Ning Hui

China’s Homesick Migrant Workers Find Art — and a Community — to Call Their Own

Players at the 2013 Migrant Workers’ Gala. (Ning Hui/Tea Leaf Nation)

Chen Mei (alias) is a 23-year-old girl from Shaanxi province. Most days from 8 o’clock in the morning until 9 o’clock at night, she has worked at a factory in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. Chen had lived a relatively isolated existence bereft of outside activities, until a grassroots non-profit organization called Suzhou Migrant Workers’ Family built an activity room near her factory.

This small room attracted a number of talented workers. They read in the library and worked on making songs, poems, movies, and plays. Chen quickly joined the group and made new friends. When a similar NGO from Beijing called the Beijing Migrant Workers’ Home said it was seeking performances for its 2013 Migrant Workers’ Spring Festival Gala, Chen and her friends signed up immediately.

“We have had some quite original plays, but we needed something to match with the theme perfectly.” Chen said. The theme of the show is “Home.”

Zhang Yue (alias) is also a star in this group. She presented an original song at the gala called “Moving.” It talks about Zhang’s need to move constantly, and her wish for a regular place to live. Chen and three other members of the Suzhou Migrant Worker’s Family joined the performance, carried out with suitcases, boxes and the Chinese character “chai” (to tear down) as set pieces. A sample of the song’s lyrics: “Guerilla warfare is my strategy; today I don’t know where to live tomorrow.”

On January 26, Chen performed alongside many other migrants at the Assembly Hall provided by the Central Committee of the Communist Young League. The show will air February 6 on Shaanxi Agricultural and Forest Satellite Television, Sohu.com, and China National Radio.

Famous China Central Television (CCTV) host Cui Yongyuan presided once again. Cui helped bring the gala to mainstream attention when he MC’ed the show in 2012, where it was first held at Pi Village outside the fifth ring road in capital Beijing, an area known to be a dense migrant workers’ community. This year, the gala attracted much more attention and support from media, migrant workers’ self-organized NGOs, rural cooperatives, and the public.

The gala may not have had the professional sheen of CCTV’s official Chinese New Year gala, a slick production that falls on the eve of the Chinese lunar new year and is the world’s most watched show. This gala’s objective is to have migrant workers — and their children — standing onstage and expressing through performance their own experiences and hopes: a domestic worker who wants to be treated equally; a child who wishes to be with his mother or to go to school; an underground guitar singer’s dream of owning a flat.

The Beijing Migrant Workers’ Home has a clear objective. One of the group’s projects is called the New Workers’ Art Troupe, which gala staff director Wang Dezhe said is intended to “defend our rights through art.” This is not as incongruous as it sounds. Recently, there have been several instances of migrant workers appealing to their employers for back pay using songs and plays. Long defined as a vulnerable group, migrant workers are not used to protect their rights using proper labor contracts or other means. Their artwork becomes a bargaining chip to gain support from the Chinese media and public.

But the Workers’ Home also seeks to make art for posterity’s sake. It has a museum project called the Migrant Laborer Art Museum. Its slogan: “Without our art, we have no history; without our history, we have no future.”

For Ms. Chen, the performance was more literal. After the upcoming lunar new year, she will not return to Suzhou, although her next stop remains unclear. “Maybe I’ll be in Beijing, but I really have no idea what to do,” she said. The same is true for many migrant workers, whose ranks continue to swell. According to a National Bureau of Statistics survey in 2011, there were already more than 250 million of them.

If migrant workers have their way, this number will ultimately diminish — many of them dream of settling down. But for most of them, China’s long-standing household registration, or “hukou,” policy stands in the way, restricting social benefits for urban-dwellers still registered as rural residents. For them, building a “home” in cities they have devoted so much to is often an impossible mission.

During the 2013 gala, one performer, who plays as a pirated DVDs seller on the street for a living, performed a sketch in which he asked the audience:“ I don’t have family, land or anything left in the village. I need to stay in the city to survive. But can I have a home here better than a four square meter room?”

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Ning Hui

Ning Hui, or Lulu, is a media enthusiast who has worked in development and currently enjoys exploring China's emerging civil society. She is close to Beijing's contemporary art scene. She holds a BA in politics from Dalian Maritime University and a MA in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is based in Beijing.
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1056330066 Francis Chen

    great article! do you happen to have a video on Youku of their performance?

    • Ning Hui (Lulu)

      Hi, thanks for like it! I couldn’t find video of the performance online yet, guess the TV station must have had some agreement with video sites. Will be online after Feb.6th, but check this out, it’s the seasonal greetings from Beijing Migrant Workers’s Home this year, with nice interviews with migrant workers: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNTAyNTQ3MDMy.html?x