This is the second in a three-part series on the cultural spaces that have shaped China’s working class. The first part can be found here.
Over a decade ago, while conducting fieldwork in my hometown in Northeast China’s Rust Belt, I unexpectedly found myself in the middle of a protest at one of the city’s workers’ cultural palaces.
The “palace,” like its counterparts elsewhere around the country, is a huge complex, built in the 1980s. Standing amid a jumble of low-rise residential buildings for local steel workers, it quickly became the area’s defining landmark. In 2009, however, the main building of the complex had been sold to a non-local who planned to convert it into the city’s largest karaoke club. These plans were hardly off the ground when nearby residents laid siege to the construction site to get the municipal government’s attention. They made it clear that the palace belonged to the steel workers who had built the city, not the trade union that had sold it off to a private investor. Under pressure, the project was suspended.
Today, the palace is still standing, but only just. A shell of its former self, it towers over the neighborhood like some kind of haunted house — a sad reminder of the fate shared by many working-class cultural spaces built during China’s early socialist period, and to an extent, the working class itself.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the country established workers’ cultural palaces nationwide to mold a proletariat capable of sustaining the Chinese revolution. In practice, these spaces were more than just an ideological proving ground: They offered workers a crucial venue for cultural activities and interpersonal exchanges. After the advent of “reform and opening-up,” however, state support for workers dried up, and so did the funding for the spaces working-class communities shared.
Even as late as the 1980s, the vast majority of workers’ cultural palaces were sponsored by state-owned enterprises or government departments, their cinemas, stadiums, chess rooms, libraries, classrooms, and theater stages open to workers for a nominal contribution of only 2 yuan (about $0.50) a year. That would change by decade’s end, as the market reforms of the 1990s hollowed out the state-owned sector and left millions of workers jobless.
An exterior view of a workers’ cultural palace in Northeast China, 2009. Courtesy of Wang Hongzhe
This shift fundamentally altered the relationship between worker and employer. Jobs at state-owned enterprises no longer guaranteed stability, and workers’ lives were not as closely linked to their place of employment as they had been in the past. This naturally dealt a blow to the collective spirit of many workplaces. Meanwhile, stripped of their funding, workers’ cultural palaces needed to find a new means of survival. Most were effectively privatized, as spaces once reserved for workers’ cultural activities were rented out to private business owners or converted into consumer venues such as arcades, ice rinks, billiards halls, or internet cafés.
Workers who were once free to enter and leave as they pleased now had to pay to use the facilities. Opera lovers who had been rehearsing in the same space for decades lost their rehearsal rooms to newly built nightclubs; libraries were converted into markets or cram schools.
Even those not demolished or renovated lost most of their collective character. Take my home region of Northeast China, for example. Thanks to a revival in the fortunes of China’s steel industry, some mills were able to buy back and inject new capital into their cultural palaces. But rather than returning them to workers, the mills — now market-driven entities — instead converted them into venues for annual corporate meetings, commendation ceremonies, or other large-scale events that could bring in money for the affiliated party committees or trade unions.
Thus, these imposing buildings, once a symbol of workers’ cultural autonomy, became rental units dedicated to the celebration of private enterprise. As one of the few remaining free public spaces in my hometown, the square in front of the local workers’ cultural palace still attracts former workers old enough to remember it in its heyday. They come to organize their favorite collective activities, such as singing and dancing. Most such groups are not engaged with current social realities and no longer represent the values of the working class, however. They are simply gatherings of urban dwellers looking for something to do.
A new generation of workers, meanwhile, is looking for space of its own, as new types of worker-led cultural entities try to take root in cities across China. One such entity is the New Workers’ Art Collective in Beijing’s Pi Village. Situated in what was originally a shabby traditional courtyard dwelling on the city’s outskirts, the collective has already set up its own museum and built cinemas and theaters on nearby farmland.
Seeking to document the diverse life experiences of contemporary Chinese workers from the perspective of the workers themselves — from craftsmen and construction workers to domestic workers — the collective puts on events such as the New Worker Art Festival, art exhibitions at the Workers' Museum, and even records albums by worker-led art collectives and theater troupes. Its activities have received support from older cultural spaces, such as a state-backed cultural museum that has repeatedly provided a venue for the collective’s Workers’ Spring Festival Gala.
Local residents dance at the in front of a workers’ cultural palace in Northeast China, 2009. Courtesy of Wang Hongzhe
But after years of urban expansion, deindustrialization, and the eviction of Beijing’s “low-end population” in the 2010s, the number of migrant workers in Pi Village has dwindled, making it increasingly difficult to hold artistic activities and keep the museum running. Another critical issue is the high mobility of the migrant worker population. As soon as land prices rise, factories pick up stakes and settle elsewhere. And wherever capital goes, the migrant workers follow. This poses a fundamental obstacle to the education and cultural cultivation of the working class.
More importantly, “leisure” itself has become a luxury for many contemporary Chinese workers. In contrast with factory conditions in the early socialist period, today’s workers routinely work overtime, leaving them with few opportunities to participate in cultural activities. Even in their rare leisure time, social spaces and daily life are basically dominated by commercial ventures such as shopping malls, internet cafés, karaoke clubs, and dance halls. Organizations that provide workers with cultural programming and education need to compete with these spaces for workers’ scarce leisure time. This has only made it harder to provide workers with a platform for cultural expression, much less realize a greater degree of class mobility through continuous education.
With the demise of worker-dedicated cultural spaces in Chinese cities, the identity of the “worker” has become more unstable, and less visible. The concept of a “socialist working class” resonates less and less with the new generation of young workers; rather, they tend to identify with the more ambiguous term dagong ren, or “laborer.” And the preferred cultural space of dagong ren isn’t physical, but digital.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Photos showing indoor and outdoor activities at a workers’ cultural palace in Northeast China. Courtesy of Wang Hongzhe, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)