Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘The Beijinger

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.

*

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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How I became a novelist in Beijing — by Carly J. Hallman

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Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Later this year, through some mysterious cocktail of luck, hard work, and sheer determination, my first novel will be published in the U.S. ‘Year of the Goose’ is a dark comedy about the Bashful Goose Snack Company, China’s most successful fictional corporation. The novel weaves together tales of a deadly fat camp, a psychopathic heiress, a hair extension tycoon, a Tibetan monk reincarnated as a talking turtle, some witches, and an anthropomorphic diary-penning goose, among others.

I dreamed up the original idea for the novel back in America, sparked by a short story I wrote while still a student (about the aforementioned fat camp). I’d traveled and lived in China before, and, hailing from a boring small town in Texas, found it to be a treasure trove of inspiration — China is a place where things are happening, present continuous tense.

After I graduated I lived in Los Angeles for a while, where I worked as a glorified babysitter, sent out endless “real job” applications and resumes, and struggled to find my way out of a bad relationship. At twenty-four I gave up and got out, and moved back in with my parents. Depressed, disillusioned, directionless. The only thing I knew I wanted — needed — to do was to write that novel.

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4 Good & Bad Things about Living in Beijing

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The Bad

1. The Size of Beijing

And no, I don’t mean how big Beijing is. And Beijing is plenty big: the metropolitan area is about the same size as London, but with a population numbering a million more (12.7m). But actually, for an expat, Beijing can be surprisingly small.

The main areas where foreigners hang out in Beijing are Wudaokou, Sanlitun and Gulou. The first is a university area, where overseas students from the US, England, Korea and elsewhere hang. Sanlitun is an upmarket shopping area featuring a huge Apple store and expensive brands, as well as plenty of dives, clubs and bars. It’s very popular with expats.

Finally, Gulou is a trendy area liked by creative types, where Beijing’s traditional alleys (called ‘hutongs’ in Mandarin) are still in place. Nestled in these alleyways are cool little bars and cafes, and music venues such as the legendary Mao Livehouse and DJ-heavy Dada.

These three places are vacuums into which foreign residents of Beijing invariably get sucked. They are the go-to places, the natural recourse. But it can feel humdrum & cliche telling a taxi driver to take you to Sanlitun the Nth time.

2. Budgeting

Beijing is a pretty cheap place to live, even though it’s pricier than most the rest of China. I can eat well for less than £5 a day. Bottles of beer are less than a pound. Buses are four pence(!) a journey. Subway trips are 20p. So spending becomes automatic. Cash flows through your hands like water. You end up eating out all the time, treating yourself to snacks, going to lavish restaurants, buying clothes like it’s nothing. Beijing becomes an arena to give away your cash for stuff. It’s a ‘communist’ country by the way.

3. Taxis

This is another budgeting thing. Transport isn’t so great in Beijing despite its cheapness. Subway stations are not so numerous and bus routes can be elephantine. Taxis are the easiest and relatively inexpensive. But it all adds up and taking taxis regularly can be a significant drain on finances.

4. The DUST*

It is everywhere. In the air. On the floor. In your pocket. Up your nose. On your clothes. Smeared in your hair. Layering over your face. Inside your mouth. Invisibly on your food. It’s a mixture of sand blown in from the northern Mongol deserts, brick dust (demolition and building is rampant) and general pollution (car fumes, smoke etc). Let’s not even talk about the cancerous air pollution… *It isn’t as apocalyptic as this description may seem, but it does go everywhere.

The Good

1. The Size of Beijing

Didn’t you already say this was a bad thing? Yes I did, but things can be contradictory okay? This is China we’re talking about. Where you can buy tons of stuff but kids are schooled in Marxist theory. Beijing is small enough so it can feel like a village, where you can bump into that pretty girl who you’ve noticed but can’t ever seem to talk to again and again and again. And large enough that you can find weird, soothing, crazy, peaceful places too.

2. Access to VIPs

This ones for the journos. You can quite easily bump into local luminaries. If you’re at a popular dive, you’ll probably be glancing over various entrepreneurs, star writers and local ‘celebs’. They’re all very approachable and easy to get in touch with.

3. Availability of Information

Want to know what’s cool in Beijing? Where to go, what to do and what to eat? You are well served. There are four big expat publications here all catering to that service: The Beijinger, TimeOut, City Weekend, That’s Beijing. Not too mention countless blogs and websites. It’s all free too. Beijing’s grapevine is a generous bounty.

4. The Dating Scene

Because the foreigners here tend to be a self-selecting bunch it means you get to meet interesting, lively, thoughtful, intelligent and bold people. Because why else would you decide to come here if you weren’t crazy enough to leave your comfy life back home for this dusty, cash-sucking city? Chinese girls are a totally different story and one we can save for a possible future.

Sanlitun (circa 2008). Photo by blog author.

Sanlitun (circa 2008). Photo: Lu-Hai Liang

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Life in Beijing as a Journalist – Retrospective

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Over the course of seven months (from October 2012 to May 2013), I met quite a few journalists and media types in Beijing. Working for a listings magazine meant I had the opportunity to attend events (although not nearly as many as you may think).

I got to know Jonathan Kaiman, a tall young American who writes about China for The Guardian. His route into journalism is fortuitous. First visiting China as a Mandarin student he moved to Beijing in 2009 for a research project, making field recordings of traditional folk music in southern China.

He was at a concert in Beijing when he met Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. After a few meetings over coffee, Johnson suggested Kaiman should try journalism and hooked him up with an internship at the New York Times. After six months he proceeded to do another internship, this time at the LA Times. There, he worked under the tutelage of none other than Barbara Demick, who wrote a great book about North Korea. “He’s one I’m really proud of”, Demick said to me once, at a talk she gave in a bookstore. “When he came in, he knew nothing and now he’s doing really well”.

Kaiman says he learnt a lot about writing from her. He started freelancing for various newspapers after the internship finished, and then a chance came in from The Guardian as their China correspondent Jonathan Watts was departing for Brazil. So Watt’s press accreditation was handed over to Kaiman.

Kaiman is talented and a hard worker with a gift for writing flowing paragraphs filled with information. And his success is also down to a series of lucky breaks. But equally he could not have realized the full potential of every step if he had not 1. Taken the time and investment to learn Mandarin properly. 2. Worked his socks off, and taken serious hits to his bank balance (internships are low-paid). 3. Did not come up with great ideas and write great stories.

There’s no great lesson to be gleaned from that (no one example should be a great lesson).

Chinese media

I also met a fair number of expats who worked for Chinese media. For the most part, although it was relatively well-paid and secure job, they were not completely happy with their lot. They complained about their treatment by their bosses, at their lack of control, and at the amateurishness of it all. There were two young Brits who worked for the national Chinese TV network, in the English-language division. Their professional life was comfortable, but I always got the sense they knew deep down they were treated like puppets.

Not that I was in any better position.  I was an intern at The Beijinger (to begin with anyway). True Run Media is the company who owns The Beijinger. It was founded by an American who looks like a much lankier version of Steve Jobs.

I met a lot of interesting expats, ones who research nano-biotechnology, in which China is the world leader apparently, and entrepreneurs and European TV guys. The community of expats, and the places they frequent, is small. And the circle of journalists and writers – and the places they go – is even smaller. I look forward to joining that circle again.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 14, 2013 at 5:00 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.