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Migrant workers miss out on cultural experiences
By Hu Xiao (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-03-11 01:54

A recent Chinese blockbuster "A World Without Thieves" is based on the experiences of a young migrant worker carrying 60,000 yuan (US$7,228) on a train packed with thieves. But while the image of a warm-hearted but somewhat naive migrant worker may have made film fans chuckle, it's a sure bet that most of China's migrant workers are yet to step into a cinema to admire their big-screen equivalent.

Migrant workers and their children queue to enter a cinema to watch the film "A World Without Thieves" in Hangzhou, capital city of East China's Zhejiang Province. Many other migrant workers in cities do not have enough spare money to pay for such cultural experiences. [newsphoto]
"Forty yuan (US$4.90) a ticket? I can't afford it," said Shen Jie, a migrant worker at a construction site in Dongzhimen, east Beijing.

Shen found it hard to recall when he last watched a film, or what it was about. "It must be 10 years ago," he said.

Though they are the builders of the nation's theatres and cinemas, a limited cultural life is common among China's 120 million migrant workers.

Shen arrived from East China's Zhejiang Province in 1991. Life was better then; money seemed to come more easily. "Now, as more and more workers are rushing to the capital, it's too hard to earn money, and none of us dare think about watching films," he said.

For many like Shen, the dream is earning enough to pay for their children's education so they can find jobs in the cities and bid farewell to the hardships of rural life forever. This drives them to work hard and save as much as possible.

With a monthly salary of less than 500 yuan (US$60), Shen has to send money home to his little son and silver-haired parents.

In Shen's small dormitory, which he shares with seven other co-workers, there is a well-thumbed copy of a magazine published in 1998.

A recent survey by local media revealed that 80 per cent of migrant workers spent their spare time sleeping and chatting because of fatigue and a lack of disposable income. The same survey found that 47 per cent of migrant workers have to work for more than 10 hours a day, and less than 10 per cent enjoy a standard eight hours. Around 40 per cent do not even possess a book, and nearly 60 per cent say they are dissatisfied with their cultural life.

Like many of Shen's co-workers, reading newspapers and taking a stroll in Beijing's streets provide evening entertainment.

Though China has been making headway in tearing down the wall between urban and rural areas, a large gap still remains. Living in a city at least allows access to a social security system, something that hardly exists in rural areas, said Chen Wanzhi, a CPPCC standing committee member.

"Gaps like this and the inequality it brings can also come to impact cultural life in a delicate way," Chen said, noting that more investment is needed, as well as a trade union to organize migrant workers.

Pan Zhonghua works on a construction site near Xidan, a commercial district of Beijing. He once went to a big bookstore with colleagues. "When we went there we put on clean and better clothes, but you are a migrant worker and people know that at first glance. That glance (of discrimination) makes you stop going there," he said.

There are other more pressing matters dogging the lives of migrant workers, such as salary arrears. It's not unusual to hear reports of migrant workers not getting paid after a year of hard toil.

Fortunately, the central government has noticed these problems, and is making great efforts to solve them.

Some government departments are trying to show free films to migrant workers.

For those migrant workers, their experience working in cities will probably be their once-in-a-life-time story that they are proud to tell. If only they had more colourful stories to tell in the future.

(China Daily 03/11/2005 page3)

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