On May 18, a social media post (archived here) announced the impending closure and demolition of a well-known museum dedicated to documenting the lives and improving the welfare of China’s migrant workers. The Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art (打工文化艺术博物馆, Dǎgōng Wénhuà Yìshù Bówùguǎn) was established in 2008 in Pi Village, a working-class neighborhood in the far northeastern corner of Beijing, near the airport. Its exhibitions often involved displays of the artifacts of workers’ lives—their personal photos, letters, temporary residence permits, employment certificates, pay slips, IOUs, labor contracts, work injury certificates, clothing, tools, and other possessions. The museum was also affiliated with a non-profit that offered various services such as a reading room, a cinema, a secondhand store, and even a school for the children of migrant workers.
The Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art, lauded even by Chinese state media, helped to transform many workers’ lives, create a sense of shared community, and elevate the contributions of all workers. It will be deeply missed. CDT has translated the full text of the museum’s moving farewell letter, penned by Yuan Changwu:
In the process of China’s industrialization and urbanization, hundreds of millions of migrant workers from rural areas have made indelible contributions, yet the cultural history of this group rarely enters the public eye. At the Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art, we aim to record the vicissitudes and cultural history of contemporary workers, and to advocate respect for and recognition of the value of their labor.
The Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art is the only non-profit museum in China founded by grassroots migrant workers. Since its official public opening on May 1, 2008, it has been open daily to the public free of charge, and has received more than 50,000 visitors.
The Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art is scheduled to be demolished. There will be a farewell ceremony on Saturday [May 20, 2023]. All interested friends are welcome to come and participate!
A Farewell to the Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art!
I humbly bid you farewell,
Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art.
The country’s first museum dedicated to migrant workers
will be closed indefinitely,
forming the last stroke of the character for “demolition” (拆, chāi).
This event, too, will be written into the history of the migrant workers’ museum.
Allow me to also bid farewell to—
Sun Zhigang, who lacked a temporary residence permit
Zhang Haichao, who had his chest cut open to biopsy his lungs
Cui Yingjie, who set up a street stall
and the 31 migrant workers in the “black brick kiln incident.”
Let me also say goodbye to—
Migrant workers who demand their back wages
All those who defend the rights of workers
My brother-workers pedaling three-wheeled carts in the rain
My sister-workers toiling on the assembly line.
Let me also bid farewell to—
Those children known as “migrant kids”
Xiao Cui, host of the “Migrant Workers’ Spring Festival Gala“
The aunties making scallion pancakes from their streetside carts
The construction workers in their hard hats.
Given this passage in the annals of time,
why would we leave it blank?
Given that history is written by the People,
why overlook our existence?
The history of migrant workers
coincides with the history of an era.
The Museum of Working People’s Culture and Art
makes it clear—
Without our culture there is no history.
Without our history there is no future.
–Written in Picun (Pi Village), Beijing, on May 13, 2023 [Chinese]