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February 10, 2010

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Rock 'n' roller disco for migrants

THE world has moved on from roller-skating disco, that oh-so-1980s fad immortalized in the film "Xanadu," but in China, dancing on wheels is gaining speed thanks to the nation's masses of migrant workers.

While wealthy executives in trend-setting Shanghai would never be seen indulging in something so passe, roller disco is the entertainment of choice for the tens of thousands of migrants working in one of China's most expensive cities.

Most of these modern fans are in their 20s, too young to remember the craze that swept the United States some 30 years ago, and their ardor proves that disco is not dead.

At Xinxiang roller-skating rink, the city's first and biggest roller disco, hundreds of migrant workers turn up every night to meet friends, listen to music and skate in a rink slightly bigger than a basketball court.

"When we first started 15 years ago, the people who came here to skate were local youngsters," says Yang Yong, one of the floor managers of the rink. "As the country started its economic reform, a lot of workers from other provinces came to the city, and now some of these migrants are also coming here for recreation and exercise."

Roller disco started out as a dance craze in the United States in the 1970s and reached the height of popularity in the 1980s in many Western countries.

Back then, the routine - which involves dancers rolling along on traditional four-wheeled skates while bopping to music - was featured in Hollywood movies such as 1979's "Roller Boogie" with Linda Blair and Olivia Newton-John's "Xanadu."

Roller disco started to become popular in China in the 1990s, but largely lost its appeal at the turn of the century, forcing hundreds of rinks across the country to close down.

But in Shanghai, the migrant workers have helped keep the Xinxiang rink, and dozens of others, in business.

Relocated to Lanxi Road last year from Anyuan Road in Putuo District, the 500-square-meter rink continues to attract a steady flow of migrant workers, who would spend the whole night there rolling to relax and recharge after a tiring day.

Opening hours run from 1-5pm and 7pm-1am. The afternoon hours are mainly for locals and students while the night hours are almost dominated by migrant workers.

"More than 80 percent of our patrons at night are low-paid workers, that is about 400 people," says Shanghai-native Wang Hongsheng, the rink's manager. "They can roll to midnight."

One of roller disco's main attractions is affordability: with most workers earning between 1,000 yuan and 2,000 yuan (US$146-292) a month, having fun isn't easy in Shanghai.

Entrance to the skating rinks costs a maximum of 18 yuan and renting four-wheeled skates costs 5 yuan with no time limit, while a normal charge in other roller-skating rinks in Shanghai is about 40 yuan per hour.

As a matter of fact, migrants don't have to rent skates and roll. "They can come in, buy some beer, hang around, dance to the music, have some small chat, and make some new friends here," Wang says.

Crowds of migrant workers were speeding in circles skillfully on roller skates, with the ear-deafening pop music pouring from the loudspeakers. On the dance floor some were really shaking it in high spirit.

Most of the migrant workers in their 20s come from the country's poor areas and didn't get much education. But they're eager to integrate into the metropolitan life like their urban peers.

"I like meeting new friends here. We're young and we can go dancing, clubbing and anything just like other (urban) young people do," says 21-year-old Xiao Fang from Anhui Province.

The girl, wearing heavy makeup and dressed to the nines, has been in Shanghai for three years and works in a nearby bathhouse.

"This place and the people here make me feel quite comfortable," she says as she sways to the music.

Another regular is 22-year-old Tang Jianhui from Chongqing, who works as a car accessories salesman.

"I come here often because I work near this place. My friends kept asking me to come, and there is a good crowd here, and prices here are relatively cheap for a city like Shanghai," he says.

Stress-relief is another draw factor.

"It is fun to play here. After a day of hard work and fatigue, it's good to come here just to relax," says Mao Huixia from northwestern China's Gansu Province, who works in a restaurant.

Manager Wang says Xinxiang would preserve the original format of the roller disco while adding other activities such as games and competitions to keep the roller skaters coming.

"We don't plan to change the original format of this skating rink. With the aim of improving the recreation and exercise experience here, we need to constantly improve our service and upgrade the fitness aspect of the business," he says.

Wang admits that security is a problem in the rink as young ruffians and jobless people also like to hang out.

"We set up a security team of 15 guards, monitoring the rink during the open hours," he says, adding it might be the biggest security team among all the roller-skating rinks in the city.

The rink is also on line to 110 (the city's police station center to handle emergencies).

"If any accidents, quarrels or even group scuffles happen, our security guards will be the first to reach the scene. And if it can't be solved, we will report to 110 for police help," says Wang.

During the afternoon hours when most of rollers are students from nearby schools, smoking is strictly prohibited. Juveniles are not admitted at night but smoking is allowed.

"We do this is to preserve the order in the rink," says Wang. "After all, the place is a mixture of all kinds of people."


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