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Migrant workers find New Year warmth away from home
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Wang Dan, a Chinese migrant worker, has discovered that it wasn't so bad after all to spend Lunar New Year away from his family.

"The local government organized a huge dumpling banquet on the eve of the Chinese New Year, and I had a good time watching the CCTV New Year Eve show along with many other migrant workers who were not able to get home," he said Thursday.

Wang is a tour guide in Guangzhou, capital of the southern province of Guangdong, which witnessed transportation chaos amid the severe winter weather of the past three weeks, the worst in five decades which led to deaths, structural collapses, blackouts, accidents, transport problems and livestock and crop losses in southern China.

More than 100 million people were affected, and at least 80 people died in the freezing weather.

"The cultural atmosphere here is quite different from my hometown, but I felt that the local government and community were going all out to give us a warm, homelike festival," said Wang, a native of the southwestern Sichuan Province.

Wang was one of about 3.04 million migrant workers who heeded official calls to stay put during the week-long Spring Festival holiday, which began on Wednesday. Officials urged the migrants to remain in their work locations after rail and road systems were disrupted by unusually severe winter storms.

Guangdong, with one of the biggest concentrations of the country's migrant farm workers, is the southern terminus of a trunk railway line that runs northward to Beijing. The number of stranded passengers at the Guangzhou Railway Station peaked at about 600,000 at the height of the transport crisis.

A total of 12.6 million had decided to stay, while 4.6 million were able to go home after transportation services resumed, according to the Guangdong Provincial Department of Labor and Social Security.

There are more than 200 million migrant workers around China, and Spring Festival offers them a rare opportunity to go home.

In Dadongjie compound where Wang lives, free movies, karaoke facilities and Internet services were offered in a cultural center every day to help the workers, who took several days off, pass the time.

Chen Lilin was chatting on the web with his brother, while many others were singing and dancing in the station.

"The Internet helps me to keep in touch with my family," said Chen, a waiter in a local restaurant. "I don't feel lonely at all."

The workers were also offered a range of free activities: dancing and cooking lessons, visits to 18 museums and 157 parks, 350 performances and 250 entertainment activities. According to a government circular, more than 400 museums, exhibition halls and parks had agreed to offer free or discounted admission for migrant workers during the holiday.

"I'll try my best to help every migrant worker have a happy stay here," said the cultural center's head, Liu Gexi, who gave up a previously booked trip home to do just that.

Li Shangyi, a model worker in a hardware and plastic accessory factory here, was very excited to be able to spend the holiday with her twin daughters -- the first time in two years.

Li, 36, was not able to return to her hometown in Sichuan Province for family reunion due to the freak winter weather. The Guangzhou Municipal Federation of Trade Unions paid travel and hotel expenses so that the families of 12 outstanding migrant workers, including Li, could make the trip instead.

"I'm so happy and grateful. I haven't seen my daughters for two years, I miss them so much!" said Li. Her father-in-law brought the 7-year-old twins from Sichuan.

Li said that she planned to take the girls to visit scenic sites in the cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen and enjoy some family time.

In addition, the federation invited 3,000 stranded migrant workers to sail along the scenic Zhujiang River aboard 10 large boats. The 90-minute voyage included singing and dancing performances and a buffet dinner; the 180 yuan (25 U.S. dollars) per person fee was paid by the organization.

Zhang Jinghua and his wife, Hu Yan, paid 2.5 yuan each for discounted admission to Baiyun Mountain, a famous tourist attraction in the city. It was Zhang's first spare time during the holiday to enjoy sightseeing in the park. He moved here to work seven years ago.

"If we had returned home to Hubei Province, we would have been busy visiting relatives till the end of the festival," said Zhang.

In the booming city of Shenzhen, the government distributed 20,000 phone cards and transportation cards to some of the stranded group. More than 900 cultural activities including films, exhibits, lion dances, karaoke and sports contests were open to more than 2 million migrant workers who chose not to return home.

The local government in Shenzhen's Bao'an District organized a group wedding ceremony for 12 couples from other parts of the country on Tuesday afternoon. More than 140 relatives and friends of the couples enjoyed a free wedding banquet.

Activities were also organized in other disaster hit areas across China to ensure that migrant workers who followed government calls to stay put would have a happy Spring Festival away from their families.

In Beijing, more than 2,000 people, about two-thirds of whom were migrant workers, participated the national flag-raising ceremony at the Tian'anmen Square early on Thursday, the first day of the Year of the Rat according to the lunar calendar.

Hundreds of people began to gather around the flagpole at 6:45 a.m. who waited in the winter chill for about one hour.

Li Dong, a native of Hunan Province who works in a restaurant in the Fengtai District of Beijing, arrived at about 4 a.m. with 10 workmates and his boss.

He said that he was almost moved to tears at hearing the national anthem and watching the flag being hoisted. "I realized the dream of joining the ceremony. It's worthwhile," said Li.

(Xinhua News Agency February 8, 2008)

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