Kate Hodal started out as a freelancer while travelling all over Asia. She is now The Guardian's Southeast Asia correspondent with an enviable range of topics on which she reports.
Born and raised in Los Angeles to an English mother and American father, Hodal studied political economy and French at UC Berkeley where she was a news reporter for college radio station KALX 90.7FM.
She then pursued an MA in journalism at Goldsmiths College. From there, she went on to work for the BBC, the Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Press Association and the Guardian. As a correspondent she has reported on a dwarf colony in the Philippines, Burma’s oil rush and on the changing lives of Moken sea gypsies in Thailand, among others.
This is an edited extract of my email correspondence with Hodal.
What did you do after graduating from Goldsmiths?
The economy hadn’t really crashed when I graduated from Goldsmiths so there were still jobs, although the market was super competitive. I knew I wanted a job that would let me travel and meet people I wouldn't normally meet, so I sought placements and postings on foreign news desks and travel magazines. I was lucky when I left Goldsmiths to go straight to work at the BBC on a foreign documentary, as I spoke French and they needed someone to help translate some interviews on a doc about French wine. That snowballed into docs about Hurricane Katrina, the impact of climate change on cities around the world and even the conspiracy behind Princess Diana's death. I liked working in TV and ended up as an assistant producer in the foreign documentary strand, but soon realised that I really missed writing.
So I started freelancing while in London, working at different news and foreign desks on a few broadsheets before becoming a columnist at the Press Association. I missed travelling and being out and about, so I thought I’d try my luck in Asia, where I was headed to write a couple of travel stories. I sold or gave away most of my stuff and headed east, pretty much on a whim.
After that you started travelling and freelancing – what was the schedule?
When I left London in March 2011, I had two travel stories lined up – one in China, the other a bicycle tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – and I figured I’d probably move to Shanghai afterwards to live and work. I was teaching myself Mandarin and had even taken up tai chi in preparation! But during my bicycle tour my wallet was stolen in Phnom Penh and I was left stranded with no access to cash. My cousin lives in Singapore, so after I finished the tour, I stayed in his flat while waiting for my bank to replace my cards. Singapore's general elections were taking place and it was fascinating, electric. It was the first time the ruling party had seen such 'dissidence' – and by that I mean that the political rallies were seeing arguably their highest attendance ever and social media was rife with voters, especially young voters, debating what kind of future they wanted. So I called up news desks in the UK and US and got to work.
Then for the next few months I worked from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur reporting on different stories around the region, mostly for the Guardian and CNNGo.
And then you were made The Guardian’s Southeast Asian correspondent. How was that arranged?
I was freelancing quite a bit for them and I think they appreciated my enthusiasm for the region. They hadn’t had anyone steadily stringing for them for a while and I can only suppose they were reminded just how much Southeast Asia has to offer in terms of news, energy, politics and human interest stories.
Obviously it’s a vast region but geopolitically it’s a pot of gold sitting in between India and China. And with ASEAN becoming a single economic zone in 2015 it’s only set to take even larger strides as the years wear on.
Looking over your stories, the sheer range of topics is incredible. What is your approach to the journalism process and your view to stories (how you identify them)?
I’m interested in people. I think a huge part of being a correspondent is about trying to relate to people who live differently from you, and relaying both our differences and similarities back to people at home.I think a huge part of being a correspondent is about trying to relate to people who live differently from you, and relaying both our differences and similarities back to people at homeKate Hodal, the Guardian
So I guess stories I’m interested in are those I find beautiful or telling or insightful about our changing times – people who allow themselves to fall in love despite it being against their religion (LGBT in Indonesia, say), or communities who used to spend all their time at sea and who now have been forced onto land (the Moken in Thailand), the sheer tenacity of the personal strength of dwarves in the Philippines. Then, of course, there's the news, and that changes so often it's interesting no matter what.
Talk to us about multimedia, you made that film about Moken sea gypsies. How much does multimedia inform your work and is there much market for it?
I think the market is desperate for good multimedia stuff. People want to see, hear and be in the action as much as possible. That said, I think the trick with multimedia is assessing what would make a great video, or audio, addition to a piece. The Moken are a great example because in many ways their lives are so different from most of ours that you want to see how they live -- you want to see them in the water, diving, fishing, living in their landscapes. Or my interview with Suboi, Vietnam's first mainstream female rapper -- I interviewed her and she gave me an exclusive freestyle, which I caught on my iPhone and then uploaded to our editors in London.
I think most journalists these days are expected to be able to work within a multimedia context, whether that means capturing audio or supplying video. That doesn't mean you need to have super expensive equipment necessarily – sometimes an iPhone and external mic can do – but it does mean assessing what would make an audience tick.
You’re a correspondent – what does that involve exactly, in the stories you are mandated to provide, is it pretty much carte-blanche?
I work across the business, home and foreign news pages, so I might cover Brits accused of smuggling drugs in Bali (home news) or write a brief bio about the Bakries in Indonesia (business). But mostly I write for the foreign pages. That means covering news stories (like the Bangkok bombings in February last year, or anti-Muslim violence, or anything else day to day) as well as longer news-led features or soft features, such as an interview with Wirathu, Burma's militant monk, or how the death of a volcano’s spirit keeper has upset an Indonesian community. I also pitch quirky news stories, one of my favourites about the guy who kicked a ghost in Indonesia.
How much I write depends on where I am – If I’m in Bangkok I tend to write short news pieces, if I’m abroad I’m usually focusing on larger stories that I’m researching and writing. I cover 12 countries across the region – all of ASEAN plus Papua New Guinea and East Timor – so I travel quite a bit.
What advice do you have for those wishing to follow in your footsteps?I really think if you trust in what you’re doing, somehow, somewhere along the line, you’re rewarded for both your perseverance and tenacityKate Hodal, the Guardian
I had a lot of stop and starts when I first came out here – gigs that fell through, pitches that were lame, a bank account that was at zero so many times I nearly packed it in and went back home (on multiple occasions). But I really think if you trust in what you’re doing, somehow, somewhere along the line, you’re rewarded for both your perseverance and tenacity.
For aspiring journalists, I’d suggest looking at regions you’re interested in and which have good, regular, news stories to tap into. Think about where you can afford to live and how many editors you could write for. Can you write for multiple editors across various fields? Produce radio for one client while writing for another online news portal and sending copy to a paper back home? I think the key is in diversifying your talents but also being realistic about what your talents are.
Lu-Hai Liang is a freelance journalist. His website is www.theluhai.com.
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