Profile: Singing from Factory

In a room at the in-patients’ department of Longhua People’s hospital in Shenzhen, a young couple was taking care of their child, an 18-month old boy who suffers from asthma. Zhang Feng, father of the child, is the founder of Wujiaoxing, a punk band composed of migrant workers from Shenzhen industrial park. They are now working on their first album.

Migrant workers, often unskilled and coming from the less prosperous hinterlands, have been called the backbone of China’s economic engine. Zhang Feng became one of this 277 million floating population in May 2012, when he was a 23-year-old university senior. He got a job as an industrial engineer in Shenzhen, in a factory owned by Foxconn, which produced iPads and Macs for Apple but became known in 2010 and 2011 for a suicide spate. Since then, workers’ difficult living conditions have drawn public attention.

Zhang Feng’s job was to count how many seconds assembly line workers spend on every process. He describes his work as one that “aids and abets an evildoer,” because he helped exploit other workers to produce more but in less time. He felt the work dull and mechanical. Then he bought a set of drums and founded the band.

The drums were too loud to play in the dormitory so Zhang Feng carried them to the rooftop. There were other machines roaring so loudly that barely no one could hear the drums. But it didn’t last long. “An inspector was afraid that I would jump off the building when I finished playing my drums,” Zhang Feng laughed. “So he locked the door to the rooftop.”

After resigning from Foxconn in March 2014, he started working at a nongovernmental organization that offers study programs to workers. His job is to teach drums and guitar.

Sometimes he led the band to perform in bars to make a living, by singing some popular songs. “Once we were supposed to perform after another band, the songs they sang were the same as ours,” Zhang Feng suddenly realized. “Why don’t we sing our own songs?”

In 2015, he composed ten songs and founded a music festival called “Choushuigou Yinyuejie” which translates as a music festival of smelly ditch. The term ‘smelly ditch’ refers to Guanlan river, where the factory is located and discharges water waste. Gradually, workers named it “choushuigou” or smelly ditch. “Even living in the gutter, we should have our own voice,” Zhang Feng explained. He hopes the festival can be a stage where they tell stories of people living at the bottom of society through music.

One of his early songs, Eight-hour Workday, was featured on the 2015 Workers’ Spring Festival Gala, a Chinese government national television program. The song speaks out about how workers feel they are an exploited underclass, forced to work long hours with little pay and relying on overtime to survive.  “We share the same dream. We want an eight-hour workday,” the lyric reads.

Zhang Feng said this song aroused some workers’ resentment – they believe it caused Apple to reduce the orders to Foxconn, which decreased their chances for overtime pay. [Apple did reduce its orders but it was actually because of its sale decrease, The Wall Street Journal said.]

Zhang Feng said he sometimes feels lonely and depressed when he faced other workers’ misunderstanding. But he hasn’t given up. He continues writing songs that reflect workers’ conditions and aspirations.

“I used to be one of them,” he said. “I understand.”

“I don’t know when the shift happened. But the image of a group (of people) just started to flit through my mind,” Zhang Feng said. “My songs became linked to our society, something bigger, and cast off myself.”

“When I heard the song eight-hour workday, it was the first time that one song exactly tells my life,” said Wei Rensheng, who used to work at the factory.

Four months after Zhang Feng founded the festival, his son was born. He nicknamed his son “Chouchou,” as “chou” stands for the music festival. Since then, he started to consider more about the family.

In one song, he narrates a story of a left-behind child, who for most of the year can’t see his migrant worker parents. “Whose children are crying,” Zhang Feng depicts obstacles that normal workers’ family meet by raising the question in the song for many times. There are 61 million children like this in China – more than a third of those younger than 17.

“Such poor children. Living far away from their parents, they can’t learn how to adjust the society, how to tell right from wrong, how to get along with this world and with themselves,” Zhang Feng said in a low tone. “We all know it is not good at all. But it (the cause) is complicated.”

He doesn’t want Chouchou to be one of the 61 million, so he decided to keep him living in Shenzhen with him and his wife. But it can be difficult. This time, since Chouchou is ill and needs to remain in the hospital, they have to ask for a week off to look after him.

“Since having a child, I regained myself while keeping the collective.” Zhang Feng said. Through If it is possible, the song he sang on 2017 Workers’ Spring Festival gala, Zhang Feng tells his dream:

“If it is possible, I want to have a home in Shenzhen, living happily with my parents, seeing my child growing up,” he sings in the song. This is also a dream of many migrant workers.

Coming to the transformation he has been through these years, Zhang Feng describes his thoughts as “changing from radical to more radical, and it is now getting peaceful.”

“Actually, it is not that peaceful. You will find it out through my songs. Why it is titled If it is possible,” He added. “Life is not if, is it?”

Wan Huang