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Case study: “New Worker Art Troupe”

Case study: New Worker Art Troupe.
In 1995, Wang Dezhi left his horse farm in Inner Mongolia for Beijing, hoping to be able to perform “crosstalk,” a traditional form of stage comedy that he had been passionate about, in the Spring Festival Gala on national television. He was flatly rejected. In order to survive in the metropolis,
he picked up odd jobs: washing dishes, distributing flyers, and delivering bottled water. He rented a tiny room in the basement of a building, and kept on practicing crosstalk.
In 1998, Sun Heng left his job as a music teacher in a secondary school in Henan province, and wandered throughout China in search of “real life.” Everywhere he went,
the situation of migrant workers pained him: how come they work so hard, but still cannot live a decent life? Finally, he settled down in Beijing, and started to volunteer in a school, teaching music to children of migrant workers.
In 1999, Xu Duo ran away from his “boring hometown” in Zhejiang province, to attend Midi School of Music in Beijing. Like his classmates, he dreamed of becoming a rock star. After graduation, he became a street singer, and moved into a migrant workers’ community.
On May 1, 2002, Wang Dezhi, Sun Heng, and Xu Duo formed the New Worker Art Troupe. Since then, they have staged over 500 performances for more than 200,000 migrant workers.
In 2004, the New Worker Art Troupe released their first album. Titled “All Migrant Workers Are One Family,” it sold more than 100,000 copies. The most popular song in this album is “Joining Together to Fight for Compensation,” written by Sun Heng. The song paints a vivid scene where a group of workers have occupied the construction site to demand payment from their boss, a cunning Mr. Zhou, so they could go home after a year’s hard work, to reunite with their families for Chinese New Year.
Had been working hard for a year, but we were still not paid at the end of the year. Boss Zhou was known to conceal a knife in his smile, now he hid away from us.
The Chinese New Year was coming, and the families in the countryside were expecting me. How can we go home with empty hands! So we had to fight regardless of any consequences.
The construction industry employs millions of migrant workers. Usually they are paid only at yearend. Without formal contracts, migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation. The song tells the story through the eyes of a young migrant worker. Boss Zhou has called in some “police” who tried to scare the workers away, saying that they would be all arrested. The narrator became “a bit anxious.” At this moment, Old Fellow Wang, who had experienced “hundreds of battles,” stood up.
He exposed the sham and led the shouting: “One Condition! Pay us! One Condition! Pay us!” At daybreak, Boss Zhou finally caved in. Let’s join together to fight! One condition! Pay us!
Sun Heng performed this song frequently on construction sites. On one occasion, the workers in the audience were so aroused that they started to shout the lyrics together. The onsite manager was frightened and nearly drove the art troupe away. In an interview, Sun Heng said, “Many workers feel that the problem of exploitation is common, and cannot be changed. But when we tell these stories through music, to push the workers to reflect on the situation, they would start to feel that this is wrong and we should join together to defend our rights. This would lead to action.”
Since 2002, the New Worker Art Troupe has produced 8 albums, with over 80 songs. The topics are wide-ranging. Some songs are written in response to specific crises. “Open-Chest Lung Examination” refers to the 2009 incident of Henan peasant worker Zhang Haichao voluntarily undergoing an open-chest examination in order to prove that he was suffering pneumoconiosis as a result of him working for three years grinding gravels in a Zhengzhou company. Many songs describe the hardship endured by migrant workers. “Basement,” written by female singer Duan Yu, who joined the Troupe in 2005, describes an experience common to many migrant workers who rent cheap rooms in the basement of apartment buildings
in big cities like Beijing: “How I live year after year In my dream I wake up Seeing the sky blue”
A few songs are about female migrant workers specifically. The 5th album, released in 2011, included a cheerful song titled “Magnolia” composed by a female workers’ collective in Beijing.
In 2012, the Troupe dedicated an entire album to the issue of child trafficking. Migrant workers can work in cities like Beijing, but their children are not allowed to study there. Left behind in their hometowns or villages, these children are particularly vulnerable to child trafficking. After releasing the album, the Troupe travelled to different cities to promote this album and to hold workshops in migrant worker communities, calling attention to this problem.
The songs written by the New Worker Art Troupe are filled with realist details and authentic emotions. Collectively they forge a contemporary epic about migrant workers, and constitute a declaration of their most urgent demands. All songs are available online for free download. The Troupe has also produced a few music videos. This one features Xu Duo, singing with other workers in Picun, a village on the northeast edge of Beijing where the Troupe has been living for over a decade. “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.
We love life, therefore we have left home. And came to a strange city, working hard in the job.”
Despite the massive number of migrant workers in China, they are rarely represented in mainstream culture. The members of the New Worker Art Troupe consider themselves both musicians and migrant workers. They see their mission as building a new culture for themselves and fellow workers in post-socialist China. Their motto is “to shout with music, to defend with art.” Since the beginning, in addition to writing songs, they have also devoted significant energy to building institutions. They used the royalty they received for their first album, 75,000 yuan (about US$11,000), to start a school for children of migrant workers in Picun. Overtime they have added a migrant workers’ museum, a co-op, a library, and a theater.

The New Worker Art Troupe has been writing songs for migrant workers since 2002, and have performed at hundreds of construction sites.

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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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