Art for workers creates a new heritage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 March, 2010, 12:00am

Sun Heng is the chief executive of the non-governmental organisation Beijing Workers' Family and leader of the New Worker Art Troupe. Sun hails from Kaifeng, Henan, and has lived in Beijing since 1998. In the capital, he has been a porter, a salesman, a bar singer and a music teacher at a school for migrant workers' children.

What was your intention in establishing the New Worker Art Troupe?

My experience as a migrant worker in Beijing shows me the enormous amount of money migrant workers are creating for the country and society, but it also exposes the lack of cultural lives these people have. For example, there is often not even a television at construction sites. People have nothing to do after work except drink, play poker and chat. That gave me the idea to establish a troupe to do free shows for them. So on May 1, 2002, several friends and I formed the New Worker Art Troupe. We gave free shows at construction sites, factories and schools for migrant workers' children in our spare time. Because we sang about our own work experience, people liked us a lot.

What difference do you think you have made in migrant workers' lives?

When we sing, 'Manual labour is the greatest honour, manual workers are one big family', people roll up their sleeves and applaud. 'It's like we are celebrating the New Year,' they say. In the years since then, we have given more than 500 free shows to 10,000 people.

In 2004, the troupe released its first album, Manual Workers Are A Family. Altogether we sold 10,000 copies, and we made 75,000 yuan (HK$85,280). With this money, we began thinking what else we could do. In 2005, we started a school for migrant workers' children - Tongxin Experimental School. Now it has 12 classrooms and 420 students, whose parents hail from all over the country but are all working in Beijing.

In 2006, we started a general store, where donated second-hand items are recycled and sold to workers at cheap prices. It is environmentally friendly, resource-saving, and lowers their living costs. We now have five such stores, which reduce their yearly spending by a million yuan, and have created 15 jobs. In 2007, we established the first museum to allow migrant workers to record the changes in their lives and call for respect for labourers.

What kind of migrant workers were specifically targeted?

The people we serve are farmers, whose household registrations are in rural areas but are working in cities as manual labourers - construction workers, security guards, cleaners, housekeepers and waiters.

After all these years, do you think you have changed from a migrant worker to an urbanite?

With China's industrialisation and urbanisation, farmers will inevitably change into urban residents. But this is a long process. I personally think 'farmer worker' (the commonly used Chinese expression for migrant worker) is a very embarrassing word, which implies inequality. One can be either a farmer or a worker, but not both. We work and live in the city now. We are not farmers any more. So I would rather call myself a new worker.

What are your plans?

Apart from daily shows, our troupe has so far released three albums, two dramas and made two films. We have also held two New Workers' Art Festivals. We are planning to release our fourth album this Labour Day. In September, we will hold the third New Workers' Art Festival. Also, our museum will tour colleges this year. We hope one day we will become the base for the communication of China's new workers' culture. It is my life's work to foster this culture, because without such a culture, we will leave no heritage, and without a heritage, we don't have a future.