Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the City University of Hong Kong's online course, Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds When I first arrived in Beijing, I had the mentality of an individualist. I wanted to be a rock singer, and identified myself as a rock singer. I had studied in the music school for two years. After graduation, in order to make ends meet, I always went to the underpass to sing. One day, a fellow came to me when I was performing. He was singing at a nearby subway station and got caught by a policeman. The policeman confiscated his guitar. He wanted to borrow money from me to pay a fine and get his guitar back. I had some income that day. Because of the empathy with a “comrade in the same class,” I lent him the money.

Skip to 1 minute and 9 seconds He got his guitar back, and we became friends. He already knew Sun Heng, another street singer, and then we three became friends. We have often hung out together since then. Sun Heng once visited a construction site in Tianjin. At that time, there were societies in universities nationwide, as well as in Beijing, that focused on the “Three Rural Issues.” The students from Tianjin University of Science and Technology would visit the construction site, so Sun Heng went with them to perform songs. He was deeply moved by the applause, appreciation, and feedback from the construction workers. When he came back to Beijing, he suggested “let’s start a band and perform on construction sites.”

Skip to 2 minutes and 7 seconds At that time, I wasn’t sure about the significance of doing that. But emotionally I believed I could do that. Therefore, we three practiced for a while, and then started to perform on construction sites. Through this experience, I saw the lives of construction workers. I had never really entered a construction site before. I was impressed by the reality; the workers are “sweating blood” on the sites. At the beginning, though, I still performed the songs I had written before, focusing on my personal expression. The passion of the workers still affected me. Little by little my self-identity changed. As a rock singer I suddenly realized that I’m also a young migrant worker, a member of the working class.

Skip to 3 minutes and 18 seconds And then my music also changed. The songs I wrote moved away from the expression of “I” and became an expression of “we.” I stepped out of the concealed room of myself and entered society. I started to express the concerns of my fellow workers with music. The first song I wrote after this transformation is called “Labor Ballad”; it goes “We have entered the city and become migrant workers; Upright while doing the job. Nobody is nobler than others. We will sing the song for ourselves.” The subject in the first person is always “we” in the lyrics. That means I have established a certain connection to this community of migrant workers.

Skip to 4 minutes and 10 seconds The mentality of a rock singer is self-centered. Therefore, I wasn’t able to see my surroundings clearly at the very beginning. After I forsook the self-centered idea and really entered society, after I gained a worker’s point of view and established a connection with society, I eventually reached a better understanding of myself. It was before 2003, no, before 2002, when the Custody and Repatriation Regulations hadn’t been nullified, that migrant workers felt especially insecure living in a village like this. The auxiliary police could break into your house at any time during the night, inspecting your residential permit. We would hide in the room and lock the door from the outside, producing the false impression that no one was at home.

Skip to 5 minutes and 6 seconds We all shared the same feeling of insecurity. But we are upright workers that make a living with our hands. We are living in this city and make a contribution to the city. At that time, I just sang aloud to express grievance against the injustice.

Artist interview: Xu Duo

We interviewed Xu Duo, a core member of the New Worker Art Troupe, in front of the migrant workers’ museum in early 2016.

In this excerpt, he discusses how he started to sing for migrant workers fourteen years ago.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

City University of Hong Kong