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How Theatre is Transforming Lives for Beijing’s Migrant Workers

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In a Beijing studio, three voices compete for the space: a CEO, a manager, and a new hire. The conversation fluctuates between aggression, fear, practicality, and emotion. After 15 minutes, everyone stops, switches roles, and starts over. The studio is Hua Dan, a nonprofit that builds community among China’s migrant workers, and the actors are all new arrivals in Beijing.

China’s first-tier cities have migrant workers to thank for nearly every modern convenience. Shanghai and Beijing’s quality of life and overall economic success both rely on workers from rural provinces coming to take less desirable jobs. People from the countryside pour into major cities for the chance to earn higher salaries, and to send some of that back home.

But it’s not easy to do, and making that switch comes with a host of diverse challenges: navigating new surroundings, communicating with families back home, feelings of isolation and intra-China cultural differences all constitute huge obstacles for migrant workers.

Group exercises at a Hua Dan workshop

There are a handful of key social programs and organizations that help workers bridge that gap, but maybe none more interesting than Hua Dan. The project is the brainchild of Caroline Watson, a Hong Kong-born Brit who started Hua Dan in 2004, and now works in Paris helping migrant communities around the world explore the Hua Dan model.

We talked to Caroline about Hua Dan, their process, and why theatre could be a key component in healing the world.

Can you start by explaining a bit about Hua Dan and the work it does?

Basically, Hua Dan uses participatory theatre as a tool to empower China’s migrant worker population with important life skills, so they can overcome the challenges of moving to the city, and take advantage of the opportunities. We do role play and creative games to build confidence, self-esteem, communication skills and leadership ability, and to explore the issues that migrants face when moving to the city. We focus especially on working with women and children.

How did you end up running with this idea? Was it the plan all along?

I studied theatre at university, and came to China in 2001 wanting to share and apply those techniques. I first started working with a migrant woman’s shelter in Beijing, where we ran weekly workshops where migrant women could share their experiences working in the city. Or their experiences in marriage, or being far away from home, etc. When we got our first grant from the Swiss Embassy in Beijing, we started to train the migrant women themselves to lead our workshops, and since then it’s become a core part of our model, and allowed us to affect huge numbers of people.

Hua Dan’s approach to the migrant worker’s struggle is definitely novel. What kinds of change can an educational theatre experience create, that might not be achievable through more standard routes?

We believe that each individual holds infinite potential to learn, but that traditional approaches to education are very didactic and “top down” in how they approach learning. Our techniques start from the standpoint that individuals already know how best to solve their own challenges — we just facilitate the sharing of people’s life experiences in an emotionally safe and mutually trusting environment, and look at alternative solutions to the challenges they face. It develops creativity and entrepreneurial leadership, and improves self-esteem. It really gives them the confidence to deal with life’s challenges, and the self-awareness to realize they can do anything.

Can you tell us any anecdotes or success stories you’ve witnessed via Hua Dan?

In one of our very first workshops, we had a young woman come along who was experiencing a lot of conflict in her marriage (she was away working in Beijing and her husband was back in the countryside looking after the children). They were fighting all the time. In one workshop, we offered to role play the issues she was facing. In the first scene, the woman played herself, having a telephone conversation with her husband, played by another workshop participant. After we watched the argument between this woman and her husband, I asked her to swap roles with the woman playing her husband, so that she could experience things from his point of view. She had to really put herself in her husband’s shoes.

The effect was transformative. She started to understand things from his perspective — she realized what he was going through in the separation, and it allowed her to better articulate her needs for support. She told us that, when she went home, she was able to have a much more compassionate, understanding relationship with her husband after changing the way she thought about their relationship.

We’ve seen countless other transformations, where people are challenged to “shift their thinking,” and bring that renewed understanding to better actions and behavior in real life. In our corporate work, we once lead a group of private equity investors through an immersive theatre experience where they took on the role of a migrant woman who was being harassed by her boss.

One woman, the head of her company, took on the role of Lan Lan. While interacting with the fictional ‘boss’ of her restaurant, she tried to avoid the harassment Lan Lan was facing. Our actors are trained to give participants the “real-life” experience of being in that kind of situation, and this woman was completely blown away after being shouted at and harassed by her “boss.” She said that it had been a long time since she had been treated like that, and it made her reflect on her own role as a boss, now that she was head of the company. You could see the whole thing brought about a greater empathy and understanding, but also practical action points in how she treated her own staff. These are just a few transformations we’ve seen at Hua Dan.

Our very first participant, a young woman from Yunnan called Dong Fen, now leads and manages our organization in China. So we’ve seen first hand how the confidence, leadership skills, and creativity that we inspire in our workshops can enable women to be global leaders of creative companies like ours.

What are some things you learned about migrant workers’ struggles in your years running Hua Dan?

Migrant workers have been instrumental in building China, often at the cost of maintaining a family life and their relationships with their children. Although many migrant children come with their parents to Beijing, the schooling offered is not always as ideal as it would be in the village. But, if they leave their children in the villages with their grandparents, they’re often separated for many years, which is not good for family life and children’s emotional security. The problem of “left-behind children” is becoming a well-documented issue. We try to address this issue by providing psychosocial support for children, and also by running our very successful summer camp program, which enables children and parents to come together for a week of quality time.

Migrant Workers, Leftover Children, and “The Greatest Migration on Earth”

Why do you see theatre as a tool for social change?

Really, we need a radically different approach to change. You can build all the right external systems, policies, institutions etc., but if you don’t fundamentally shift hearts and minds about how people learn and progress, it’s difficult to change a society as a whole. Especially as our world is changing so quickly, the skills needed now are not so much new knowledge, but the intellectual and emotional capacity to deal with change. Skills such as creativity, resilience, collaboration, personal leadership. I really believe that participation in the arts offers a way to balance the heart-mind-body equation.

Can you tell us about what you’re doing now?

Sure. We’ve seen a real demand for the corporate side of our work, that is, character and story-based global leadership training for corporate executives. We consult other non-profits in using theatre to communicate messages with their beneficiaries, and we develop innovative after-school programs and summer camps that bring migrant and city children together with their parents — we’re keen to partner with local governments as we roll out these innovations. Now, we’re exporting our model to other migrant and refugee populations around the world. We have projects in Europe, the Middle East, North America, and other parts of Asia. We’re excited to be a global social enterprise with its roots in China!

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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