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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

ART FOR ART'S SAKE: Xu Duo, director of this year's gala, practices his singing in front of the New Workers' Theater in Picun Village on January 7 (WEI YAO)

Humble beginnings

The First Migrant Workers' Spring Festival Gala was held in Picun Village, 30 km east of downtown Beijing, in January 2012. A temporary makeshift theater was built by migrant workers living there. It was ramshackle and lacked even the most rudimentary of heating systems. In the cold winter of Beijing, an audience numbering a little over 100 watched the show while stamping their feet against the floor to keep warm. A recording of the show posted online was viewed nearly 500,000 times within a mere 10 days.

Owing to the widespread attention the first show had received, the galas that have followed have gained the support of departments such as the Cultural Center of Chaoyang District, Beijing Trade Union and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. For example, the venue of this year's show, the Nine Theater, belongs to the Cultural Center of Chaoyang District, which also provided some props free of charge.

In spite of support from various organizations, Xu had to stretch the budget and minimize costs, by taking measures such as soliciting volunteers to do makeup. The show's budget ran to a mere 100,000 yuan ($15,990), with 70,000 yuan ($11,193) coming from online donations and 30,000 yuan ($4,797) being sourced from social foundations. The majority of the money had been spent on traffic, food and accommodation for actors and actresses.

Although the costs were small, the gala still meant a great deal to Xu personally.

Xu had been engaged in preparing for this year's gala since last September. Aside from being the show's director, Xu wrote and performed a comedy sketch titled Unity Is Strength, which tells the story of how some 200 sanitation workers in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, staged a strike last August when their employer illegally terminated their work contracts.

With his long and slightly unkempt hair, Xu looks different from the typical worker. He is in fact a social worker with the Beijing Migrant Workers' Home, an NGO co-established by Xu and two other migrant workers with the aim of enriching the cultural life of migrant workers and protecting their rights.

Harboring the dream of becoming a singer, Xu came to Beijing from Haining, east China's Zhejiang Province, in 1999. He started from singing at the underpasses of the city to passers-by who would casually drop him money. In 2002, Xu met Wang Dezhi and Sun Heng, both of whom were fellow art lovers.

The latter two had both been drawn to China's capital city in pursuit of their artistic dreams. In 1995, 18-year-old Wang Dezhi took a train to Beijing from north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region with 700 yuan ($112) stolen from his family. He had dreamed of performing crosstalk at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, but little did he know that 20 years later, he would find himself presenting a self-penned crosstalk show at a very different kind of gala.

Sun used to be a music teacher in Henan Province. Discontent with the methods of teaching he was at the time required to adopt, he came to Beijing with a guitar in 1998.

The three began putting on performances together. At one time they went to a construction site to play a show for workers. The experience prompted them to decide to write and sing songs exclusively for migrant workers.

The three founded the Migrant Workers' Art Troupe, later renamed the New Workers' Art Troupe, and the Beijing Migrant Workers' Home in 2002, with the purpose of publicizing the plight of migrant workers through songs and helping safeguard the aforementioned group's rights.

The three relocated to Picun in 2005, and started an experiment that was to change the lives of the migrant workers there forever.

Social experimentation

Picun is an intersection between Beijing city proper and some of its surrounding rural areas, which is predominantly inhabited by workers in low-end industries.

At present, there are around 20,000 people residing in the village, most of whom are migrant workers employed in the area's furniture-manufacturing factories. Except for a commercial street, most of the village is made up of two-story brick buildings where workers speaking different dialects live.

When they first came to the village in 2005, Xu and his friends rented a former public primary school with the royalties from their first music album and transformed it into the Tongxin Experimental Primary School for migrant workers' children. They then established a cultural center for migrant workers, which comprises a library, a museum, a supermarket and a theater.

Every evening, young workers gather at the center. They can either read books at the library or purchase donated secondhand clothes at the supermarket. During weekends and holidays, the Beijing Migrant Workers' Home organizes all kinds of cultural activities. Every year, a New Workers' Art Festival is held, during which the workers gather together to sing songs written by one another. Singing is the most popular art form among the workers. Every Saturday, Li Xiangyang, a member of staff at the Workers' Home, leads workers in a singsong held at the theater.

Li, 31, put on several performances during this year's gala. He has been working at the Beijing Migrant Workers' Home for over two years now. Li came to Beijing in 2007 after graduating from high school in Baiyin, northwest China's Gansu Province. He has worked as a security guard, a waiter, a delivery courier and a factory worker. However, he said none of those were what he really wanted to do. It was only when he acquired his current job that he started to feel happy.

Like Li, 28-year-old Wang Bo also works at the Beijing Migrant Workers' Home. Since graduating from college in 2012, he has worked at 10 NGOs all over China specializing in different fields. He has chosen to settle down here and become a teacher at the Tongxin Experimental Primary School, teaching civics and physical education courses.

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