Alumni profile: Luke Pegrum learns a new culture by biking, hiking and swimming his way across China
By FIONA LAVROFF
Global Business Journalism reporter
Deep gorges and dizzying mountain peaks. Arid desert. Humid rice paddies against a brilliant blue sky. Temples surrounded by silent snow and primary-color prayer flags. City roads overspilling with bicycles, empty motorways.
A lifetime of inspiration for photographers seeking awe and adventure in China.
For Luke Pegrum, a 30-year-old Australian living in Beijing since 2015, the drive to explore China on his bike and through his camera began just 30 minutes to the west of Tsinghua University’s campus in Beijing’s Haidian district in the former imperial garden known as the Fragrant Hills.
Laced with dark green pine trees, red maple leaves, and orange persimmons in spring and summer, they are also a place of escape. They might even be the very reason he still resides in the Chinese capital so well known for its extreme hustle and bustle.
Originally from a farm near Perth in the relatively deserted and desertified territory of Western Australia, the park presented itself to Pegrum as a means of muffling the metropolis during his time studying at Tsinghua and Peking universities.
“It took 20 minutes on my bicycle from campus to reach the park,” he pauses, “And when you’re up there, you can’t believe that Beijing and its 20 million people are over the hill.”
Holding a language diploma from Peking University and a master’s degree in Global Business Journalism from Tsinghua University, Pegrum is the rare foreigner armed not only with academic understanding of China, but also with first-hand intimate experience of the country’s culture.
“He read Chinese literature to improve his language skills and deepen his understanding of China,” recalled Dongxiao Li, one of Pegrum’s Tsinghua classmates. “He even asked me to give him a list of good contemporary Chinese novels, and I remember him particularly enjoying Yu Hua’s postmodern books.”
Not content with just literature, Pegrum chose to explore and learn in person. His adventurous spirit led the personable Australian to bike all over China with nothing but spare clothes, one of his trusty cameras, and water. He particularly enjoys riding in the southwestern province of Yunnan, citing its tourist-friendly climate, great weather and variety of cycling geography. He also points out, of course, that, “the food is fantastic.”
His cameras have taken him further than his bike.
Although Pegrum describes his relationship with photography as more of a trade than a passion or hobby, the skill with which he uses his lense to capture stories is undeniable. His professor and co-director of the prestigious GBJ program, Richard Dunham, remembers Pegrum’s particularly well-executed photo essay and video about Beijing residents’ fondness for swimming in an icy canal near the Summer Palace —a feat he could not resist joining in.
“Luke's group project on the men and women who swim in icy waters every winter was dramatic, detailed and visually attractive,” said Dunham. “It brought human beings to life. You could almost feel the chill of the cold Houhai waters.”
After graduation, Pegrum carved himself a niche in the world of English-speaking companies seeking photographers and videographers with whom they could communicate easily with and send all over China to take pictures. His skills and love of crafting images led him to a job as the Australian Embassy’s photographer. He now works in the Beijing Embassy as a senior diplomacy officer.
“Yes, I’ve always dreamt from childhood to be in this exact role,” he chuckles in his warm Australian accent before describing his job as “a good coalescence of many of my threads: photography, international relations and journalism. It’s a good outcome from investing time into China.”
Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected that role. Unable to welcome Australian visitors or organize high-level visits in Beijing, the bread and butter of Pegrum’s work now takes place online. Yet tensions between China and Australia have only complicated his job with the Embassy’s Weibo account suffering much attention from China’s online troll community expressing anger over the two countries’ recent roller coaster relations.
Despite being personally affected by his country’s difficulties with the nearby superpower, Pegrum is quick to critique media coverage of China in Australia and the West.
“I think that Western understanding of China is extremely rudimentary, and the questions that people usually ask me about it when I go home are hilariously basic,” he mused. “There’s basically zero understanding of China which is a problem because there’s no wider perspective to view the news through.”
Pegrum attributes Western lack of understanding of Chinese affairs to poor contextual knowledge of the world’s second superpower.
“We see terrible stories about the U.S. every day, but we understand enough about America and its culture and democratic system that we’re able to place that bad news in context. But we don’t have that context when we look at China, so we’re at risk of developing an incomplete and biased picture of what China’s like,” he said.
The answer to “what China’s like” differs for every foreigner.
For Pegrum, it constitutes the rapid change he has seen in Beijing in the past five years. The rise of waimai [online takeout] and government efforts to clean up the streets in recent years have resulted in the demolition of hundreds of little restaurants dotted throughout the city. Streets once known for their chuar [meat skewers] and cheap late night beer have been silenced.
“Things change very fast here and you have to accept that that’s the way it is,” he said.
The rate of change in China is a two-sided coin, and Pegrum is quick to joke that infrastructure and building projects can take up to two decades to be completed in Australia, compared to a mere two weeks in China.
“And then the flip side is that your favorite restaurant suddenly gets bulldozed without much warning,” he said with a wry smile.
Beijing hutong life: 2016 (left) and 2020 (right)
Pegrum’s quiet but quick wit is something his friends around the world treasure.
“He’s a man of humor,” said Edward Budenberg, an old Beida classmate now living in London. “He’s also very curious but very easygoing —I remember a North Korean student in our class getting on with him really well. Beyond that he loves doing things, whether it’s cycling in Thailand or a music festival in Yunnan.”
While Pegrum is not working as a journalist, he maintains the instincts of a skillful multimedia storyteller. His acute awareness and acceptance of China’s idiosyncrasies, a result of his careful observation during his time in the country, bear comparison to Peter Hessler, an American reporter and author known for River Town and Country Roads. Beloved by Western and Chinese readers alike, Hessler is perhaps one of the only journalists capable of accurately conveying “what China’s like."
“If you want someone to understand China a little better you should get them to read River Town,” advises Pegrum. "Your relatives for example, who don’t understand your attraction to China – get them to read that."
Uncertain of the future and what opportunities a post-COVID world will look like, the Australian is open to anything. He misses clean air and his family, whom he has not seen in a couple of years, but he remains taken with China and its possibilities.
“If you stay too long in Beijing, you can get sick of the place,” said Pegrum. “But I love traveling in China and you don’t have to go far to feel like you’re in a new world with a real sense of adventure.