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Musical Dream of a Chinese Migrant Worker
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Close to a very cold construction site in Zhengzhou, capital of central China's Henan Province, a band of young men is staging a musical performance.

There are no glossy sets, no big stage, no roadies and no big trucks but the Young Migrants Band, led by 31-year-old Sun Heng, whip up as much excitement as any rock band.

Sun's fan base is the legions of migrant workers who toil on construction sites and in factories. But they pay no money to their hero. The band leader was wearing a threadbare pullover and a striped blue and yellow coat which he bought from second-hand shops for ten yuan. But the threadbare appearance can't conceal the fiery spirit underneath.

"Hand in hand/ Shoulder to shoulder/ Out of the mist/ Out of hardship/ All workers are a family," Sun sang passionately with his voice backed by bass and drums.

"This is their New Year's concert," said Sun explaining that this was the first stop on his first tour across China to cities such as Xi'an, Qingdao and Chongqing.

Sun has been a media focus since he started to perform and sing to migrant workers free of charge, comforting lonely and exhausted hearts and making their voices heard. He appeared on network shows, documentaries and newspapers all over China. A Google search gives more than 22,000 results. All this began with a young man's love of music.

A long and winding road

Sun believed in the power of music when he left home at 23 looking for a new life far from the cramped buildings of Kaifeng, a bleak city in central China. His decision angered his parents because he gave up what they considered to be a decent and stable job as a middle school music teacher.

"The job was good at first but it became repetitive and tedious," Sun said. The discontented young man headed north to Beijing, capital of the economically booming China, and beacon for millions of migrant workers from less developed provinces.

Sun hoped his guitar would bring him fame and fortune but like any other migrant to the big city he encountered a great deal of hardship. He carried heavy loads, cycled pedicabs, busked and sang in night clubs. When things were really bad he had to live on 1.5 yuan (19 US cents) a day.

Walking, singing, observing he realized his dream wouldn't drop from heaven and that he had more chance of being moved on by the police than applauded by an audience. "I left Beijing for other cities and realized that there are millions of migrants just like me," said Sun. "They come to the cities determined to better their lives."

On a visit to Tianjin he played his guitar for a group of construction workers. "They smiled broadly and their faces lit up. I realized that music goes straight to their hearts," said Sun. His experiences as a migrant worker have given him the material for songs for the millions of such workers he calls his "brothers".

Songs for brother workers

The struggle of American migrant workers has been recounted in songs by Woody Guthrie and in John Steinbeck's famous novel The Grapes of Wrath but the voice of Chinese migrant workers has remained marginal.

"We need songs about our lives, not hollow ditties and sweet melodies about urban vanity," said Sun. He knows his songs can reach out to the 2.8 million migrant workers in Beijing and over 120 million nationwide.

"Work is glorious! Work is glorious!" Sun boomed to the workers, who in response rolled up their sleeves, clapped their hands and sang along with him.

"Unite your hearts and strive as one/ And get your money when the work is done." The song Get Back Our Wages, Fighting in Solidarity tells a story in northwest China's Shaanxi provincial dialect about bosses that owe the workers back pay.

He also sings about life far from home, antagonism from urbanites and workers' dreams for a better life. His songs are sung in regional accents and sometimes in rap style. "For me music is not the end anymore, it is the means," said Sun, "I hope my music can enrich their lives of labor and help them form bonds."

Sun's band, which was set up in May 2002, has staged over 200 performances for more than 50,000 migrant workers. Over 100,000 cassettes and CDs have been distributed.

His ballads touch the lives of thousands and also impressed a university graduate, Zhao Ling, who became his wife. She is now doing research in social work at Hong Kong Polytechnic University

"I was excited about these performances. This is what the workers need because they don't have money for costly karaokes, shows or opera houses," said Li Changping, a consultant with Hong Kong based Oxfam. They're a charity organization who sponsored some of Sun's performances.

Many people have supported Sun in his desire to help China's migrant workers but he has also encountered immense difficulties. "Factories shut their doors when we offer our free performances making us do them outside. Only one out of ten bosses or foremen is willing to let us in," said Wang Dezhi, a member of the band. "They fear that we will call upon the workers to defend their rights by asking for back pay or insurance."

Life is more than music

Although music has become the key to his work for migrant folks Sun knows that it takes more than music to improve their lot. With support from university volunteers and workers Sun built a private school for migrant children in August 2005 in Pi village at a disused factory in east Beijing's Chaoyang district far from the city's downtown.

The Tongxin (meaning solidarity) Experimental School provides schooling for over 430 children whose parents cannot afford the tuition fees or even the cost of a uniform at a public school. "I'm  glad to have a school near my home," said ten-year-old Wang Hong, a migrant girl who's gone to four schools in four years as her parents changed jobs.

The school also provides parents with night classes on topics relating to law, how to use a computer and has opened reading rooms to increase literacy, according to Shen Jinhua, a school staffer.

Sun is on the road traveling and performing but his ideals continue to resonate in the singing voices of hundreds of children:

Far from our homes,
We have our dreams,
We crave knowledge and bright sunbeams,
From different places,
We are brothers and sisters,
Like the dancing flag, we will fly.

(Xinhua News Agency December 22, 2006)

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