Traveler set to be on top of the world

Updated: Aug 4, 2021 China Daily Print
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Documentary maker Zheng Chenying hanging out with guests at one of her "Forest Cabin" sessions in Shanghai. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Zheng Chenying has carved out a career that many of her peers dream of. Since 2018, the now 24-year-old has been to 64 cities at home and abroad and experienced 24 very different lifestyles.

"It was like having different condensed lives, living with locals in their distinctive abodes," says Zheng, who was born in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province.

Zheng, who graduated from Sanda University in 2019 with a major in journalism and communication, has captured those exciting moments of her travels with a camera and strung them into her documentary series One Hundred Lives, which is about to embark on its third season.

Four years ago, while in college, Zheng wondered if she could find a career that allowed her to travel whenever she felt the urge.

Zheng, then 20, envisioned doing every single thing close to her heart, rather than sitting behind a desk as part of a 9-to-5 routine.

This conviction about being true to herself came in Zheng's sophomore year when she got to visit Taipei as an exchange student.

She was drawn to a scene on the campus playground late at night. "A lot of students were there, dancing, singing, skateboarding, playing games in a circle and rehearsing programs," she recalls, adding that she saw it as her peers giving free rein to their individuality after a hard day's work. "A colorful picture of life unfolded in front of me."

Documentary maker Zheng Chenying filming with a local taxi driver in Shanghai. [Photo provided to China Daily]

It was at that moment she convinced herself to follow her heart, be passionate and stay true to who she really is. She got down to planning her life.

Zheng then followed her interest and got internships as a stage show host, social media editor and photographer. Those positions rendered her various working skills-and helped her better understand herself. "I found myself set against being confined to a cubicle, but longing for a cause that created value for myself," she says.

However, she found herself in the grip of anxiety as graduation approached. She didn't want to be forced to work, but she didn't have money to see the world. "It was a torment, with one foot on campus and the other stepping into the world of work. I even dreamed of myself as a patient in serious condition lying in an intensive care unit," she recalls.

She asked herself what she'd like to leave in this world if she had only one year left. Things then came into focus. She decided to stick to what she had always wanted-to travel, and start a business out of it.

"The initial idea was to develop a travel documentary," she says.

Zheng pulled an all-nighter and developed a relatively crude business proposal that only had a basic outline of how it would make a profit, such as advertising, and presented it to one of her bosses from a previous internship, although she knew "chances were slim" for its success.

To her surprise, the boss offered the first angel investment of her life-150,000 yuan ($23,203). "Perhaps he had known me from my internship before or he was moved by my attempt to hold onto my dream," she says.

She wasted no time setting up a studio and putting together a team of designers and photographers. It didn't take long before she found talent from her adventurous friends and embarked on her first journey to a cave dwelling in the north of Shaanxi province for Mid-Autumn Festival in 2018.

She chose the place out of her fascination for the Loess Plateau and the cave dwellings there. "To me, it represents tradition, distinctive lifestyle and distance from the city," Zheng says.

Documentary maker Zheng Chenying experiencing local life in a yurt in Xiliin Gol League, Inner Mongolia autonomous region. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Her team recorded her stay with a local family in a cave dwelling on top of a mountain. A big tree made a natural canopy over them, and the precipice was close to the living area.

"It was fun moving around, looking for photo opportunities and picking corn in the fields," she recalls.

When she shared her moments online, one of her juniors commented that Zheng lived one of the 100 lives most people wanted. It inspired her to come up with the One Hundred Lives documentary.

Zheng kept exploring grasslands, deserts and oceans that brought her joy, challenge and surprise. In 2019, she lived on a boat for a week in the ocean off Phuket Island, Thailand, and experienced nighttime scuba diving. "It's a nervous yet exciting feeling to sleep under the starry night in the middle of the ocean," she recalls.

Those experiences off the beaten track have drawn many to follow her online. When Zheng edited about 18 experiences, notably her immersive interactions with locals, into the first season of her documentary and put it online in early 2020, she got over 20,000 views the first day.

In spite of the initial success, Zheng soon found that short video production was beset with the inevitable problems of long production cycle, high costs and low returns. Funding and manpower problems then came her way.

Being a fledgling player in the market, Zheng didn't have a firm grasp on her business model. "The team's work wasn't planned well enough and I incurred greater than anticipated costs during filming," she explains.

Documentary maker Zheng Chenying with homestay owners in a village in Habahe county, Altay, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. [Photo provided to China Daily]

She even stopped the project halfway through and tried to develop a tourism app in 2019 to promote her documentary. It only saw Zheng spread herself too thinly. She had to dismiss her team soon after the release of the first season of her documentary. "It was probably the most dispiriting time of my life," she says.

After she had to halt her documentary project, Zheng invited her friends over to her rented apartment in Shanghai where they exchanged ideas about their careers and life, while trying to figure out a way to pick up what she was forced to leave behind.

After a couple of sessions, Zheng was acutely aware of how her guests were enjoying this small get-together. "I found that people in a big city were keen for a cozy place to express themselves and learn from each other," she says, adding that it was her friends at first, and then friends of her friends, and the circle has continued to grow.

Zheng ritualized her little session, calling it Forest Cabin, and promoted it via social media. So far, 200 visitors from Shanghai attended the events, which not only brought her a membership income, but also helped her see things more clearly.

In April 2020, Zheng restarted her documentary program and developed a more sustainable business model, which proved to be a successful one. She first comes up with a filming plan and contacts distinctive homestay owners who offer in-depth local experiences and have a need to publicize their property. Then, she recruits a professional photographer who is interested and willing to do the work for free, as well as a guest, chosen from among her fan base, who will pay to experience what she has planned and be a participant in her film. Spinoff products from her documentary, such as postcards, will be on sale.

Documentary maker Zheng Chenying. [Photo provided to China Daily]

To date, Zheng has put together dozens of teams and the second season of One Hundred Lives was released in June.

Their work has attracted 500,000 followers to her Sina Weibo account.

Before departing on a trip, Zheng would stress to the team that the whole journey is about savoring local life rather than just merely scratching the surface of a destination.

Her cause has pulled together a group of travel enthusiasts from all walks of life.

One of Zheng's followers, Huang Chengxue, says: "From sipping tea on top of a cliff, one can see how Zheng radiates energy." She adds that she has learned how being brave can uncover something that one has been searching for.

"It is not saying that being normal is not good, but that having faith and persevering through tough times is really hard to come by," Huang says.

Zheng has also matured in the process. She knows how to stay optimistic and self-disciplined in the face of setbacks.

Speaking about the future, Zheng insists that she will complete her documentary, and the third season will be about experiences abroad, such as staying in the Bajau people's water bungalow in Malaysia, caves in Turkey and a banda (a type of thatched house) in central Africa, after the pandemic is over.

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