Migrant workers use poetry, rock’n’roll to uplift spirits amid evictions

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/13 18:48:39

After a fire in Beijing's Daxing district killed 19 people in November, authorities are clearing out all potential safety hazards

Targeted demolition includes low-rent, illegal housing for migrant workers, which has left many out in the cold this winter

Some creative migrants are turning to poetry and music to make their voices heard


A migrant worker plays guitar at Migrant Workers Home in Picun village, Beijing's Chaoyang district. Photo: VCG

Xiaohai, a 30-year-old migrant worker in Picun village in Beijing, rose to fame overnight recently after a video, which features him reciting a poem about the recent wave of evictions throughout Beijing, was widely shared online.

The poem, originally written by Yu Xiuhua, a female poet in Hubei Province, expresses the discontent of non-local laborers who are leaving the capital city after their illegally constructed, rented shanty homes were evacuated for safety concerns.

After a fire in the city's suburban Daxing district killed 19 people on November 18, Beijing has taken great strides to clear out all other potential fire and safety hazards from every corner of the city.

However, the urgent demolition of the homes that house the migrants sparked public outcry.

Many say the demolitions are leaving thousands of migrant workers, who stay in the city while laboring at local construction projects or other sectors, without any shelter during Beijing's freezing winter season.

The place where Xiaohai works and lives in Picun, a village outside the Fifth Ring Road, is also being cleared out for similar concerns.

Another migrant worker, Fan Yusu, became Internet-famous back in April after her writings were shared widely online. Since then, the village of Picun has become an icon and symbol of the resilient spirit of China's millions of migrant workers.

Witnessing how his fellow migrants were being treated by the very city that they themselves were developing and modernizing with their bare hands, Xiaohai later wrote two poems to express his disappointment.

"But it is a city of dream and opportunities. I will not leave in spite of the eviction," Xiaohai told the Global Times.

Part of the main street in Picun village survived the city-wide demolition campaign. Photo: Xu Ming/GT

Not immune to demolition

Demolition in Picun began on November 29. Xiaohai was busy working in a shop selling second-hand clothes near the village when he heard that it was being evacuated.

In fact, only the southern part of the village was being cleared out. Migrant Workers Home, a volunteer group for non-local laborers where Xiaohai stays, is in the northern part of the village.

A former production line worker, Xiaohai drifted across China for over a decade before he finally settled down in Picun. Boasting cheap rent, Picun is an ideal place for non-locals to live.

Home to 20,000 migrant workers, the village was once regarded as "immune" to demolition and the urban transformation of Beijing's city center, as it is located near the airport. But that peace was shattered on November 27 when a notice was pasted up saying that the village would be cleared out for being a fire hazard.

Xie Hangcheng, a young migrant who suffers from albinism, is also staying in Picun. He is a member of the 8772 Band, a group of musicians in Beijing suffering from rare diseases. He too was shocked to hear that he might need to move.

"The first thing that crossed my mind was, 'even the village near the Sixth Ring Road is failing me!'" 24-year-old Xie said.

Sun Heng, also a musician, initiated Migrant Workers Home more than 10 years ago. He immediately established a WeChat group to appeal to NGO workers and media for help after learning that Picun was being demolished.

The northern part of Picun survived the eviction because, as reported, it is located in an area properly zoned for housing, whereas the southern side was located on land zoned for agriculture. But the concern that "such evictions might happen at any moment" still haunts the remaining tenants of Picun.

A place for dreams

Xiaohai told the Global Times that some of his friends who have become homeless in Beijing must return to their hometowns. The warehouse of the shop he works at will also have to be relocated elsewhere soon.

Since the demolition, he has come across many fellow migrants and their belongings waiting outside in the cold, unsure where to go.

"Clearing a safety hazard is one thing. Driving people away is another," Xiaohai said.

Zipping around the narrow lanes of Picun on his scooter, Xiaohai points out other residents and shares their stories with the Global Times.

"That man is an actor," he says, pointing to a migrant who is just idling around on a street. "He worked hard for years and finally found a chance to show off his skills here."

"Picun is a place for dreams," Xiaohai said.

He explained his own dreams as well, saying he once hoped he could use his songs to bring power to the people. At the age of 15, Xiaohai left his hometown in Henan Province and spent nearly 13 years in various factories in the southern and eastern regions of China. He used to examine products being made on Foxconn's iPhone 6s production line.

"In factories, we are just machines," said Xiaohai.

His depression as a production line worker later found an outlet through rock'n'roll. He also delved into poetry, which he called simply "grumbling." Xiaohai contacted rock singer Zhang Chu via Weibo in 2015, who urged him to move to Beijing to pursue his dreams as a musician and poet.

He later moved into Picun, largely for the sake of joining its acclaimed literary association. There, he eventually published his poems into a collection, titled Factory Howling, by Picun's literary association.

Today, Xiaohai earns approximately 2,000 yuan per month working with the Migrant Workers Home. In his free time he continues to write poems and study music. After the recent evacuations, the literary association has temporarily postponed its weekly activities for several weeks.

"It will be too cruel if we don't even have a place to dream," said Xiaohai.

Guo Fulai had more realistic reasons to move to Beijing. A 49-year-old from Hebei Province, Guo came to Beijing three years ago because farming could no longer support his family. He now works as a welder.

The room he lives in at Picun is not unlike an ice cellar, as Beijing's temperatures have recently dropped to nearly minus 10 degrees at night. The village, under pressure to clear out any fire risks, no longer allows any type of heating equipment such as coal stoves or even electric blankets.

Guo, who is also a member of Picun's literary association, has found reading and writing to be his only comfort. He started to write articles back in the 1980s, some of which were published in local newspapers and mainstream magazines.

Though life is hard, Guo maintains a positive outlook. He once told media that the so-called "social class stratum," meaning the increasingly difficult situation for lower-class Chinese people to climb the social ladder, is only an excuse for laziness.

Nonetheless, he agrees that the plight of Picun does little to help their cause. "We came to Beijing because there are more opportunities here. But the eviction makes people feel helpless," Guo said, hoping the government will put forward more favorable policies for migrant workers like him.

Pressure of reality

Guo said his fellow workers are trying their best to help those who must now leave Beijing. In the WeChat group established by Sun, information about accommodations, jobs and even medical relief are being shared and updated.

An official with the Beijing Administration of Work Safety said earlier that the rumor of the city targeting "low-end population" was baseless and irresponsible.

As reported, 25,395 safety hazards that might have caused casualties have been corrected as of November 25. The municipal government has also issued notices to halt any rough working conditions that have caused inconvenience to people's lives.

Xie said the demolition won't scare him away. "I will not leave Beijing for this minor thing. Beijing is so big, I'm so small. So I believe there will be room for me."

He added that he likes Beijing because it has pushed him to make progress in his personal life. "Leaving here will mean I choose to stop fighting."

Xiaohai likewise said he will not leave the city. "I've learned the good side of Beijing. It carries my dream and my future," he said.

"But Picun is a place where I could gasp for breath from under the pressures of reality. I hope places like Picun will survive, so that people like me can strike a balance between reality and dreams," Xiaohai added.

Newspaper headline: Hope in the wind

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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