Iain Manley and Claire van den Heever, a South African couple who have travelled together for eight years, have been producing quality long form journalism about China and East Asia for a number of years (we published one of Iain’s pieces in June about a member of the so-called ‘Forgotten Army‘ of KMT veterans who turned from fighting Chinese communists to fighting the Burmese army in Shan state). Iain’s first book – about the pirates, prostitutes and opium peddlers of old Singapore – was published in 2010. Claire’s, which tells the story of Chinese art’s journey from propaganda to market darling, is due for publication in October.
Iain and Claire are now seeking backers on Kickstarter to fund their longest journey yet, an 18-month overland trip from Shanghai to Cape Town, from which they hope to report on, among other topics, “the 100,000-strong African community in Guangzhou, profiles of two young women whose lives have been transformed utterly by moving to Shanghai, and an exploration of Chinese creativity in Jingdezhen, the world’s oldest industrial town”.
You both started Old World Wandering in 2006, but this is your first time using Kickstarter to fund your project, can you tell us what drew you towards crowdfunding and how you have funded yourselves in the past?
Claire – Iain and I initially set off on an 18-month, overland journey from London to Shanghai. We funded that by running a pub in the south of England for a year. Once in Shanghai, we taught adults English for the first year; later, we were both commissioned to write books, which put Old World Wandering on the backburner.
In January 2011, we left Shanghai to travel through India, Southeast Asia and China, which we paid for by doing freelance work for two Hong Kong-based financial magazines, along with some copywriting and web design. Crowdfunding makes sense for two reasons: firstly, because will allow us to focus all of our energy on writing our distinctive long-form dispatches, if we’re successful; secondly, because Kickstarter and websites like it allow us to tell our story while offering people products of value in exchange for their support.
Do you see Kickstarter as a viable platform for funding long-form journalism? If so, why?
Iain – A number of journalism projects have already raised seed funding with Kickstarter. Matter, for instance, raised a whopping $140,201. More recently, Narratively raised $53,739 for a new way of telling local stories, and I think we’ll see a growing number of similar projects. Journalism is undergoing a fundamental transformation at the moment, and I think Kickstarter is an excellent marketplace for experimental projects like ours, which are looking for ways to not just move existing mediums like newspapers and magazines online, but to rethink how we produce and consume media entirely.
Can you explain why you’ve picked the route you have, which doesn’t necessarily seem the most direct way to get to South Africa?
Claire – Although our journey does have a final destination – Cape Town – we aren’t in a hurry to reach it. We mapped our route according to the countries and regions that we’re most interested in learning – and writing – about. By travelling through three countries within Central Asia, we hope to gain some sense of the region as a whole. Finding connections between different countries and broader regions is central to the way we travel. There are points at which China and Vietnam’s cultures intersect, for instance, and we expect to see a lot of overlap between Western China and Central Asia, as well as between Central Asia and Iran. Experiencing these transitions is one of the main reasons we travel overland, rather than fly from place to place. (Taking the time to see different parts of a country is often culturally interesting too, such as when the people in a city in north eastern Thailand have far more in common with the people in the city across the Mekong River – and the border – in Laos.)
Naturally, there are logistical considerations too. Certain border crossings are closed to foreigners, and we may enter a country through a particular border because of visa considerations or transport connections.
You both lived in Shanghai for almost three years, were you disappointed to be leaving the city, or did the smog finally drive you away as it does so many foreigners?
Claire – We sometimes miss Shanghai’s dynamism, but leaving was always the plan. In fact, we never imagined we’d stay for three years. When we left in 2011, it was to begin a journey that we’d been planning since we first arrived: Shanghai to Cape Town overland. Now, after a detour through India, Southeast Asia and China, we’re finally setting off. We hope to continue writing long-form dispatches about the Old World along the way, and in a few days time – when our crowdfunding project reaches its deadline – we’ll find out if we can.
Iain studied journalism and you are a both published non-fiction authors, can you tell us what you aim to achieve from a journalism perspective with Old World Wandering? Can you give us an overview of previous journalistic projects you’ve undertaken as part of this project?
Iain – We tend to write about processes that are too slow or subtle to make the news, like the transformation of Gokarna, a village in South India that inspired one of our most popular long-form dispatches. They focus on a single place or a transition between places, and aim to provide a sense of history and culture, often through the eyes of someone we meet or get to know, such as Dr. Shastri, a Gokarna Brahmin who called tourism in the village “a curse”; Spontaneity is, for me, a part of what separates travel writing from journalism: a journalist goes in with an angle, whereas a traveller lets a place unfold in its own way, without forcing it to fit a narrative. Obviously, we need news features, but we need reflections of ordinary – not newsworthy – life too.
Old World Wandering is not about chasing stories. It’s about giving substance to the places we know about only from news or dry fact, and both of us think the best way to share that picture is through long-form dispatches.
Check out (and donate via) Old World Wandering’s Kickstarter page, and come back tomorrow when we’ll be publishing a piece by Iain about travelling the Sichuan-Tibet Highway.