Drama opens door to dreams of a better life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 February, 2009, 12:00am

Dong Feng, 24, came to Beijing in 2004 with dreams of saving enough money to set up a small business back home. Now she campaigns for a bigger cause by working with Hua Dan, a Beijing-based NGO that helps improve the lives of migrant workers. She talks about her life in the capital and her plans.

When did you first come to Beijing for work?

I first arrived on February 14, 2004. I had heard that Rural Women, an educational institute in Beijing dedicated to girls who had dropped out of school, was enrolling students and I decided to join. I spent about a month at the school learning the ropes of the catering industry and soon landed a job as a waitress.

Before I started working for Hua Dan in 2007, I worked for a Japanese restaurant where a conversation with my colleague was overheard by a recruitment manager of a beauty parlour who later offered me a job. I was persuading my colleague not to quit her job and I think the recruitment manager was probably impressed by my eloquence.

How did you hear of Hua Dan? And what made you want to join it?

The Rural Women school has an affiliated organisation called Home of Rural Women, which helps female migrant workers protect their rights. After I graduated from the school, I participated in activities organised by Home of Rural Women, because it was close to where I worked. There I met Caroline Watson, the founder of Hua Dan, through a drama workshop. It was something new to me and I enjoyed the freedom. In the workshop we were all equal and respected, which was such a pleasant feeling. Ms Watson had just moved to China from the United Kingdom and it was her first time organising such a workshop in China. I have been participating in the workshop since then.

In 2007, with some funding from the Swiss embassy, Ms Watson started Hua Dan. She asked me if I wanted to work for her and I accepted the offer. Much of Hua Dan's focus is on helping female migrant workers improve their lives, so it hires mostly people from this social group.

I started to learn things such as English and drama before I became a project manager. My job is to plan and organise workshops for women migrant workers to improve their skills, such as communication and interpersonal skills, leadership, self-confidence and problem-solving.

Why the use of drama and why are these skills important for migrant workers?

Drama has an interesting impact on people and can change them imperceptibly. If you participate, you will be influenced, be it subtly or obviously.

Of course, everyone needs these skills to improve themselves, white-collar workers do and company bosses do, too. If migrant workers can learn some of these skills they can improve their lives and prepare for better jobs.

Most migrant workers are rather complacent with whatever they have been given. Whatever happens to them, they believe it's fate. Most of them hope to find a job in the big cities and save enough money to return to their hometowns to start their own small businesses or to get married. What we are trying to do is to help them realise they can achieve their dreams and show them the importance of values. We may not be able to change them, but at least we can help them start to think about these issues.

There was a girl named Ma Lanfan, a domestic helper who had joined our programme. In the first class, she stood at the back and wouldn't speak when asked a question. In the second class, she was still very embarrassed about answering a question and was not able to present her ideas. But in the last class she was standing in front and could perform on stage with confidence. She used to be afraid to talk to her boss but she said this had changed after the programme.

Besides a lack of ambition, what other issues hinder migrant workers in improving their lives and work?

A lot of migrant workers have few channels to connect with the outside world. There are magazines that help foreigners who live in Beijing look for jobs but there aren't many quality platforms for migrant workers seeking employment. Most of them get a job through their fellow villagers or job agents, but many migrant workers, especially those just arriving from the countryside, are cheated by these agencies. A lack of information channels means it's harder for migrant workers to gain access to better job opportunities.

What changes have you have made to your plans throughout the years?

When I first came to Beijing in 2004 my dream was very simple - I wanted to find a job and earn enough money to return to my hometown of Qujing near Kunming in a few years. I planned to either run a little shop or get married. Three years later, I wanted more than just to earn money. I also wanted to learn something new, such as English and computer skills. After joining Hua Dan, I wanted to help more people so they could improve their lives. Now my dream is to help expand Hua Dan to other countries such as India and Brazil. If we can help more people, why not?