South China Morning Post, May 27, 2006

Play it forward


It's not what typically comes to mind when one thinks of theatre. There are no props, no costumes, no scripts, no special lighting, not even a stage. Just a bare room with a dozen young women sitting on coloured inter-locking rubber mats, telling stories and putting on skits.

Their accents betray them as waidiren, or outsiders, members of the 120 million-plus migrant workers - labourers, waitresses, beauticians, maids, seamstresses and more - who have converged on the mainland's major cities in the hope of finding a better future.

The women, some of whom have travelled by bus or subway for more than an hour to get to the activity, are taking part in a weekly meeting of Hua Dan, an organisationwith a lofty goal: to empower migrant women through the power of theatre and creative expression.

Hua Dan is the effort of Caroline Watson, a 27-year-old British woman who first fell in love with drama as a child attending the Kellett School in Hong Kong. Ms Watson continued her interest in theatre in Britain at Lancaster University, where she discovered community and participatory theatre.

While writing her dissertation on theatre in prisons, she realised the potential of drama to effect positive change among individuals and within communities.

It was at university that she also came across the work of Augusto Boal, a Brazilian chemical engineer-turned-director, who in the 1960s pioneered a form of theatre in which the audience could stop the play and suggest different alternatives that the actor would then act out.

His experimental theatre changed direction one day when a woman in the audience, enraged that the actor could not understand her, jumped up on the stage to show what she meant. This was the birth of what Dr Boal came to call the 'spect-actor', a process in which the audience not only imagined change on the stage, but eventually generated social change. He soon began bringing his 'Theatre of the Oppressed' to factories, churches and the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro.

After graduation, Ms Watson took off on a trip through Asia, eventually settling back in Hong Kong, where she at first toyed with the idea of a career in development.

This all changed one day when she picked up a book by Xin Ran, a mainland radio talk show host, entitled The Good Women of China. The book, which described the plight of women in China, so moved Ms Watson that she decided to relocate to Beijing in the autumn of 2004 to put her theatre experience to work with migrant women.

'The migrant population is the biggest displaced group and women make up the majority,' she said. 'It was a natural group to work with. These are the people who are building China, but who are not getting the support they need to do it.

'Hua Dan has a place in the fabric of society. It's meeting a need that is not being met by society.'

With the help of the Migrant Women's Club, Ms Watson found space in a courtyard compound and set up an informal organisation that she called Hua Dan. The name comes from a term for a female character in Peking opera, which she says depicts a woman who is bold, unconventional and a bit adventurous.

The first participants, introduced by the Migrant Women's Club, were initially not entirely sure what Ms Watson was trying to do, but the group has since grown through word of mouth.

The group uses improvised drama, story-telling, issue-based theatre, role-play, team-building games and creative thinking exercises to help the participants develop the skills and the confidence to deal with everyday problems that they once suffered in silence.

Through theatre, they explore everyday problems, such as work-related conflicts, sexual harassment, legal rights and domestic abuse. The participants then perform small skits to see how they react in such a situation.

'We try to teach them how to use theatre as a rehearsal for real life,' Ms Watson said. 'It's all about participation and empowerment. If you are given alternative models of behaviour, you'll find you have a better way of dealing with problems that is both empowering and respects yourself and the person you're dealing with.'

Tao Yangyang , a volunteer and a graduate student at the Central Academy of Drama, said migrant women were often afraid to speak out, but that theatre could overcome this fear. 'Drama teaches you how to co-operate, communicate and get along,' Ms Tao said. 'This gives them courage, and they learn how to function in groups. It helps them to raise themselves up.'

One night, the members created a fictional character called Lan Lan to whom the participants could relate and through whom they could examine their own lives by proxy. Lan Lan is an 18-year-old woman from Gansu province who left home for the big city and secured a job as a waitress. What emerged strongly was that she was harassed by her boss, who used the pretext of computer training to demand sex.

Some of the women argued that Lan Lan couldn't fight back because the boss was too strong or because this would make him lose face, while others said the computer training was a worthwhile trade-off. Others suggested ways for Lan Lan to deal with her boss. Ms Watson said the participants became so involved in the debate that it continued outside the workshops and among migrant women who were not members of the group.

During one recent session, the topic was Aids, an issue about which migrant workers were poorly informed. Ms Watson began the activity by asking the participants what they knew about the disease. They offered their thoughts, and a member of the group jotted their words on a white board. As the exercise continued, Ms Watson faded into the background and let the women take over the discussion.

Xu Fang , one of the older women, was also one of the boldest. 'You get it through sex, blood transfusions, injections or from mother to child,' she said with authority, adding she learned this from newspapers.

Ms Xu, who sells pancakes from a street stall in northeastern Beijing, then told about the boyfriend of a friend who frequented karaoke bars, where she suspected he was having sex with prostitutes. 'I think it's dangerous that they're having sex together,' she said to her two friends, as the young rural women broke into a collective embarrassed titter.

'Let's face reality,' Ms Xu said, unabashed. 'Who knows how many discos, karaoke bars and beauty parlours are offering sex. It's developing fast.'

Another participant asked what the symptoms were, and Ms Watson interjected that a person could be HIV-positive for years before developing Aids.

The group then turned to stories of needles being reused at hospitals, how to tell if your partner had Aids, and a story about an infected person jabbing people with contaminated needles.

They then broke into smaller groups to prepare skits related to myths about Aids, and the room was full of hurried whispering as the women prepared. One of the skits was about the perceived prevalence of Aids among foreigners.

'How could you be with a foreigner?' one of the actresses asked of a friend. 'He could have Aids.'

'They're checked for Aids before coming to China,' the woman replied.

The friend hit back: 'But that doesn't mean he doesn't have Aids.'

Ms Watson said the theatre experience had a strong impact on the participants. 'It opens their lives and makes them aware of the outside world,' she said. 'The women now question their role in society, what they want in life, love and marriage, and they have a desire for improvement.'

Hua Dan continues to expand. Ms Watson hopes to increase the number of evening sessions and bring the theatre closer to the migrant communities.

It recently put on a short drama for a Unesco conference, on the legal rights of domestic workers. And the group is now producing a short documentary on migration and how Hua Dan empowers migrant women. The film will be performed, directed and filmed entirely by members. There are also plans for English and job-training classes.

Hua Dan recently obtained charitable registration in Hong Kong, which Ms Watson hopes will open the door to much-needed financing. She funds the programme out of her own savings and from part-time work as an International English Language Testing System supervisor on weekends.

But she's quick to add that Hua Dan is her main focus. 'This is my obsession, my baby. It's very much a dream for me,' she said.

To learn more about Hua Dan, visit