On May 18, a migrant labour museum in Picun (literally, Pi Village) on the outskirts of Beijing, China， annouced its forced closure due to eviction. The news reverberated across the network of labour activists and researchers who have built connections with the only grassroots labour museum in China.
Opened on May Day in 2008, the museum – along with its adjacent school for migrant children and its music and theatre performances – had been central to building and documenting a distinct migrant worker culture from below.
While dismayed, its closure did not come as a complete surprise. Several times over the last decade, local authorities have threatened this cultural and educational centre with eviction. Each time it came very close to succeeding.
The increasing restrictions on labour and social movement organisations in the country have already spelt the end of another labour centre and an LGBT organisation within just the last week. Few expect the migrant labour museum would escape this fate in the long-term.
Yet the news still hit hard. This very effort to preserve the history of rural migrant workers in China is itself being erased. While the announcement leaves open the possibility of reopening the museum in another location in the future, that is far from certain.
We present an interview with Sun Heng, the Director of the Museum of Working Culture and Art, conducted in February 2011. This article was originally published in Chinese on Contemporary Art and Investment in 2011. We include here a portion of the original introduction below. The article has been translated and edited for clarity and concision.
Original Introduction by Li Jia
It is difficult to imagine that a ‘museum’ exists in this forgotten and abandoned part of the city unless one walks through the slightly overcrowded but well-organised exhibition halls, the small but always popular screening rooms and library, or sits down in the tent theatre club outside the exhibition space to watch a play rehearsed by the residents of the nearby workplace.
It’s even harder to imagine that this small courtyard of just over 100 square feet plays a key role as a cultural centre in the vast urban village area between Beijing’s fifth and sixth ring roads. It all started with the spontaneous organisation of a few working people.
Sun Heng, a former music teacher who started his career in 1999, has a wealth of experience in organising. He and his friends formed the New Workers’ Art Troupe in 2002. This was the predecessor of the Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art.
When the museum opened in 2008, Sun Heng and others had formed their own working people’s art group, the Workers’ Home charity organisation and the School for Workers’ Children. They have organised three workers’ culture and art festivals, produced two plays, published four music records, and filmed two documentaries.
In Sun Heng’s and others’ vision, the museum’s function is to record the history and culture of the working people themselves, using objects, texts and archives to build a different voice from the mainstream narrative. It is also rooted in the local Picun community, serving the immediate demands of local residents’ cultural life, and focusing on building the community and promoting communication among its members.
The exhibition is designed to be popular. It is intended to be on par with a regular public museum presentation. Although the exhibition is simple, there is no shortage of panels, data, charts, documents, and objects. In terms of public education, it is modelled on public museums, with activities such as museum newsletters and workshops.
In fact, conditions and scale are not the prerequisites that distinguish the Museum of Working Culture from traditional public museums; what really sets it apart from other institutions is its entirely self-organising practice.
Contemporary Art & Investment (CAI): Why did the museum choose working culture and art as its theme?
Sun Heng (SH): The predecessor of the Museum of Working Culture and Art was an art troupe. One of our fundamental work methods is to organise the masses through culture and art. We believe that art is not detached from reality; it should come from reality and be actively involved in changing it. The people we focus on and the staff themselves are working people from all over the country. This social group has been changing China over the past thirty years. The 250 million people who have migrated to the cities in the history of reform and opening up are, in fact, the mainstay, contributing significantly to China’s economic development and urbanisation.
We hope to do something for this group of people, not out of our imagination, but because we have encountered many difficulties in our own lives. In overcoming them, we have made things happen step by step. For example, in the beginning, we found that workers had little spiritual and cultural life. We needed to have our own songs and our own happiness, so we went to perform. Later we found that our children could not afford to go to public schools because of the restrictions of the household registration status system, so we went to run our own school.
As for this museum, it was because we saw that it was a minority of elite that appeared in the mainstream media and cultural history. Workers who had contributed so much to building and advancing society were unable to make our voices heard and our culture visible. At the same time, we felt that these cultures of our own could not go to the professional, elite so-called artists or professionals because they no longer speak for us.
So we thought, why can’t we record our own cultural history? History needs a vehicle, a text, an archive, something to look at, to be passed on. Even though we have created it, it will not enter history without this “history.” This has been the case for thousands of years. Recording history needs to rely on technology; for example, in ancient times, it needed to be recorded in writing, but this power was only in the hands of the ruling class.
Today, with the development of society and technology, everyone has at least graduated from primary school, middle school and high school, everyone can read and write, and with the popularity of high-tech products such as the Internet, mobile phones and so on. Today we have the conditions for working people to record their own cultural history. We want to set up our own cultural history museum to record our history.
CAI: You mentioned earlier that one of the roles of museums is to change lives through art. Can you give some specific examples?
SH: To change lives, the first thing is to reflect on your own lives first. Just because we live like this every day doesn’t mean we cannot be aware and conscious of the problems and contradictions in them. We have organised workshops encouraging working children to use cameras to take pictures of their lives and paint them with brushes.
One of the children drew a picture saying that his house was going to be demolished; where am I going to go to school? This is so common in our daily lives that if you don’t think about it, you might think it’s very common: people are going to demolish their houses, and we have to move. But if you start to reflect on it, you will realise that this is social injustice: why don’t cities take into account all the people who live here when they plan? Why are only local residents given compensation, but people from outside the city are excluded? What is the impact of this demolition on our children? How does it affect our families?
For us, this is real life, a life that we have to face, reflect on, and consider how to change. This is why we started our art activities and museum, and this is our only purpose. Our art and culture are not to be divorced from life, but to serve it, to change the injustices that are so closely linked to our lives and work. For example, why are we going to sing in our art group? Because when we don’t sing about it, many workers think that being owed wages is very common and cannot be changed.
But when we use our music to retell these stories to the workers, it will inspire them to think. The workers will feel that it is wrong to owe wages and that they should be united to defend our wages. The workers will feel that it is wrong to default on wages and that we should stand together to protect our rights and interests, which will lead to action. I think this is a direct impact and change in our lives.
CAI: Do you particularly value any art forms? Music, theatre, painting, photography, documentary, poetry?
SH: To be frank, we are not a purely artistic group; all these forms are meant to serve our purpose rather than making art for art’s sake. Take songwriting, for example; all our songs are in several forms. One is adapting workers’ stories: we do a lot of oral narrations and interviews and collect information.
For example, the song “Unite to Collect Money” is a story about how workers collect money for their work. We later developed a song into a drama because the song is too small compared to a drama – it’s short, and the message is probably more emotional. But at the same time, we had more stories to tell, including collective demands such as the impact of housing demolition on us, basic social security, unpaid wages and accidents at work, and so on.
The reality of workers’ lives must be reflected through literature and artworks. Songs cannot meet many needs, whereas theatre can accommodate more art forms. Rap, physical performance, and music can all be incorporated. In terms of content, it can be stretched over a long period of time.
We now have two plays, each about an hour long. Also, with the spread of camera equipment, we have equipped ourselves with small DV cameras and have started to take up cameras to record and reflect our lives with images. We once worked with a teacher from the Academy of Social Sciences. We planned to make a community media training base in Picun, mainly focusing on video and encouraging workers to use mobile phones and cameras to film their lives.
Every year in July and August, we do a community exhibition. Last summer, we also tried our hand at community TV: our two programmes were “Community News” and “Community People.” We did a programme called “The Story of Xiao Ma,” in which we asked a worker to be the host to interview Xiao Ma, follow his life and work, tell his story, and then show it to the community from the community and back to the community.
CAI: Could you tell us a little bit about the Picun community?
SH: Picun is located outside the East Fifth Ring Road, with more than 1,400 local residents and more than 10,000 foreign residents, so most of them are foreigners living here. It is a typical community for foreigners living in Beijing. No tall buildings can be built here because of its proximity to the airport. Otherwise, real estate developers would have come in and driven us out. Although the plane noise might make the area uninhabitable, the workers are driven to such urban-rural areas because of the high property prices and living expenses within the fifth ring, which workers cannot afford.
There are many factories around Pi Village, including sofa factories, furniture factories, door and window factories, steel factories, and those making exhibitions and displays. 80% of the workers here would work in the nearby factories. Foreigners run all the shops, supermarkets, and restaurants around the village. There are also people who work in the city, who take the bus to the city during the day to do odd jobs, or who only come back once a week or at night. There are many families in this community, so we have over 400 children in our school.
CAI: Can you outline the museum’s role in the community? Is it able to reach the majority of the residents in the community?
SH: We have been here for a long time, starting with the Worker’s Home, a charity organisation established in 2002. One of the most important things we do is to set up community cultural and educational organisations in the community to provide services for everyone.
We have our own school for migrant children and a museum in the community. The school caters more for the children’s education, and the museum caters more for the cultural and educational activities of the adults. Without these two platforms, there will be working people in communities like this in Beijing, where the local neighbourhood committee or village committee only provides services for the locals, and the outsiders are not cared for.
Our museums, libraries, and screening halls are all unused resources from the community that we have sought out, and many of the furniture and facilities in these are found. We mobilise the community to participate in community building. So every year, we organise various learning, educational, and cultural activities to give people a platform and promote interaction.
In our work in the community, we have found that more and more of the demand is now coming from the new generation of the post-80s and 90s, young people whose need for social interaction can be even stronger. These young people come from the countryside into the city. It is challenging for these young outsiders to have opportunities for social interaction. Without a community activity centre, many of our young workers would be hanging out on the street after work with nowhere to go, or they would go to internet cafes or drink.
The community activity centre is very important in providing a home for the workers. In the countryside, we have families, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, classmates and hometowns. When you are in trouble, some people can help you, but when we come to the city alone, there is no organisation for us and no one to take care of us, so when we encounter difficulties, it is difficult for us to face them individually. For example, if no school exists, our children don’t attend school. Without this activity centre, library and a projection hall, we have no place to go if we want to read a book or watch a film. Without the workers’ art group, we would not have a place to sing if we wanted to.
This home is a platform for us as a social support network. When individuals encounter difficulties, we can mobilise social resources through this home and mobilise everyone’s strength to support and help each other.
CAI: Have you counted the number of people received or services provided?
SH: There are about 10,000 people in this community, and we have done some statistics, and the number of people who participate in our various activities is about 30,000 per year. We show 150 films a year, two days a week, two films a day, and we have records of each. That’s how many people come to see the films alone, and each show can probably seat 150 to 200 people.
CAI: What are the museum’s current work plans?
SH: We are currently working with a researcher from the Academy of Social Sciences who studies migrant empowerment and media, and we are doing a workshop project called “The New Workers Dictionary.” The idea started with a discussion about the terms used to describe the status of workers. These terms have been imposed on us by the outside world and labels put on us by officials, elites, experts, and academics to study us.
For example, the term “migrant workers” has developed into a negative term with a discriminatory connotation signifying unfair treatment and distribution of benefits. If you are a migrant worker, you are not entitled to basic social security, you can only do the dirtiest and most tiring work, and your children cannot go to public schools. So our New Workers Dictionary is about where these terms come from and why.
The process of this workshop is to divide the day into six templates, organise workers to select some mainstream newspaper articles and discuss them together, and also find out the annual CCTV (China’s state-owned national television station) programmes about working people, such as the sketches performed, and discuss whether they can represent us. We plan to collect around 200 words related to the life and work of working people, and if you hate a word, you can point out the reason and give us an alternative word. If we revise them ourselves, what kind of wording would we use?
Another task is a study on the contrast between urban and rural areas, tentatively titled “Where is home?”. If you are a foreigner, you will have a very strong experience of this and feel that you do not belong. Hundreds of millions of people are moving back and forth in China, so what is home to them, and where is it? We will have a research report on this theme, a special exhibition on this kind of mobility and a discussion on the sense of belonging, and “Where is home” will be the theme of our next festival.
CAI: It seems that you work on two levels; one tends to be more public education, such as forums, and the other is more closely linked to the building of local communities, providing services for local residents.
SH: Although the community is geographically limited, this kind of community will be of great significance in the future, and it will become a universal model. Over 200 million people in China will gradually urbanise and enter the city. They will definitely form their own lifestyle, their own culture, and their own organisation. Our community is a microcosm of the very common living area for working people in China. We believe that culture and art can transcend time and space and impact more people.
Suppose we can now explore practical ways of working for the community. We can provide a precedent for this type of community. Many of the explorations and experiments we have made, such as how to build schools, set up cultural activity centres and develop forms of organisation suitable for workers, will be replicated throughout society.
(Photo: Tencent News)