Singing from the heart

Singing from the heart

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Musician Zhang Mingyuan has won the hearts of many in Beijing, even if the venue where he performs his songs is no more glamorous than the plaza outside a shopping mall.

Zhang began working as a street singer in the Chinese capital in 2009 and now puts on a nightly performance in the southeast of the city. He has proved a hit: so far, he says he has sold 40,000 records.

. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Zhang, 31, has come a long way to achieve his current success.

Born in Heilongjiang province in the northeast, Zhang said that as a child he was abandoned by his parents. He joined the army when he was 17, and learned about music through playing in a military band, before spending several years travelling around the country and then settling down in Beijing.

Despite the difficulties that he faced in childhood, he reconnected with his parents in 2009, and many of his songs are about happy family life.

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Slideshow

Zhang makes lunch in his rented apartment in Beijing.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Zhang makes lunch in his rented apartment in Beijing.

A photo of him with his mother Wang Yanfen, who died of cancer in 2013, stands in the flat.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

A photo of him with his mother Wang Yanfen, who died of cancer in 2013, stands in the flat.

Zhang practises a new song as he sits on the bed.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Zhang practises a new song as he sits on the bed.

He checks his fans' messages about their dreams, which he has compiled as part of a project called “China Dream”.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

He checks his fans' messages about their dreams, which he has compiled as part of a project called “China Dream”.

He carries his equipment as he makes his way from his rented apartment to the place where he performs.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

He carries his equipment as he makes his way from his rented apartment to the place where he performs.

Zhang practices a new song outside his apartment block.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Zhang practices a new song outside his apartment block.

He carries his guitar as he walks down the street.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

He carries his guitar as he walks down the street.

Zhang autographs a CD during one of his daily performances.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Zhang autographs a CD during one of his daily performances.

A crowd of people listen to him as he plays in a square outside a shopping mall.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

A crowd of people listen to him as he plays in a square outside a shopping mall.

Zhang relaxes his eyes during a break in his performance.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Zhang relaxes his eyes during a break in his performance.

He stands among fans who hold up pictures of him during one of his shows.
. BEIJING, China. REUTERS/Jason Lee

He stands among fans who hold up pictures of him during one of his shows.

"Many of Zhang’s songs are about a happy family life, but his own childhood seems to have been far from content"
Jason Lee, Reuters Photographer

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.

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.

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.

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 thirty tracks that he had composed over the years. So far, he says he has sold about 40,000 discs.

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.

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.

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.

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.”