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Sleepless in Shenzhen: a lonely hearts talk show

Radio host taps concerns of a young, newly alone generation in Shenzhen, China's test city for capitalism

It's 10 p.m., and the phone calls to Hu Xiaomei's radio show, "Empty Night, Not Alone," are coming in fast and furious. The first guest, a 22-year-old woman, has a typical problem: her boyfriend. He wants to move in with her, he says, to protect her. But she fears scandal if her parents back home find out. After some discussion, Hu issues her advice: The caller really doesn't want the boyfriend to move in, but she's afraid to tell him that. The solution: the caller needs to grow up and decide what she wants. A couple of soothing minutes later, Ms. Hu moves on to the next call.

Mixing music with poetry, pop psychology, and common sense, Hu ministers to the lonely hearts of Shenzhen - of which there are many. Born 22 years ago as an experiment in capitalism, this city has also unleashed new social forces that never before existed in this culture. In a country where ingrained Confucian values dictate a deep respect for elders in family, politics, and work, hundreds of thousands of migrants living in China's export-manufacturing center are young and alone for the first time.

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"It's a new city," says Miao Yang, author of the book "Lost in the Neon City," which traces the hectic life of a young migrant who drifts through a series of empty relationships. "The people who come here are all single. There's no one to control them. No parents, no tradition."

That lack of tradition has made Shenzhen China's most freewheeling city, an early adopter of new trends - and vices - from the West. In this heady atmosphere, far from the constraints of parents and peers, some lose their bearings. On most streets, bright neon signs advertise saunas and seedy massage parlors. Outside major hotels, young women in garish makeup and platform shoes sell their bodies.

For many listeners of "Empty Night, Not Alone," Hu is a trusted source of advice on the challenges of living in this environment. "On the radio, it's a safe place to speak," says Hu. "I can't judge, and I don't know what they look like or who they are."

Like her young callers, Hu left her hometown at a young age looking for work in Shenzhen, and instead found loneliness and confusion. Like her mother, she had studied mining engineering. But she didn't want to repeat the same life of blackened fingernails and punishing hours. Friends told her she could earn nearly $50 a month in Shenzhen - more than her parents' combined income.

Three months later, she still hadn't found a job and was down to her last $8, sewn into the lining of her clothes. It was just enough for a train ticket home.

At the last minute, she landed a job as a secretary. At night, she listened to a radio call-in show, dreaming that one day she could be the host. After many tries, she reached the host, told her life story, and left her mailing address and office phone number. The letters poured in, and her boss fired her after too many people called the office.

Armed with stacks of letters, she went to the radio station and finagled a tryout. The show was a success, appealing to the dagong mei - "working little sisters" - who, like her, had come from the countryside looking for a chance. "I come from them. I know what their hopes, their dreams, pains," Hu says. "I can understand them."

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That was nine years ago. Now, Hu claims 1 million listeners, and her life is very different from those of her callers. She drives a brand new gold Honda. Her favorite singer is Tom Waits. Her taste in food veers toward chocolate. But the bond is still there.

"I listen to her every night before I go to sleep," says Liu Huichang, a garment-factory worker. "I feel like I'm talking to a friend when I hear her. It's like she's right there."

Tonight's last caller has found success away from home: money, a fancy car, a nice apartment. Only he hasn't told his parents he's gay. "My father's a real conservative, a lao ganbu," he says, using the Chinese term for old Communist Party cadre. "My mother's very traditional, too."

But the show ends before Hu has time for advice, and dozens of other callers will have to wait until tomorrow.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor


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