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November 16, 2010

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Singing the migrant workers' blues

A sad drinking session song by two migrant farm workers has become a hit and the street performers are hailed for singing the blues about the hard lives of poor workers around China. Zhang Yunlong and Cheng Shihua listen in.

Two migrant farm workers who became an overnight sensation when their heart-rending version of a famous pop song went viral took to the stage last Saturday at Shanghai Stadium before thousands of cheering fans.

Wang Xu, 44, and Liu Gang, 29, sang "In the Spring" alongside the star composer, Wang Feng, Around 80,000 fans were ecstatic.

The audience buzzed with excitement and let out deafening cheers when the duo were introduced and when Liu started the first line.

"It is really exciting and perfect," said Wang Xu in a telephone interview after the performance. "I was not nervous, but I didn't dare to look at the audience. I never dreamed of this."

The two migrant workers became stars after singing the tearjerker during a drinking session in a 6-square-meter rented room in southwest Beijing's Fengtai District on a late August evening. A friend recorded the performance on a cellphone and posted it on the Internet.

Wang, from the central Henan Province, and Liu, from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, are among the millions of farmers who have migrated to China's cities to work.

In the video, the pair are shirtless and sweating. Liu sits playing the guitar, and Wang stands singing.

"If someday I am dead, please bury me in the spring," they sing. Wang's penetrating chorus, delivered with his eyes closed, has reportedly moved thousands to tears.

Wang and Liu consider the song a true portrait of vulnerable groups like themselves.

"With no credit card, no girlfriend, or a home with hot water, but only a guitar, I am singing happily, on streets, under bridges or in wild countryside, though nobody pays attention to the music," they sing.

"It is exactly about us," Wang says. "We belong to the under-class, and you know people won't care about us."

The video has racked up tens of millions of hits, especially from people who are also from rural towns or the countryside.

Many people said they cried after watching the video.

A posting by "Zaoyingzi" said the video reminded him of when he was in south China's Shenzhen City in Guangdong Province, where he worked from 7am to 11pm every day, with just one day off each month.

"Unable to afford train tickets home, friends gathered to mourn, drink and sing together on the last night of the Chinese Lunar New Year," he said.

Zhou Qiang, 50, secretary of Hunan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, said at a meeting that the performance showed the "power" and feelings of the masses.

To support his wife and two sons, Wang went to Beijing in 2000 and has worked as boiler operator and street peddler before becoming a medical warehouse keeper, with a monthly pay of around 1,500 yuan (US$227). Little is left after he pays 600 yuan for rent and buys food.

In September 2003, Wang started performing in downtown Beijing pedestrian underpasses on weekends or evenings.

"I love music, and also want to earn some money to meet my daily needs," Wang says.

Liu went to Beijing in 2002, two years after he was discharged from military service. "I wanted to try my luck in the big city," he says.

He has worked as a guard, roadside peddler and porter, but never had a stable job. Performing on the street was his main source of income, even after he married and become a father three years ago.

"I can usually earn 30 to 80 yuan in an evening and more than 100 on my best nights," Liu says. "But it may take days to recover if I develop a sore throat after hours of singing."

He recalls tougher times when he had to sell his aluminum cooking pan for 2 yuan, to buy four man tou or steamed buns.

Wang and Liu are still uncertain where their fame will lead. Wang has started learning to use a computer. They even have a microblog account to communicate with fans.

"We are happy and proud that so many people think the music video represents heartfelt expression of migrant workers and the under-class," Wang says.

Wang and Liu want to continue singing, but underpasses are now out of the question as venues because the crowds they draw are too big.

Wang appeals to the public to be more understanding of migrant workers.

"Please don't look down upon migrant workers, who may be less educated, but are kindhearted," Wang says.

The migrant workers built the city's gleaming towers, but they might never be allowed inside the buildings, Wang says. "The security guards probably won't let a guy who looks like a farmer enter the beautiful buildings."

Zhang Yiwu, a professor in the Chinese language department of Peking University, says new media and the Internet have provided grassroots groups with a channel to speak out.

In addition to material needs of vulnerable groups, "their cultural needs also should come to our attention," Zhang says.

China had around 150 million migrant workers at the end of 2009, according to government figures. They usually take tiring, low-paying jobs because of their lack of education and skills, then send money back to their families in poor rural areas.


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