Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘travelling journalist

Five Years As A Full-Time Freelance Journalist

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It’s been over five years since I went full-time freelance, with many tales of woe and wonder accrued, and it was in Beijing, that city of crushing concrete and flickering dreams, where I, an ambitious migrant, learned the ways of this marginal life.

I wanted to draw attention to some of my most memorable and notable articles I worked on over that duration. It has been a journey of near financial ruin, some wonderful highs, truly terrible lows, and an endless procession of images that are so dense and numerous that they don’t stand out easily in my mind, something I consider somewhat of a curse.

Freelance journalism is no kind of career and I do not advise you, dear reader, to enter this occupation. It is badly paid, demands much of you, and the glory of it is a bright mirror made of silver ghosts. They will haunt you, those glories, because they are so elusive and whispering. If you want to do something truly fulfilling, be a doctor, a teacher, a nurse, a public servant without vice and ambition.

(I’m serious about this. If you deeply care about social issues get into public policy, activism or just become seriously rich while pledging part of your income to charity. If you really want to make a difference don’t sit on the fence like a journalist — get into politics. If you want to be truly creative, start writing fiction. If you like celebrity, start TikTok-ing.)

Don’t follow in my footsteps. Don’t get sucked into this vortex of monetary oblivion. Live a wholesome life with regular hours, great benefits, and free coffee. Build up your days with a succession of normal events and normal milestones, properly celebrated and fondly reminisced. If, however, you do decide to plunge in here’s what you might expect.

The time I went to North Korea as an undercover journalist

Aljazeera, Is North Korea on your tourism bucket list?

Although this happened in 2014, I wanted to highlight it because it remains one of the boldest things I’ve done. I decided I wanted to go to North Korea. In a lane off a small street, in downtown Beijing, there exists the offices of the oldest established North Korea tour operator, founded by a Briton no less. In that building is where I laid out my idea, to their general manager, about what I wanted to do, and where we negotiated how I would proceed. Tourism was a growing phenomenon and I thought I would write about it.

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The Kims and I, in Pyongyang.

What better way than to “smuggle” myself onto a tour? The investment was high. The tour cost a lot of money, more than I had ever spent. It was eight days, traveling all around North Korea, all inclusive. But I had told zero editors I was going there. Didn’t know who I would pitch the story to afterwards.

While I was there I took a copious amount of notes, which lie in a Moleskine in a drawer in England, and hundreds of photos and dozens of videos. I used a Canon S120, a digital compact camera, and an Olympus Mju-II, a film camera I’d picked up in Beijing. Those Canon S120 photos would eventually be sold to various publications and helped to recoup the money I’d sunk and more.

In hindsight, I could’ve negotiated for more money for the first feature that came out of that trip. I was young and did not realise how much the story was worth. I should’ve asked for more. But back then, $450 for a feature and $450 for a photo gallery seemed a lot to me. It was worth more than that though. Sigh. But, like I said, I eventually recouped my money, plus more, and magazines such as Marie Claire would pay well for the photos. Also, I went to North Korea. As a journalist. So, I’ll always have that.

The time I told everyone that I got a 2:2 degree in journalism 

The Guardian, Feeling depressed about your 2:2 degree? Get over it, employers have

I read multimedia journalism at Bournemouth University, earning a B.A. In the UK, a bachelors usually takes three years and you get a final grade for your degree. A First is the highest award and quite hard to get. Most people get a 2:1 and it’s respectable. What most students do not want to get is a 2:2, known colloquially as a “Desmond” (after Desmond Tutu). But that’s what I got.

I always found it ironic though that I was telling everyone I got a 2:2 in journalism, in The Guardian, a publication most student journalists would kill to get a byline in. C’est la vie.

The time I failed at being a travelling journalist in Burma

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Watching the sunrise getting messed up by balloons in Bagan, Burma.

CNN Travel, Myanmar monks feel the pressure of tourism

In the winter of 2015, I attempted an experiment at traveling while also doing journalism. It was a precursor to what I do now, which is basically travel the world writing articles. But I was not good at it then. (I am still not sure if I am good at it now.) And I spent three weeks in Myanmar travelling, and mostly failing at finding stories except this one travel story I wrote. But it remains one of my favourite published pieces.

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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.