enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of Taipei, for now.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 8, 2019 at 4:58 am

The summer wanes — Wednesday, 26th August, in Beijing

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I’ve been busy these past weeks. I finished up my teaching job. I was hired to teach journalism and writing to Chinese employees of a multinational company. Designing the course was a full-time consideration, and delivering it was a lesson in teaching effectiveness.

I enjoyed the challenge though. And the fee from the project will help me to travel the remainder of this year.

I’ve decided to abandon my rented accommodation in Beijing. I would have had to shell out for three months’ rent money at the end of September (a lot of rents are paid in this way here), meaning the money I earned from the teaching would have simply evaporated, all for the privilege of residing in Beijing for another three months.

Instead I will take that money and travel. I have destinations in mind. One option is to make my way around the country and check in with various friends. I am also hoping to go to Taiwan, a place I first visited in 2009 and which I enjoyed. I will continue freelancing as I move. And opportunities to do so are not unencouraging.

Another milestone occurred recently too (the first is the journalism teaching which I had not done before), and that is I got my first ever lead story for a national newspaper, their website showing a story I’d written up top.

Apologies for the crowing, but in a year that’s had some troubled times for me, I think I’ll take a celebratory moment. These kind of milestones are what journalists live for.

It’s still hot, but I can feel the summer’s wane. The days now are just slightly less sultry than before. Not that I can complain, the weather now is great: blue skies and sunny; as the government issued orders to close surrounding factories, all for a parade to come the beginning of September.

Money is still very tight, as I await a whole bunch of freelancing money to come in. Bottlenecks such as these are something a freelancer has to do their best to eliminate.

But all in all, it’s a fairly satisfying end to an otherwise mediocre summer. But I’m taking the long view.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 26, 2015 at 1:16 pm