Yan Xiaoqiang never expected that he could become an actor.
But standing on a stage in Beijing's Jianwai SOHO luxury residential complex, this 21-year-old construction worker is full of confidence.
Performing in this five-minute skit as a migrant worker experiencing the many problems of finding cheap accommodation in Beijing, this formerly shy man from Sichuan Province said he soon felt he was just repeating real-life experiences.
The short performance is part of a workshop organized by Hua Dan, a Beijing-based non-governmental organization (NGO) aiming to help disadvantaged people learn creative life skills through theatrical training and performances.
The Hua Dan workshop was one of a host of activities and performances in last week's Together with Migrants Festival held in Beijing. The festival was launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), sponsored by real estate developer SOHO China and participated in by more than 10 NGOs committed to helping China's migrant workers.
Drama's 'unique function'
Beijing-based Hua Dan was established by British woman Caroline Watson in late 2004.
Born in Hong Kong in 1978, Watson studied theatre at the University of Lancaster and dreamt of becoming a professional actress. But she soon found different uses for her theatrical skills.
"I found drama has a unique function of giving an inspiring education for people to embark on a life-long learning journey, whereas traditional education stresses the one-way teaching process," Watson said.
In her travels in China after her graduation, Watson became aware of the types who needed that kind of education most.
"In my travels in China, I learned of the various problems faced by migrant workers. Many of them have difficulties in expressing themselves," Watson told China Daily.
China has at least 100 million migrant workers, who have moved from poor rural areas to cities in order to find better-paid jobs. Migrant workers often claim they are treated unfairly.
With the help of Migrant Women's Club, a Beijing-based NGO, Watson brought some volunteers together and began to hold workshops for migrant workers in a dilapidated courtyard in downtown Beijing.
A typical workshop consists of four or five teams, each chaired by one volunteer and joined by two or three migrant workers. The content is highly flexible, sometimes it is a story narrated by the migrant workers, sometimes it is based on their own experiences, and sometimes it is a parody of TV performances. The team members always decide the plots and actors' dialogues.
"Given that migrant workers are scattered all over Beijing, it was initially very difficult to let them know about our service. Then we tried to stage some performances in local parks. Other organizations also helped us spread the word," Watson said.
Watson attempted to learn Chinese, but she had to rely on a translator to communicate with migrant workers at her workshops.
Compared with the language barrier, migrant workers' reticence often posed more challenges.
Li Shiman, a Chinese language teacher and an early volunteer at Hua Dan, recalled: "In some cases they (migrant workers) were so shy that they would not take on any role in the theatre."
In this situation, Li and her volunteer colleagues had to "force" the migrant worker participants to take part, a method of "coercion" that paid off.
Migrant workers who have performed are more likely to stand up for themselves in front of their current and future employers, said Watson, adding that the plots are designed to be close to the real-life experiences of migrant workers.
Watson pointed out that "hundreds" of the migrant workers who had taken part in Hua Dan's workshops and performances were now much more confident.
In one case, a maid became so involved in Hua Dan's activities, that she always asked employers to give her one day off a week to take part in the group's activities.
Despite the enthusiastic support of local volunteers and some migrant workers, Hua Dan still faces big challenges.
Watson has to fund most of the activities herself. Although the organization has received some small one-off donations, it has not managed to secure a stable source of funding. And it has yet to find a fixed venue for its activities.
"But I will continue with this career, as it helps and entertains others," Watson said.
Teaching provides confidence
Like Watson, Jonathan Hursh from the United States also finds joy in his work helping the migrants in Beijing.
Originally working for international projects in China, Hursh soon realized the plight of the city's migrants, and founded the Coalition for Migrant Children in Beijing last year.
Now Hursh, who is fluent in Chinese, organizes volunteers often foreigners in Beijing to teach English and mathematics at five migrant workers' schools once a week and offer free legal consulting services.
Due to their shabby conditions, these schools are not registered by the government.
Unlike residential areas throughout Beijing, migrant workers' communities, often on the outskirts of the city, do not have community centres, so the schools are often a meeting place for both migrants and their children.
When they first heard that foreigners were giving lectures, many of the migrant workers and their family members just came out of curiosity, said Hursh.
"But now they have found the lectures and discussions are useful to their life and work, they come very regularly," Hursh added.
"We have not begun to raise money locally, but given most participants are volunteers, our activities do not require much expenditure," Hursh said on the sidelines of the festival.
The festival also featured performances by the Beijing Migrant Workers' Art Troupe, founded by amateur singer Sun Heng.
Former construction worker Wang Dezhi, a full-time employee of the troupe, said that Sun and his colleagues have also opened a training centre and a shop where migrant workers can obtain cheap second-hand goods.
"We tried to pick up migrant workers' spirits with free performances, but later we found this was not enough. As a whole, they were depressed and felt isolated from society," Wu said.
Wu and his colleagues now run free computer classes with donated computers and volunteer teachers.
"I admit our resources cannot enable our trainees to grasp every skill, but we can show them how easy it is to use a computer. This is not a privilege of urban residents or those with a higher education," Wu said.
Zhan Shaohua, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said helping migrant workers to boost their confidence through such activities is important, as the central government has recently issued a number of policies to help this group of vulnerable people.
As a result of these policies, far fewer migrant workers suffer from wage arrears, and in some prosperous coastal regions, it has become more and more common for employers to buy insurance for their migrant workers.
But despite their gradually improving situation, many migrants still feel marginalized, while others, who have adapted to modern urban life, remain anxious about their future prospects, Zhan said.
Participatory arts and education may be one way to help bring them into the mainstream of society.
"Due to their different economic status, complete equality between migrant workers and white collars is impossible, but we can try to eliminate this through our activities," said Hua Dan volunteer Zhang Hong.
(China Daily 06/27/2006 page13)