The musician who became a champion of migrant workers

Musician, migrant and workers' champion, Sun Heng has taken a road less traveled. Bernice Chan learns about his journey

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 9:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 July, 2014, 9:47am

Like many young people on the mainland, Sun Heng left his hometown to pursue his dreams. He loved music and had vague ideas about travelling across the country to sample different ethnic sounds and becoming a performer. He achieved that goal, forming the New Worker Art Troupe, a band which gave a voice to the country's millions of migrant workers.

In the process of making music, Sun, now 39, became their champion: he set up a school in Beijing for the children of migrant workers who were not allowed to attend public institutions, a community centre, a museum and, in 2009, a centre where workers can go to pick up skills that could lead to better paying jobs.

We had all these nice buildings in the city, but never knew who built them. From then on I decided to sing about the workers
Sun Heng

Particularly concerned about second-generation migrants who were born in cities but stuck in low-paying jobs because they had little education, Sun and his friends figured one solution was to provide practical courses in areas such as computer literacy and graphic design.

"Once they begin working in a factory, they rarely have a chance to retrain in new skills, so we founded this training centre. It is not a formal academic university, but rather a social knowledge platform," says Sun.

Founder of NGO the Beijing Migrant Workers' Home, Sun was invited to Hong Kong in May by Oxfam to help raise awareness about the plight of the estimated 263 million mainland migrant workers whose contribution to China's remarkable growth in the past 20 years is rarely acknowledged.

It wasn't quite the role Sun envisaged when he arrived in Beijing about 15 years ago.

Sun was born in Shaanxi province, where his parents laboured as forestry workers. Life was tough, but Sun had a happy childhood playing in the outdoors. The family returned to their native Henan when Sun was 13, but he found it hard to fit in as didn't understand the local dialect.

It was music that helped open doors. He recalls singing so horribly in class one day all his classmates laughed at him, but that was the impetus for his taking up music. That day, Sun persuaded his father to buy him a radio, which he took with him during his hour-long walk to school each day so he could practise singing along with the music.

"After several weeks I got up to sing and impressed my classmates so much that I started making friends," he says.

His newfound talents encouraged him to study to become a music teacher and to learn instruments such as the piano and the dizi (Chinese flute), as well as composition. "I thought only music could change the world," Sun says.

He also started playing the guitar, and for two years skipped a lot of classes to listen to rockers like Tang Dynasty, Cui Jian, Budaoweng and Dou Wei.

"When I came in for the final exams, my teacher could not recognise me because I didn't attend class much and had grown my hair long," he says with a laugh.

Sun taught music in an elementary school after graduating but soon realised the system was too stuffy for him.

"My parents wanted me to have a steady job, earn money, get married and have a child, but I wanted to be in a new world. There was hardly anyone I could talk to because they all had the same conservative thinking. I didn't know what to do."

Finally, in 1998, Sun felt he had to leave, which led to fierce quarrels at home and his mother threatening to cut him off if he did.

"I just wanted to leave - I didn't know where I wanted to go. I thought perhaps I could travel around and learn music from ethnic minorities."

In the end he headed for Beijing. "It's the capital and there are many music teachers there," he says.

His first job as a porter in a train station - back-breaking work that only paid 300 yuan (HK$375) a month - lasted a month. After that he had a series of odd jobs, including handing out leaflets on the street. Living near a construction site, he began playing his guitar for workers in the evenings.

"I went to a construction site for three days. There was a worker from Anhui sitting near me. On the first day he didn't speak to me. But by the third day he showed me his rough hands. He said, 'Look at my hands. I work 17 hours a day, every day. In the evenings I eat and drink some alcohol. I can't explain why I've come to Beijing to work, but people here don't respect us.'

"When I heard this it had a profound effect because I had never thought of it before - we had all these nice buildings in the city, but never knew who built them.

"From then on I decided I wanted to sing songs about the workers, to let others hear their voices. Before I only sang songs about myself, [but after that] I had meaning - I can care about the workers and about society in this way. And it was then that I understood who I was."

He met other migrant workers who were also musicians, and in 2002 five of them set up the Migrant Workers Art Troupe, now known as New Worker Art Troupe, staging their first performance for about 100 workers on Labour Day.

"There were no speakers, no lights, not even a microphone stand," Sun says. "But they were very happy, the people in the audience. They were clapping to the music and smiling, some with tears running down their faces. Afterwards we were hungry and they offered us whatever food they had. The atmosphere was different for them because they had never been together, happy, talking. It was a profound feeling for them and us."

Then Oxfam consultant Li Changping saw Sun perform and proposed that the organisation back his work. They first provided speakers and amplifiers, before offering him a salary of 1,000 yuan per month. Twenty other musicians who performed regularly also got a salary.

With Oxfam's help, Sun also set up the Migrant Workers' Home in 2003, converting a deserted factory in Picun village, an area in Chaoyang district mostly inhabited by migrant workers, into a space where they can relax and learn.

"When they are in their home towns they have their families and friends. But in the city they are by themselves and the government doesn't care. That's why we wanted to create a home for them in Beijing," he says.

The facilities include a performance space, a library of donated books, stores selling second-hand goods, a community cinema and, since 2008, a museum documenting the history of the labourers.

His troupe hit a high note in 2004 when a music company invited them to record an album, which ended up selling over 100,000 copies.

"We received 75,000 kuai in royalties, we were so excited," Sun says with a broad smile. "We put all the bills on the table in front of us. We'd never seen so much money before.

"We discussed what to do with the money, but never thought of splitting it between us. Then we thought of the children, the five- and six-year-olds in the neighbourhood. They don't have hukou [residential permits] and can't go to regular schools, so we thought of starting a migrant children's school."

Tongxin Experimental School has taught about 10,000 children up to the sixth grade since it opened. University graduates help out by signing up for two-year teaching stints.

Thanks to the media attention, the municipal government acknowledged Sun's efforts with an award and declared Tongxin a model school. It also went a long way towards reconciling Sun with his parents, who were thrilled with the recognition for their son.

In 2012, the school was threatened with closure, along with about 100 unlicensed schools, for failing to meet building codes.

However, municipal officials relented after a 20-day stand-off between police and Tongxin supporters.

There may be fewer hurdles with Sun's "university". Courses are divided into six-month semesters and two components: the first focuses on vocational skills taught by qualified instructors, while the second deals with social skills.

Tuition is free and students are provided with meals and accommodation as well as help to find employment after they graduate. About 30 trainees, aged between 16 and 25, are accepted each time.

It's not the road to fame and fortune, but Sun gets a lot of fulfilment from these steps forward. "Sometimes I pass construction sites and hear the workers listening to my songs on their smartphones. They don't know it's me. But I found my path and decided what to do on my own terms."