The dirt roads that lead to the village of Cui Ge Zhuang in Beijing's northeast Shunyi district are not far from the well-paved, tree-lined roads of a villa neighborhood. But the lifestyle of its migrant laborers is a world apart.
As one approaches the village, it is easy to see that this is a place the municipal authorities are in no hurry to serve. In an otherwise bleak setting, the Love and Hope Center for Migrants feels like an oasis of joy. The pleasant sounds of music, a joyful game of basketball in progress, the focused attention of 6-12 year-olds in an English class - all belie the threat of closure hanging over the center.
Its Saturday school is clearly popular with Guo Xin, 11, from Henan province, whose parents are street snack vendors. This confident and articulate youngster says: "The English teacher at the migrant school that I go to during the week is no good. Her English is worse than mine." Guo's one older brother, 17, lives in the hometown with the grandparents. Asked how often she sees him she says: "Once a year" and averts her eyes.
Another who is drawn to the English classes is 8-year-old Wang Kang from Hebei province, a striking girl with a beautiful peaches-and-cream complexion and regal manner. Her older sister, also 17, still lives in Hebei. Her father is a daily-wage worker and her mother does odd jobs as she has to care for Wang's younger sister, who is just one.
The center's residential vocational school, which runs through the week, now has 62 students, one of whom is Zhang Jian, 20, from Anhui province. A cherubic young man, who smiles easily, he has been attending the school for almost a year. Asked about his limp, the smile vanishes and he says softly that he was struck down with a fever when he was one. His older sister was also sick and the family did not have the time or money to take care of him, too.
Asked what brought him to Love and Hope all the way from Anhui, Zhang's answer is truly shocking.
He had passed the tough college entrance exam but when he went to register at college in Anhui, the principal told him he was wasting his time and his parent's money because he would find it very difficult to ever get a job with his handicap. He returned home and, in a cruel twist of fate, his sister was diagnosed with brain tumor and eventually died. His parents are farmers and he has a 7-year-old brother who lives and studies in the village. When he heard about the center, the prospect of having a roof over his head, food in his belly and the chance to learn a skill that would not be compromised by his handicap, was too much to resist.
Huang Caili, 20, who is an ethnic Zhuang from Guanxi Zhuang autonomous region, is eager to announce her English name. "Faith," she says, and giggles. This tall young woman, who manages to look impish and lady-like at the same time, has chosen to study computers and is just 6 months from completing the two-year course that will allow her to take a national-level exam. Described as a "very slow learner but very diligent," Huang, like other the residential students, gets a job during the long school vacations.
She has worked as a waitress in a Wangjing restaurant and was paid 500 yuan ($73) per month. How did she spend it? "I used some to buy good food and clothes," she says with a twinkle in her eye.
Favorite food? "Duck" is the quick reply.
"What was it like to work in the restaurant?"
"People waste a lot of food. We would eat the leftovers," she says.
This chirpy youngster's father has hepatitis and her mother works as a cleaner.
Asked how she felt about the prospect of the center closing down, she says: "We feel bad. (We have) no electricity, no water. (At first) we felt so distressed because we thought there would be no more classes.
"We even considered going back home but we didn't. If we give up now, we lose forever."