At the core of Hua-Dan... an idea...theatre for transformation
The Hua Dan story
Caroline in 2003
Arriving in Beijing in February of 2003, armed with little more than a passion for China and a degree in Theatre Studies, I set about exploring the unmet social needs emerging in China’s transition to a market economy.
Born and brought up in Hong Kong, and thus a self-proclaimed ‘city girl’, I was most interested in exploring the challenges of urban poverty and it was the internal migration issue that first drew my attention.
Millions of rural dwellers were, and still are, migrating to the eastern seaboard cities of China, in search of jobs on construction sites, factories, hotels and restaurants. Work opportunities abound and exploitation is high. Wages are minimal by urban standards but provide opportunities to supplement rural incomes with remittances that support children’s education and higher living standards than have previously been possible.
But the challenges are many: workers rarely receive contracts for their work, often working 7 days a week, with 12 – 16 hour days; they have little or no social security benefits; wages are paid late and often not at all; and there are few opportunities for education for their children or meaningful ways for them to escape this cycle of poverty and demeaning work.
Female migration is on the rise which poses both opportunities and challenges: escape from the restrictions of rural life with its expectations of early marriage and childbirth present the chance for young women to experience adventure and economic independence, but this can also be coupled with the risk of harassment and prostitution, loneliness, and a growing uncertainty surrounding a woman’s future role.
My interest in China’s women’s issues had been piqued by the harrowing account of women’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution, as documented in Xinran’s book, The Good Women of China. The book provided a context in which to explore what it meant to be a woman in contemporary China.
2004: creation of the first Hua-Dan workshops, en route for success
Hua-Dan workers with Caroline
After a year of taking tentative steps in learning Mandarin, and exploring what ‘civil society’ meant in Beijing, I started to run weekly workshops at a downtown shelter for migrant women, The Migrant Women’s Club, part of the Rural Women Knowing All group, one of the first NGOs for women in China.
My initial explanation of participatory theatre as a tool for empowerment and the building of self-esteem was met with much consternation and curiosity but, after convincing them to let me run a weekly workshop at the centre, I quickly developed a loyal following of participants, eager to explore women’s issues through the medium of participatory theatre.
Workshops covered the topics of marriage and family life, the pressures of migration, expectations of women’s lives, the privileges afforded younger brothers as women’s educational opportunities were constrained, sexual harassment, conflict amongst friends, the difficulties of asserting one’s rights in the face of a hostile or non-compliant boss and the growing search for meaning for young women in China today.
I discovered that the workshops provided a much-needed opportunity for women to come together with others, in learning experiences that enabled them to share their stories and speak out in a way not often afforded them previously. The hunger for self-development that accompanied so much of a young migrant woman’s expectation of her life in the city found refuge in this weekly exploration amongst fast-growing friends.
My most profound memory of this period is working with Dong Li, a woman in her thirties, older than most of the other women, who was frequently arguing with her husband over his desire for her to return to the village, as she wrestled with increased opportunity in the city and the need to provide for her family.
We set up a role-play for her to demonstrate this conflict with her husband. Half way through the phone conversation being depicted on stage, I asked Dong Li to swap roles with the actor playing her husband, so that she might have the opportunity to play the scene from his perspective. The effect was transformational. This empathy exercise had provided her a context to explore how he might feel in this situation, how her protestations and opinions might seem to him. Whilst refraining from judging the potential rights and wrongs of this situation, the experience enabled both Dong Li and the rest of the participants to take a step back and understand something from another’s perspective. Whilst simple, it was profound and Dong Li left the workshop visibly moved by her enhanced compassionate understanding of someone she had previously been in conflict with.
I believe this succeeded in encouraging a more open and harmonious communication with her husband thereafter. If one woman could experience such transformation from such a simple experience, what are the implications of this way of working for the world?
Since our first workshop, the vision of Hua Dan has blossomed to encompass a range of programmes that serve both adult and children migrants, as well as victims of the Sichuan earthquake.
2004-2015: Hua-Dan transforming the lives of more than 25,000 women and children in China and more...
Since 2007,Hua-Dan has delivered performances, theatre programmes and workshop sets to over 9000 migrant children in partnership with schools and community centre, helping children learn and practise key life skills such as self-awareness, confidence, communication and leadership and providing training to teachers on how to integrate creative and interactive learning into existing curricula.
Some comments by participants:
“The classes have given me a new start! Before I was very shy, but now I am outgoing.”
“[Hua Dan] gave us so many interesting experiences, and taught us how to trust our classmates and have a better understanding of one another.”
“Thanks to [Hua Dan] teachers for not being mean, I feel completely safe with them!”
“[Hua Dan] teachers gave me so much knowledge, and helped me be able to laugh out loud!”
From 2006 to 2011: Women’s Empowerment Training Achievements, 2006 to 201.Hua-Dan delivered workshop sets to over 4000 migrant women based in Beijing.
Some comments by participants:
“I’ve learned a lot from this class. In the past I was only concerned with working and didn’t think about things that much. Taking this class has helped me discover what type of life I really want, and has shown me that I can contribute to society. I will work hard to make my dreams become reality. I will work hard to improve myself.”
“I can proudly say that Hua Dan’s classes have taught me how to respect other people, and how to get other people to respect me.”
“Taking these classes has made it easier for me to communicate, has taught me how to discover my own strengths and the strengths of others, and improved my self-esteem. I no longer feel inferior.”
From 2008 to 2011, Hua-Dan has run the Sichuan Earthquake Rehabilitation Programme. The programme built the confidence, communication and leadership skills of over 2500 women and children through participatory arts so they could rebuild their homes, communities and lives.
Some comments from beneficiaries:
“Participating in this activity by Hua Dan has benefitted me much and left me with a different perspective from before…it has been particularly meaningful, because this is exactly the type of training practitioners in arts education need. I wish there could be a much greater abundance of these activities in the future, so that we may have an even greater impact in the community.”
“Art is the best language and form of expression, it can overcome the unconscious, eliminate emotional trauma.”
“I learnt that we need to work as a team. It is only then that we will be able to do even better things.”
“You’ve helped me learn self-confidence, and how to become a person with a loving heart. I now believe in myself and my strength.”
“I will never forget our story, we turned it into something alive and real; this improved my learning.”
“[During the workshop] was the first time anyone had told us how much we were valued.”
In 2011, Caroline was selected as Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum as the Founder of Hua-Dan
In 2012, Hua Dan Consulting started, offering theatre-based workshops to businesses and other non-profits, to aid in factory health and safety training, confidence, teamwork and global leadership.
In 2013 Hua Dan took part in Edinburgh Fringe Festival
In 2014, Hua Dan won the Scotsman Fringe First Award for performance Hand Made in China