Rags to riches

Two migrant workers sing their way to stardom

Rags to riches

Wang and Liu: discovered on China’s mean streets, but now singing with angels

Discovered by a marketing executive browsing on YouTube in 2007, Justin Bieber is now America’s leading internet sensation. Earlier this month, Klout, a social networking index that measure mentions of individuals online, said the 17year old now trumps Barack Obama in the totals. Much more impressively (if you’re twelve), Bieber’s even out ahead of Lady Gaga.

But back in China, he might struggle to outshine far less illustrious company. There, it’s a pair of migrant workers that are capturing the popular imagination, sending young fans into paroxysms of passion every time they make a public appearance.

They’re certainly no boy band.

Wang Xu is 44 and Liu Gang 29, ages by which many erstwhile celebrity sensations have long left the scene, interesting only their therapists.

But the two men behind the grassroots rock band Xurigangyang (which means “Rising Sun” in Chinese) are built from sturdier stuff. And the two are now so popular that they were recently chosen by netizens to perform at this year’s CCTV’s annual Lunar New Year’s Eve Gala, China’s most watched TV programme (see WiC48).

The duo – largely anonymous until a video that they uploaded on went viral three months ago – is now the country’s most talked about rock band. The clip, which has logged more than three million views so far, was one of the top 10 most watched online videos in China in 2010, according to Youku, an online video sharing site.

Taped in Liu’s tiny six square-metre rented room last August, the footage shows Liu playing a wooden guitar. Wang – shirtless like Liu – sings in front of a microphone, cigarette dangling from one hand (not something likely to get the green light from Bieber’s minders). The two perform the song In the Spring, which was originally released by a better-known singer three years ago. The lyrics are wistful. Wang sings of his youth, when he was happy, despite lacking a credit card, a girlfriend and hot water at home. Now he has all of those things, he croons, but he is no longer content.

The song seems to have struck a chord first with the country’s 220 million migrants. Xu, a migrant worker from Zhejiang, is one fan: “The song is not so passionate but the duo made it a tearjerker. They added their own emotion and understanding to it, so the song became the aspiration of the entire group of migrants.”

Another migrant wrote: “Now this is what you call music! I’m so moved. In their music I found my story, one about hardship and struggle. I cried the first time I listened to it, and I still cry now though I have lost count of how many times I have listened to the song.”

Wang said the two loved the song the first time they heard it. “The song reflected our real life in the substrata of society,” he told Xinhua.

Before he became a migrant worker, Wang was a farmer in Henan but his income wasn’t enough to sustain his family of four. So in 2000, he decided to try his luck by moving to Beijing, where he worked as a boilerman and a roadside peddler of fruits and pancakes.

Despite the long hours, he still could not make ends meet. Wang said his straits were so desperate he couldn’t afford a pack of cigarettes.

To earn more money, the farmer-turned-urbanite started singing in a subway with a guitar, an instrument he had taught himself as a teen.

There he met Liu. Unlike Wang who moved to the city in search for a better life for his family, Liu came to Beijing to realise his dream to be a singer. In 2002, he bought a one-way train ticket to the capital. “My friends told me that Beijing is a good place to make music and realise one’s dreams,” says Liu, who had only Rmb100 in his pocket at the time.

It didn’t go to plan. After many odd jobs, Liu landed a job to sing at a pub, but he quit after three months, because he had to perform songs that he “didn’t like”.

But he persisted with his singing and the dedication now seems to have paid off. After the clip was posted on the internet, Liu and Wang started receiving lots of phone calls and fan mail. TV stations also called asking for interviews.

But be careful what you wish for. Liu has admitted that the newfound stardom has been a little overwhelming: “We don’t get to sleep until 3 in the morning and have to get up at 6. And then it is non-stop rehearsals and interviews. I can’t turn off my mobile phone and I eat only two meals a day,” Liu complains to Southern Metropolis Weekly.

It seems like the life of a singer is almost as tough as that of a migrant worker.

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