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Migrant Idols
Cover Stories Series 2015> Migrant Idols
UPDATED: February 23, 2015 NO. 9 FEBRUARY 26, 2015
Work Hard, Play Hard
Migrant workers stage their very own Spring Festival show
By Wei Yao

A ROUSING SPECTACLE: The last performance of the 2015 Migrant Workers' Spring Festival Gala held in Beijing on February 1—a choral rendition of the song A Hymn to Laborers (WEI YAO)

On February 1, the Fourth Migrant Workers' Spring Festival Gala was held and recorded at the Nine Theater in Beijing's Chaoyang District. The gala hosted performances by some 100 factory workers from Beijing, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Taiwan. The more than 30 children who participated in the show were all offspring of migrant workers.

The gala was originally scheduled to run for three hours, but took over four hours to finish, as the amateur actors involved lacked experience in performing. However, their performances won thunderous applause from the audience. When the final performance—the yearly staged choral piece A Hymn to Laborers—started, the audience stood up and sang along in solidarity with the actors on stage.

"The gala aims to review developments in the workers' community over the past year and reproduce their real-life experiences," said director Xu Duo.

Last year's gala received over 10 million views when aired online. This year, the event is expected to garner even greater attention.

An unconventional gala

Spring Festival galas are a uniquely Chinese tradition. Every year many TV channels present their own festivities, featuring guest appearances by famous stars. The gala broadcast live by China Central Television (CCTV) shown on the eve of the Lunar New Year, which fell on February 19 this year, has been the most popular among Chinese audiences over the past 30 years or so.

Unlike its televised counterparts, the gala for migrant workers, initiated in 2012, showcases performances not by stars but by ordinary workers.

Take this year's gala for example. It consists of 21 performances, which encompasses the forms of singing, dancing, crosstalk, comedy skits and poetry recitation. All but two of the shows were performed by migrant workers and their children, in addition to the staff of NGOs committed to protecting workers' rights.

During this year's gala, 45-year-old Zhou Xianshou sang a song written and composed by himself, which expressed the affection he feels for his family members while living away from home. Zhou, who comes from central China's Henan Province, went to work in Suzhou, east China's Jiangsu Province, as a motorbike mechanic in 2000. He has learned to play the guitar and sing in his spare time and often takes part in local singing contests.

The host of the gala, Cui Yongyuan, is a renowned TV host in China. He has hosted the show every year since its inception and his fame has helped popularize the event. The other two female co-hosts, Wang Fuju and Ding Li, both work with NGOs devoted to the protection of workers' rights in south China. They had been selected through an online audition, and their experience of having been migrant workers before assuming their current jobs had earned them extra credibility.

Cui's refined skills in hosting allowed him to expertly work the audience. During the show, he constantly called for efforts to be made to recognize migrant workers' rights. However, compared with their more experienced colleague, Wang and Ding seemed to be a little nervous. Ding's legs were constantly trembling at the beginning of the show. However, she gradually calmed down and was inspired by a recitation of a piece of poetry titled Beijing, I Have Come, which addresses the sense of insecurity migrant children sometimes feel in their adopted cities.

China's remarkable economic and social progress since the reform and opening-up campaign was launched in the late 1970s may not have been possible without the huge number of low-cost laborers who relocated to cities to work. However, this cohort has long received unfair treatment, represented by the highly intensive nature of their work, low wages and lack of basic social security guarantees. In 2010, 14 workers at the Shenzhen facility of the Taiwan-based contract manufacturing giant Foxconn, which makes iPhone and iPad among other products, committed suicide by jumping off buildings. The deadly incidents thrust the protection of Chinese workers' rights into the spotlight.

The Factory Star Band from Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, performed the song Working Eight Hours during this year's gala. Zhang Feng, the drummer of the band, left his hometown in central China's Hubei Province in 2012. He worked at the Shenzhen Foxconn factory for two years.

Zhang told Beijing Review that working extra hours used to represent a boon for him while working for Foxconn, because only in this way could he earn more.

Talking about the suicide of workers in Foxconn, Zhang said, "The workers there lead a dull life. They have nowhere to turn to for help when they face heavy work-related pressures."

After leaving Foxconn, Zhang went on to teach migrant workers to play the guitar and drums at a free training school, where he started to learn about workers' rights protection.

"It's vitally important to alleviate the psychological pressures imposed on workers by encouraging them to take part in social and cultural activities," he added.

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