TO BE A SINGER: Mumu plays the guitar and sings on an overpass in Beijing on October 19 (BAI SHI)
Carrying a guitar and a hefty loudspeaker, Mumu (whose real name is Li Zhengwen) can be seen walking on the streets and through the alleyways of Beijing, an unfamiliar city to this 22-year-old girl from central China. When finding a clean place on a corner, overpasses or underpass, she settles in before pulling out her guitar to belt out some pop tunes. Before long, Mumu draws the attention of curious, sympathetic or indifferent passersby.
There are hundreds of street singers like Mumu—along with painters and singers—who perform on Beijing streets for a living. These buskers play a big role in the capital's modern street culture. They are popular among young people for their entertainment value, but their eccentric behavior draws the scorn of chengguan—urban management officers tasked with maintaining public order.
Mumu was born to an average family in Ruijin, a city in central China's Jiangxi Province. This summer, Mumu came to Beijing to begin a three-year master's program in teaching Chinese to non-native speakers at the Capital Normal University.
Mumu does not exactly make a living as a busker, but freely performs in public out of a sheer passion for playing the guitar.
A star dream
Four years ago, Mumu learned to play the guitar from a senior fellow student as a freshman and regularly practices with her friends during group sessions on the street.
The guitar isn't her only talent: She can sing too.
"I like singing—I feel free and happy," Mumu told Beijing Review. "A singer should have an audience. I just want to present myself. I don't mind who the audience is. So I don't feel uncomfortable when I sing on the street for strangers. The campus and streets are my stage."
Some buskers even become overnight stars, something Mumu finds encouraging.
Ren Yueli is one such example. Ren sang in the underpasses of Xidan in downtown Beijing for four years before becoming an online sensation in 2009 after someone uploaded a video of her singing.
Ren's voice was immediately popular with netizens. Her talent scored her several live performance events, including the well-known China Central Television Spring Festival Gala in 2011, which catapulted the young singer to national fame.
"Becoming famous is only a dream hidden in my heart", Mumu said, recognizing the long and tough road ahead if she were to ever reach stardom.
"A dream is just a dream—it is not as real as my music."
A complicated life
"To be honest, I never thought to sing for a living. My parents can afford my tuition and living expenses," Mumu said. "But music is the most important thing in my life, and I don't want to lose my focus."
Her parents adamantly opposed their daughter performing on the street. "In the beginning, my parents worried that singing would affect my studies. My parents are very concerned. They believe people usually look down on a street singer.