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Void in the Hearts of Migrant Workers

At nightfall, a sentimental flute tune wafts through the air. Near a construction site in downtown Shanghai, residents taking their evening stroll are already used to the sight of an aging worker who sits by the roadside playing the flute.  

"It's my only way to kill time. Since coming here I've been leading a lonely and meaningless life," said 53-year-old Jiang Chunlai of Shouxian County, Sichuan Province, who left home to work as a stonemason five years ago. "Most of my fellow workers are in their 20s and 30s, still unmarried. In leisure hours their favorite pastime is playing mah-jong or cards. Occasionally they go whoring. There are many prostitutes living close to our building site; it's cheap to visit them, only a few dozen yuan. I often warn my son, who is working in another place, not to visit prostitutes."


Many healthy young migrant workers see few alternatives to the prostitutes. "We don't know many people and don't have stable jobs, so we rarely get the chance to form a love relationship," complained Fang Hui, a peasant worker from Hubei Province.


According to a questionnaire handed out during random interviews with 200 migrant workers in Shanghai, only 5 percent of male workers and zero female workers have regular weekly sexual contact. Some 19 percent of male and 18 percent of female workers said they didn't remember the last time they had participated in sexual activity with partners.


Without a regular partner with whom to have a physical relationship, lonely workers seek other alternatives. Twenty-five percent of male workers chose "watching blue videos," 21 percent "whoring," 18 percent "lying awake all night," and 18 percent "drinking." Among female workers, 19 percent chose "working like crazy," and 5 percent "restraining themselves."


Most migrant workers are not well educated and have a difficult time finding more legitimate alternatives in an unfamiliar city. The same questionnaire shows that 22 percent of male and 30 percent of female interviewees think that urban life is as dull as ditchwater.


"Discrimination is the most unbearable thing for us," said Zhang Qiang, from Sichuan's Anyue County. "Since childhood we have been brought up with traditional moral views firmly established in the countryside for thousands of years. But the hostility we experience between town and country has smashed many of our dreams."


Lin Zijiang is a village schoolteacher in Renshou County, Sichuan. "A lot of my students left home to work in cities. When they returned during the Spring Festival I found that they had developed many bad habits, just so they wouldn't be looked down upon by city dwellers. As a matter of fact, their morals changed a lot, which will inevitably influence our next generation," he said.


Indeed, disillusion and discrimination are heavy blows to the pride of the farmers-turned-workers, and can sometimes lead to dangerous behavior. Lin Peiliang of Fuyang County, Anhui Province, is now serving a sentence in a Shanghai reformatory for juvenile delinquents. Often getting beatings and scoldings from two adult fellow workers in a Shanghai machinery plant, the 15-year-old killed both in a moment of desperation.


The Shanghai Federation of Trade Unions reports that migrant workers make up just under 50 percent of the city's 7.7 million industrial workers.


Finding ways to fill the vacuum in the hearts of migrant workers and add variety to their recreational activities have become urgent tasks.


Sichuan's Chengdu No. 2 Building Company has the highest number of migrant workers in the provincial capital. In 1997 it began to set up night schools at different construction sites. Over the past seven years, a total 30,000 migrant workers have received continuing education and skill training at the schools.


Yi Guang from Zizhong County in Sichuan made the most of opportunities offered by the night schools. He got a pay raise and promotion, and bought a 60-square-meter apartment in Chengdu. "I've turned myself into a true city dweller," he said.


Since June 2003, Changzheng Township in Shanghai's Putuo District has allocated 100,000 yuan (US$12,100) to organize visits, get-togethers and lectures for over 1,000 migrant workers. The local government has set a goal of making Shanghai a second hometown for migrant workers.


(China.org.cn by Shao Da, November 29, 2004)

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