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How I landed my first Lonely Planet gig

People often ask me how I landed my first Lonely Planet gig. I haven’t done a guidebook for the company in a few years, but I still contribute pretty regularly to what are known in the industry as T&R, or Trade and Reference books, stuff like Best in Travel and Best in Food, that sort of thing.

Trade Books like these…

So while I more-or-less consider myself a former guidebook writer, writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet was a pretty big part of my professional output for a good chunk of years, and the story of how I got my first Lonely Planet gig seems like it’d make a good blog post – especially in light of a file I just discovered while going through a long-forgotten hard drive.

In 2005, I was living on Lamma Island, Hong Kong, working as a freelance contributor for a bunch of magazines and newspapers in HK and China, including the South China Morning Post, the HK Weekly Standard and a few others. (Long story short, Taiwan was considered a pretty niche destination back then, so I couldn’t sell enough stories about Taiwan to make a living as a freelance writer.)

But my heart was still in Taiwan, and so I pitched what would become my first book, Vignettes of Taiwan to a publisher I’d been writing for pretty regularly since 2001. The publisher – ThingsAsian Press – took me up on the offer, and the next year, VOT was published.

The book I foisted upon Tony Wheeler that landed me the gig.

About a month after the book came out, my publisher at Things Asian Press told me about a book fair that was happening in town, so I grabbed a dozen copies of Vignettes of Taiwan and headed in. One of the speakers was Tony Wheeler, who had started Lonely Planet with his wife Maureen.

Being a brash young man, I approached Mr. Wheeler and handed him a copy of Vignettes of Taiwan along with a business card and comment along the lines of “Imagine what I could do with your next Lonely Planet Taiwan Guide.”

Mr. Wheeler was nicer about it than he needed to be, thanked me for the book and told me that if he liked it somebody from the office would contact me.

A few weeks later, I got an email from a woman named Marina at the LP office in Melbourne informing me that Tony Wheeler had liked my book, and that if I was interested in submitting a sample guidebook chapter the company would consider me for the upcoming Taiwan guide.

Did I respond to this kind offer with an enthusiastic All Right! What’s my next step?

No, I did not.

Instead, I hit reply and wrote something like “How do I know that Lonely Planet isn’t going to just use my sample chapter for some upcoming book?”

Because in addition to being a brash young man, I was also a suspicious young man. And I had the idea that Lonely Planet’s business model might somehow include getting a bunch of sample chapters for free from perspective authors and cobbling these into actual functioning guidebooks.

The author, circa 2006

Marina, who really would have been well within her rights to just delete my email unanswered, instead responded with something like “Do it and the world will be your Lonely Planet oyster!” She attached a template for the project and wished me well.

I don’t have the actual email anymore, but I definitely remember the line “The world will by your Lonely Planet oyster!”

So I did.

I grabbed a then-recent Lonely Planet guide and headed up to Shekou, a neighborhood in Shenzhen, China, and pretty much used it as a guideline to do my own sample chapter to Shekou. I turned it in, and a few weeks later, Marina wrote me back to tell me I’d made the cut (though my mapping skills could use some improvement), and to offer me my first gig with the company, updating the upcoming Lonely Planet Taiwan book.

That was in 2006, and for the next seven years, yeah…the world was pretty much my Lonely Planet oyster. Belize, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, back to China, back to Belize, back to Singapore, and so forth.

Joshua Samuel Brown naked beneath a pile of books hes written.
Me, naked beneath a pile of books I’ve written or otherwise worked on.
The world was indeed my Lonely Planet Oyster.

Anyway, back to the long-lost hard drive. I was going through said item yesterday, and came across a file called “Lonely Planet Shekou.” And while I’ve told the story about pressing a copy of Vignettes of Taiwan into Tony Wheeler’s hands many times, I’d apparently completely forgotten about doing the sample chapter, because my first thought on finding the file was I never did anything in that part of China for Lonely Planet. So I opened up the file and checked it out.

Definitely a freshman attempt at guidebook writing, to be sure. But since I had fun reading it, maybe you will too, so I’ll paste it below in all its virgin guidebook-writer glory.

I wouldn’t advise trying to get anything useful from it, though – China changes super fast, and I doubt anything I wrote about in Shekou in 2006 is even relevant. Still, I think it offers a decent insight into what goes into being a guidebook writer, or at least what went into hiring one in 2006. (Things have no doubt changed since then.)

(I’m particularly proud of having described Shekou as
“A peninsular nipple on Shenzhen’s ever-expanding underbelly” )

Anyway, read further or not, as you like. Bold text is from original template. Mistakes are all my own. If you like reading stuff like this, go buy my book How Not to Avoid Jet Lag and Other Tales of Travel Madness.

Somewhere in a box in my father’s garage is the map I drew with colored pencil and crayon. If I ever find it, I’ll post it here.

How do I get a job with Lonely Planet?
The author as a brash young man, somewhere in China

Introduction

General description of the town (or area within a city) and its attractions, plus any other info of interest. Should be punchy enough to make people want to visit (without sounding like a tourist brochure).

Shining with a playfullyseductive and only slightly jaded light, Penisualr Shekou (translation: “Snake Mouth”) dangles off Shenzhen’s southern coast.   For those entering China via ferry from Hong Kong – a wise move as the port border is a line-free love fest compared to mad crush of the Lo Wu / HK crossing –  Shekou is gateway to the get rich or die trying metropolis that itself is the jewel of the hyper-capatalist Pearl River Delta  

If Shenzen is a yang monolithic glass and concrete statement to the righness of Chairman Deng’s maxim “to get rich is glorious,” then Shekou – the petri dish in which modern chinese capatalism was created – is a more Yin seaside district offering the following sly adendum to Deng’s words:

“…But  have a good time along the way.”

History

Brief but informative and lively history of the town/neighbourhood.

Though Shekou’s history as an inhabited area dates into the Neolithic era (according to archeological evidence anyway), most of this was spent as a sleepy  backwater harbor community overshadowed by more important neighbors.  Exciting moments over the centuries have been few and far between. Legend has it that during the Late Song  dynasty a powerful celestial goddess descended on the site of the present-day Tian Hou temple, and during the opium wars the area again saw some action as Chinese generals used the peninsula as a base from which to harass enemy ships.  But for the most part, history passed quietly around Shekou.  All this changed in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping chose this small nub of real estate as a petri dish in which to germinate the earliest seeds of post-revolutionary capitalism in China, allowing for the first time since 1949 foreign owned companies to set up shop on Chinese soul.  

Once barren hills overlooking the harbor were transformed into the Shekou Industrial Zone, from which “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” quickly sprung forth, quickly growing to encompass greater Shenzhen in the early 1980’s.  Today, with the entire Pearl River Delta region arguably the main economic engine fueling a capitalist China whose market economy Chairman Mao couldn’t even begin to imagine, Shekou has settled into a somewhat more relaxed stretch of harbor front property.

Orientation

Information to give travellers their bearings in the town/neighbourhood.

Shekou is an easy place in which to get around. The heart of the neighborhood is Seaworld Plaza, a brick-paved pedestrian mall stretching south from Xinghua road to an extremely difficult to miss five story high cruise ship moored in concrete approximately a quarter-mile from where the harbor itself begins. North of Seaworld plaza are some lovely hills for light hiking, and east of the plaza lies a somewhat rundown residential and commercial district where most habitues of the more upscale businesses of Seaworld Plaza seldom venture.  Three blocks east of Seaworld Plaza is the Shekou Ferry terminal, from which boats to Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai leave many times daily, and in front of this terminal is the bus station..

Information

Give details of useful sources for travellers ie the tourist info centre, post office, availability of banks, Internet cafes, emergency medical facilities. This should be provided in list format in alphabetical order and comments added if needed. Note that details given after the practical info in brackets should start with a new sentence (not run on from the heading). Include phone numbers and addresses in brackets. 

Bus Station

Located in front of the Shekou Passanger Terminal, the Shekou Bus Station has local busses leading to destainations throughout Shenzhen

Ferry Terminal [2558 8588]

The Shekou Passenger Terminal is an customs crossing point for daily ferries leading to Hong Kong, Kowloon, HK Airport, and Macau. Landing visas are available here with restrictions based on nationality. The terminal also services passenger ferries to Zhuhai.

Internet Café

While the neighborhood lacks an interet café, the Haitao Hotel [No.8 Gong Ye 1st road, one block east of the ferry terminal] has a lobby café with a free internet-ready terminal. Meal or beverage purchase is required for use.

Hostpital

Post Office

Tourist Information

Sights

Describe at least three main sights or attractions and give the following practical info (if applicable) in brackets: phone number, address, entry fee, opening hours. 

Seaworld Plaza

The undisputed heart of Shekou, this brick pedestrian mall is lined with restaurants of varying  ethnicities, coffee shops ranging from kitsch to corportate,  and  more bars than you can shake a stick at, all overlooked by the Minghua, a perpetually docked ocean liner-cum-tourist magnet from which Seaworld gets much of its nautical bragging rights.  The wide, car free mall is a prime spot for people watching, peopled by expatriates of all stripes, tourists from around China, and – increasingly – locals flexing their newfound buying power.  On weekends and holidays Seaworld Plaza takes on a carnival like vibe as it fills with artists painting portraits, merchants selling kites (for flying in the nearby park) and a wide variety of other trinkets and gimcracks.  And in the evenings, the plaza is the center of one one of Shekou’s most happeing bar scenes.

The Minghua

In the center of the Seaworld Plaza sits the Minghua, a former French ocean liner that’s been moored in concrete and transformed into the area’s biggest tourist draw. While the lion’s share of the interior has been transformed into the Cruise Inn, a campy botique hotel, the exterior decks (accessable by gangplanks, manned naturally by sailor-suit clad staff) are open to the public and offer a number of bars and eateries. Naturally the decks have views of the harbor – its that blue bit about a quarrter mile to the south, just over the mini-mall and golf-driving range (themselves built on land reclaimed from the sea).  The Minghua is cool in that quirky sort of way that only a completely incogrious juxtaposition (like an ocean liner surrounded on all sides by land) can be. If you like ships but hate the ocean (or just like microbrew – see our bar listings below), the Minghua is a must-visit.

[Seaworld Plaza, public decks open 4:30 PM – Midnight]

Tian Hou Temple

Shekou’s Tian Hou Temple is a cultural oasis in a town not overly reknowned for its culture, and a spiritual outpost in a city where dollar (or Yuan) worship is the overriding relegion. This 200 year old temple complex honors Matsu, godess of the sea, whose sphere of infulence is chiefly the protection of sailors and fisherman (and presumably the off-shore oil drillers who make their livings nearby).  The temple was built on a hilly spot where the celestial godess herself was said to have visited during the Song Dynasty. Since the early eighties an industrial zone has grown around the temple, and on some days the shipping containers across the road are higher than the temple’s tiled roof. But save for the greying of the blue roof times in the ambiant pollution ubiqious to the area, little inside the complex has changed. Lay worshippers – particularly those who make their living on the sea – place incense in gigantic copper braziers outside the main temple before stepping inside for prayer, and tourists (refreshingly low in numbers) come to visit the temple and the small attached museum documenting the nautical history of the area.  One wing of the museum is filled with statues and other works of art dedicated to the sea goddess, as well as antiques and other objects of art belonging to a bygone age.  The temple offers one peculiar service – for a nominal fee of Y20, worshippers can scribe a wish or prayer onto the interior of a curved clay tile. The tile is then placed on the roof of the temple, where presumably Matsu will be better able to judge the merits of the beseechments.

Common prayers include bessechments for the godess to halt typhoons, or to direct the tides in a way that carry seaborne trash away from high value beachside property.

[#6 Chiwan road][Ph: 26853219][Y15 admission]

Activities

If applicable to the place you’re covering, review activities of interest to travellers and include the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, cost.

Note that Sleeping/Eating/Drinking/Entertainment/Shopping sections feature stand-alone reviews with the first full sentence beginning after the practical information in brackets (see a recent Lonely Planet guide for examples).

Probably the singlemost commonly engaged in activity in Shekou is hanging out at Seaworld Plaza, followed closely by either eating or drinking (or some combination therof). However, the hills to the north of the plaza offer decent hiking activites, as do the hills surrounding the Evergreen Resort. And if practicing your golf swing in the shadow of an ocean liner appeals to you (and really, how many places offer the opportunity), there is a fine golfing range behind the Minghua.

Golfing Range

ACTIVITES

 

Sleeping

Review at least three accommodation places that travellers might use, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, Web site (if applicable), address, cost per night for singles/doubles (use abbreviations ‘s’ and ‘d’ instead of singles and doubles). 

The Evergreen Resort 

[2664 6988 / 2640 3988] [1 Quingqing St, Moonbay] [SY680 DY780 / Y880] [comment – this place has a variety of different rooms / prices – it doesn’t quite fit in with the “singles / doubles” format. I don’t know how you deal with this. I mention the smurf houses, which are the cheapest of the accomadations.]

Fans of Taiwanese mountain resorts will feel right at home at the Evergreen resort, a sprawling resort complex opened in 1995  by Lin Mei Kuang, a Taiwanese architect whose prior projects included a similar spa resort at Taiwan’s beloved Yaming Mountain.  Though the rocky hills surrounding Shekou are a far cry from the lush green mountains of Isle Formosa, the Evergreen’s heavy use of naturalistic structural design and organic building give it a serious mountain resort vibe.  Evergreen guests have their choice of standard rooms with ocean views in a traditionally-shaped hote, rustic redwood cabins with gorgeous hardwood floors, futons, and bathrooms with neck deep Japanese style tubs, or of smaller “tree house” structures that vaguely resemble smurf homes. Prices are incredibly reasonable, and a night at the Evergreen can cost as little as RMB 280, which includes the use of the facilities, which include swimming pools, exercise rooms, teahouses, an enclosed butterfly pavilion, and even a small tropical rainforest, complete with trees and flora transplanted from around SE Asia.

Cruise Inn

[0755/2682-5555][ Minghua Ship, Sea World Plaza] [SY680 DY780 / Y880]

Take two parts nautical whimsy, add one part Alice in Wonderland. Top with stained glass ceilings and serve on pearlescent tiled floorsand you’ve got the Cruise Inn, Shekou’s newest (and among China’s strangest) hotel. The Cruise Inn takes up much of the interior of the permanantly landlocked and docked Minghua, the ship that is Seaworld Plaza’s central feature. Accomadations are as interesting as the lobby décor. The “Romantic Seaview” does have a waterbed and harborview, though the presence of a driving range between ship and sea dispels the illustion somewhat.  The captains suite looks out over bar street, and has two plasma screen televisions and a Jacuzzi. Standard rooms are clean, comfortable and, naturally, nautically themed.  

The Nanhai

[1 Gongye Yilu, next to ferry terminal] [2669–2888][1,560 – Hillview Room, 1,800 Seaview]

[comment – this is how rooms are listed here rather than as singles or doubles; also, discounts are available. I’m not sure how you list this.]

The oldest luxury hotel in the area, the Nanhai’s space-age exterior – rounded balconies that look as if they might detach from the mother ship at any moment face out into the harbor. The Nanhai has undergone extensive renovation in the last year, as reflected by the increased room rates (among the highest in the area). Still, if you want to stay in a luxury hotel of moderate class (the brochure calls it a five star, but we think this might be a bit of an exageration) with  a lobby piano bar and attractive seaview rooms, this might be the place for you.

Eating

Review at least three good eateries, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, average cost of main course, meals open for ie breakfast, lunch, dinner and days closed if any.

 

FOODFEAST

[26835678] [First Floor of Seaworld Hotel, Taizhi Road, across from Seaworld Plaza] [Y40] [lunch & dinner only]

Foodfeast is the only restaurant in Shekuo offering genuine Hakka (ke jia) Cuisine, and is thus appropriately named as members of the Hakka clan are reknowned for their love of feasting. Specialties include (get some names). Foodfeast is also the only restaurant in town serving freshly made durian pancakes (delectable to aficionados, but potentially nausiating to those not endeared to the smelly “king of fruits.” ).  If you’re in Shekou and sick of foreign fare, you can’t get better down home cuisine than what you’ll find at a ke jia ren, or “Guest Home People” restaurant – after all, “home” is a Hakka’s middle name.

The Paris French Kiss

[2688 0317][57/58 Seaworld Plaza][lunch and dinner][Y90]

High ceilings and curvacious columns give this restaurant (located in front of the good ship Minghua) a Napoleanic feel.  Fare is european, and lunch specials are an especially good bargain, as for Y68 you’ll get a large main course, soup or salad, fresh brewed coffee, and a choice of crème brule or choclate mousse to top it off.

Drinking, Entertainment (with a nautical theme).

Review at least one drinking venue that travellers might visit, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address. If there is only one drinking venue it can just be listed under Entertainment.

Having long ago fullfilled its original purpose as post-revolutionary petri dish of Chinese capatalism, Shekou has settled into a more mellow groove as Shenzhen’s entertainment pavillion.  The hub of this is the nautically flavored Seaworld Plaza, a brick-paved pedestrian mall lined on either side with restaurants ranging from fast-food (the uniquious Mcdonalds and Starbucks) to cheesy theme restaurants (like XXX, a Brazillian Barbeque where meat is carved right of the spits by waitstaff dressed in full gaucho regalia). Seaworld plaza is the place to see and be seen, both for local expats working cushy jobs in the offices of nearby foreign owned companies and for local Chinese basking in the glory of their newfound middle class status.

Exepting perhaps the view from the roofs of any of these establishments, from nowhere in Seaworld plaza can the sea actually be seen. Seaworld’s moniker comes not from any ocean (or harbor) view, but from the Minghua, a (get size) ship planted smack dab on the Plaza’s (X) end.

Though it presumably once led a life more common to seagoing vessels (i.e., going somewhere on the sea), today the good ship Minghua is thorougly landlocked, floating in a stretch of open water that surrounds the ship’s hull in all directions for about 20 feet before ending in reclaimed landfill.

The Minghua’s multi-leveleled decks have been transformed into a series of outdoor bars and dance clubs, all of which are open and thumping from dusk into the late-late.  The interior of the Minghua has been turned into a the Cruise Inn, a strange and whimsical budget Inn that

Mixes two parts nautical theme with one part Alice in Wonderland to create perhspas Shenzhen’s most tripped-out hotel

With the good ship Minghua as the hub, the entertainment complex of Seaworld Plaza extends in all directions; between ship and sea is a driving range built on reclaimed harbor landfill, making the Minghua perhaps the only ship on the planet from which one can watch revelers on a pedestrian mall from a (term)side porthole and golfers from a (term)side one.  GET GOLF INFORMATION.

To the (x) the mall extends further, offering more clubs, bars and restaurants. To the X, it becomes X park, several acres of harborfront greenery with open fields, quiet paths, and a considerably more sedate revelers.  Offering the best ground-level view of Shekou harbor, this area becomes extremely crowded with revelers and pickpockets during any festival in which firework displays are involved.

Though wealth may have smoothed her rougher edges, Shekou is still a harbor town,  Further south between Seaworld Plaza and the passenger terminal stretches Taizi road, where the gentrified nautical kitch of the plaza melts away to reveal Shekou’s seedier side. Though most of the bars on this street are clearly designed with providing a place for sex workers (many of whom, thanks to the tremendous local economic boom, are actually from the Philipines) to meet and negotiate with customers. There is, however, one noteowrthy exception.

“X-TA-SEA,” according to the bar’s western owner “is not a cheap clip joint for picking up tarts.”  Indeed, with its 100 inch flat screen TV with satellite sports channells on demand, regulation style American pool and foosball tables, X-TA-SEA fills a red-light district’s ecological niche, namely a place to drink and gamble without having to be tempted by more sordid sins of the flesh. X-TA-SEA

No. 2A Taizi Road, Behind Yin Bing Building,

Shekou, Shenzhen

136 9192 2585 2866-7649

Shopping

If applicable, review at least two interesting shops that travellers might visit and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, opening hours.

Though more of shipping than shopping hub, visitors looking to come away from their visit with more than pictures of Matsu or a hangover will have ample opportunity to obtain trinkets at the newly opened mini-mall

Getting There & Away

A penisular nipple on Shenzhen’s ever-expanding underbelly, Shekou is easily reached by boat, bus or taxi. Alas, the new and much touted Shenzehn Metro does not extend to Shekou, ending halfway from the Lo Wu border crossing at the Windows of the World Metro station. All the more reason to take the ferry if you’re coming from Hong Kong, as the boat comes directly to Shekou 13 times a day. Coming from the Shenzen Train Station, the fastest way it to hop a cab for about Y60. Or you could take the metro halfway and grab any number of busses which will let you off in front of the Shekou Passenger terminal. There are also eight boats a day to and from the HK Airport.

Getting Around

Give details on the main transport modes around town, location, frequency and cost etc.

Fairly compact, Shekou is an easy neighborhood in which to get around.  It’s a quick walk from the ferry terminal to Seaworld Plaza. The only places in Shekou that really require taxis are the Matsu temple and the Evergreen Resort.

 

Influential Mothers in My Life

Seeing as it’s mother’s day I thought I’d relate a tale from the early eighties concerning two influential mothers from my childhood. This story is a reprint, having run in Funny Times a few years back. Of course, it’s old news to my mom.

Onto the influential Mothers.

The Mothers of Invention: Freak Out

The Mothers of Invention: Freak Out

(Not these Mothers, who would only be influential a few years later)

The first mother was my own.

My Mother

My Mother was quite a looker in her day

She’d been divorced from my father for a few years at that point, and had been

dating a guy for a couple of months.

 

My mother’s paramour – Bill? Chuck? Who can remember these things? – decided to take her to see at movie at one of those second run movie theaters that once upon a time could afford to exist in Brooklyn.

My mother couldn’t find a babysitter, so, being a good and liberated 1970’s parent, she decided to take me, her 11 year old son, along on the date.

Enter the second Mother:

The Alien Mother

The Other Mother

My mother’s date (Bert? Ernie?) picked the movie. He decided to take us to see Alien. A movie about a very different sort of mother, with very different mating habits.

 

It was an evening show on a school night, and I think the ticket seller looked askance at my mother and her date as they brought me into what was considered among the most frightening movies made to date. But the eighties were a more permissive time, and would get more permissive still.

It’s worth noting here that the Alien’s children would have needed no babysitter, pouncing as they did into the world fully equipped to take care of themselves.

Myself, lacking claws, fangs or acid blood, was less equipped for self-protection from whatever sort of dangers might have awaited a young boy, so Rob or Charlie or whoever convinced my mother that bringing me along would be a reasonable show of good parenting.

My mother and her date settled in the back of the theater. Bob or Eddie or whoever gave me a few dollars for popcorn and soda, encouraging me to sit as far away from the grownups as possible. Perhaps there was a wink involved. This is not the part of the evening that sticks out in my memory.

Neither, ironically, do the next 98 minutes. It was just a surreal nightmare of blood and terror as the crew of the Nostromo were stalked and killed by the titular Alien, described by the Nostromo’s android shipmate as “the perfect organism”.

Actually, this line was said by the android’s severed head, through a pool of its own semen-like goo after being reanimated by jumper cables.

Also, there was a computer called “Mother” in there somewhere. “Mother” the computer was about as much use to the crew of the Nostromo as my own mother was to me at that point in the film, being fondled by Archie or Jughead or whatever his name was twenty rows back.

They were younger then than I am now. Who can blame them?

When the movie ended, I had to be pried from my seat.  I think the imprints made by my fingers clutching the armrests tightly for 117 minutes were there until the theater itself was gentrified along with the rest of Brooklyn.

I remember the drive home, not to my own home (which would have been a small comfort), but to the Brooklyn home of Jones or Brett or whoever. He’d managed to convince my mother to spend the night, and thought that my sleeping on the lower bunk in his daughter’s bedroom was a reasonable idea.

I spent the entire night with my eyes open, staring at the underside of the upper bunk, listening to a stranger’s breathing mingling with unmentionable sounds from the rest of the house.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

~~~

Like my writing? Dig exotic Places? Buy my Ebook, How Not To Avoid Jet Lag & other tales of travel madness, 19 illustrated stories, observations, and exotic hallucinations from the increasingly demented mind of Travel Writer Joshua Samuel Brown, with illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.