I went to China to see what kind of musical culture I would find among the migrant workers there. I had heard that there is a floating population of over 100 million migrant workers there, mostly from the south and west, mostly coming to work construction jobs in the booming east coast cities. Every year, they ebb and flow, almost to a person returning to their hometown for Chinese New Year. Then, they head to another place, wherever the work is. It is well known that this is a hard, hard life, and hard lives often result in some special form of music – a melancholic complaint, a crying out. In the US, the hard migrant life was acknowledged in the books of John Steinbeck and the songs of Woody Guthrie, to some extent in the songs of Bill Monroe and the bluegrass songwriters who wrote about their lost home and life in a big, unforgiving city.
Was there something like this going on in China now, now that migration is happening there on an unprecedented scale? I tried to find out, by walking cold into construction site after construction site in Beijing, with my fearless translator Flora Wang. These migrant workers downloaded bootleg mp3s onto their cell phones, and they would listen at night in isolation in the grim little shacks that sat right on the construction site. The name “Chen Xing” kept coming up – his songs, many of the workers said, spoke directly to their experience. I sought out Chen Xing, and had a chance to record some of his songs in a casual, acoustic setting. This piece for Studio 360 is the result of those sessions.