Singing from the heart

August 13, 2014

Beijing, China

By Jason Lee

Every night from 7pm until around midnight, anyone in Beijing who craves a bit of music can go and enjoy an “open-air concert” in the southeast of the city.

Street musician Zhang Mingyuan sings during his daily performance at a square outside a shopping mall in Beijing

The singer, Zhang Mingyuan, isn’t part of a famous music label and his performances are just held on a street corner. But even so, the warm atmosphere that he creates in the chilly night air seldom disappoints.

Street musician Zhang Mingyuan relaxes his eyes during a break at his daily performance at a square outside a shopping mall in Beijing

Many of Zhang’s songs are about a happy family life, but his own childhood seems to have been far from content. Born in China’s northeast Heilongjiang province, Zhang said that his father had depression and his mother left him when Zhang was 11 years old. His father left later and Zhang said he was abandoned.

He struggled to feed himself, and when he turned 17 he joined the military, where he learned the basics of music through playing in an army band. After doing two years of military service he had a passion for singing and needed to find a way to support himself. His career as a street musician began.

Street musician Zhang Mingyuan plays the guitar as he practises a new song at a park in Beijing

At first, Zhang travelled around the county for seven years before settling down in the capital. In Beijing he started to sell recordings of his own songs in an underground passage, charging 10 yuan ($1.60) for an album featuring around 30 tracks that he had composed over the years. So far, he says he has sold about 40,000 discs.

Street musician Zhang Mingyuan signs his autograph on his CD near a woman buying a copy of it during his daily performance at a square outside a shopping mall in Beijing

After a while, Zhang started performing in a square outside a shopping mall and he now sings there every evening. The night I met him, I think he had an audience of around a thousand people. Some were passers-by who paused to hear the music, some were loyal listeners who come almost every night.

Many of the people there were migrant workers, who often lead tough lives in Beijing far away from their families. The group listened attentively as Zhang sang about his passion for life and his longing for a family that could be together.

People listen to street musician Zhang Mingyuan during his daily performance at a square outside a shopping mall in Beijing

I live near the place where Zhang plays each evening and I have stood there many times and heard the man singing about how he has struggled against adversity. Somehow it’s soothing. Recently several TV reports have been made about Zhang, describing him as a man who fights against his own hard fate while making melodies that are comforting for others.

Street musician Zhang Mingyuan checks his fans' messages about their dreams in a book which was written and compiled as part of his "China Dream" project, in Beijing

With the money Zhang has earned from selling records, he has also made contact with his parents again. He told me that in June 2009, he found his mother in Jinzhou City, where she was living with an uncle, who took care of her after she got serious rheumatic arthritis. Zhang bought a house for them but his mother developed liver cancer and in 2013 she died. Zhang said he loved his mother very much and they spent good times together after they reconnected. He was very sad about her death.

A photo of street musician Zhang Mingyuan and his mother, who died of cancer in 2013, is seen in his rented flat in Beijing

Zhang also found his father in April 2009, and bought a small house for him in Shenyang city. His reason for finding and taking care of his parents was simple: “I need to treasure the time I can have with them instead of holding grudge. Life is short.”

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