Migrant workers in China

Chinese migrant workers’ band spreads music and joy to labourers away from home in the Yangtze River Delta area

Migrant labours make up one-third of China’s workforce, despite this, they are often marginalised. For the last eight years, a band made up of 30 workers has been using their music to spread joy to fellow labourers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2018, 7:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2018, 8:33pm

On a freezing winter’s evening in February this year, more than 1,300 migrant workers came together in a theatre in China’s easternprovince of Jiangsu for a night of live music.

Every winter, after almost 12 months of hardship and separation from their families, migrant workers from all corners of the country take the long journey back home to celebrate Chinese New Year with their loved ones. For those gathered in the theatre, in Suzhou’s Wuzhong district, however, there was to be no reunion this year. While some had obligations to their employer, many others chose to stay because working during Lunar New Year earns them triple their usual pay.

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Sheltered from the blistering cold outside, the workers enjoyed a night of warmth and music at the Spring Festival gala staged for them by the Changsanjiao Migrant Workers Art Ensemble.

Made up of more than 30 migrant workers, the group – which was founded in Wuzhong district’s Mudu Ancient Town in 2010 – have staged more than 60 performances around the Yangtze River Delta area. Performers vary from one gig to the next, depending on who is able to take time off work.

The group have written about a dozen original songs that describe the plight of migrant workers and the sacrifices they make while playing their part in the country’s development.

One song – The Ugly Duckling – was written by group founder Xu Xiaomeng 34, a music graduate and pianist from Henan, when he was in his early 20s. It expresses the sense of loneliness and desperation felt by those working in a big city far from home.

“When I first arrived in Suzhou, life was harsh,” says the former maker of display screens. “It took me several months to find a job. I lived in a very small space, and I ate rice and pickled vegetables every day. The job making display screens gave me a stable income and I did that for three years … working from 8am to 8.30pm. We were like robots, doing the same procedures on a production line, non-stop. But the monthly pay of over 1,000 yuan (US$156) was higher than I could earn back home.”

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According to China Labour Bulletin, there were an estimated 287 million migrant workers in China as of 2017, all of whom left their rural hometowns to work as labourers. Making up more than one-third of the country’s entire workforce, they have contributed significantly to China’s spectacular economic growth over the past three decades. But because of their lower socio-economic backgrounds, however, they remain marginalised and are widely subjected to discrimination.

Although disheartened by the monotonous drudgery of factory work, Xu never gave up on his dream of becoming a full-time musician.

“I wanted to be able to make a living from what I learned [in music studies]. So after work, I practised the piano in the workers’ hostel, listened to music, and tried to write my own music and lyrics. The songs [of the ensemble] revolve around our own experiences and feelings,” he says. “There are more than seven million migrant workers in Suzhou. We want to let [our audiences] know that there are people in the world who have dreams and are prepared to work hard to realise them.”

People from rural villages like us are not afraid of hard work, but I still couldn’t stand the [sometimes] 24-hour work stints. I lived like that for a couple of years.
Wu Tingzhong, guitarist

While Xu, who married a woman who is also from Henan, is still working towards his goal of becoming a full-time musician, his group has already gained a strong reputation in China, and has been commissioned by local governments to stage performances, such as the one they held at the Wuzhong theatre.

“At the beginning, we staged pro bono performances at factories and schools for migrant workers’ children. But there were many instances where the venues, after accepting our invitations, would cancelled the shows, thinking we were trying to con them in some way,” Xu says.

“Although things are much easier now, many people still think the performances staged by us – as a charitable organisation – are cost-free. But that’s not right. We need to cover the cost of transport, meals, stage equipment and so on. So we are still not optimistic about our overall operation.”

Although Xu’s dream of pursuing a career in music remains a work in progress, he has managed to break free from his soulless factory job. After his stint making display screens, he worked as a pianist in a coffee shop and a singer at a bar. He now works as a tourism product developer for Wuzhong district’s Mudu Ancient Town.

“While I was working as a display screen maker, I went on a leisurely trip to Mudu and met an official from the Mudu Cultural and Sports Centre,” he says. The official liked Xu’s singing so much that she arranged for him to perform at a community function, and later introduced him to the tourism job.

The ensemble’s guitarist, Wu Tingzhong, came to Suzhou from Inner Mongolia, in 2006, to make a living. He now owns two shops where he sells musical instruments and provides lessons– a far cry from his former days assembling water pumps and working at a glassworks.

“People from rural villages like us are not afraid of hard work, but I still couldn’t stand the [sometimes] 24-hour work stints. You just crashed on your bed [after work]. I lived like that for a couple of years,” he says.

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Wu joined the ensemble in 2013, two years before opening his first shop.

“I love playing guitar and performing. I used to take part in singing competitions in Mudu. I want to spread positive messages about the value of hard work to other migrant workers. By frequenting internet cafes and just playing on mobile phones after work, most of them don’t use their leisure time to improve themselves,” Wu says.

Another problem for the migrant population stems from worker’s children being left behind to be raised by grandparents, or left to their own devices.

The children’s plight is the focus of a music video – I Am a Migrant Bird – made by another ensemble member, Jumo, 28, who set up his own media production company after graduating from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

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Filmed in the province of Anhui and in the city of Suzhou in 2013, the video portrays the real life story of a lonely rural boy’s quest to find his welder father in Suzhou. After spending a week with the boy in Anhui, Jumo saw him reunited with his father – who happened to be a singer in the ensemble – in Suzhou. Recalling the episode, he says the child was ambivalent towards his father.

“It was the first time for me to meet a migrant worker’s child,” he says. “I saw how difficult their lives were when I arrived in the remote Anhui village. Living with their grandparents, they lack the innocence typical of other children. The boy missed his dad, but was reluctant to meet him. He hated his parents a bit because they failed to be present for him for a long time.”

I Am a Migrant Bird has been an online hit, being viewed 250,000 time within the first month of its release in 2014. The ensemble’s first and only album, “The Adventurous”,featuring nine original songs was released in 2013 with a limited run of5,000 copies.

Xu says they timed the album launch to coincide with a donation drive for a leukaemia patient. “The girl’s parents are working in Suzhou and living in poor conditions,” Xu says. “Wu Tingzhong donated his blood platelets to her. We contacted government officials in Suzhou for the donation drive. On the day of the event, which was freezing, many people came and we raised 10,000 yuan for the girl’s parents from the sales of the CD.”

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With about 2,000 copies left, Xu says they plan to hold a concert of folk songs in Mudu Ancient Town on June 18 to raise money for needy families in Suzhou.

“We have just completed three new songs, which diverge from our earlier works in style. While our previous songs talked of the poverty and insignificance of being a migrant worker, the new ones describe the fruits of our labour, our aspirations for the future and our love for Suzhou, which has given us many unexpected things.”