Dreams away from home: Hope and struggle of China's aspiring actors
By Xu Mengqi

For most in China, Chunjie, or the Spring Festival, is a happy time of family reunion, but for some, a trip home isn't all that easy.

In this particular case, I'm referring to the on-set extras in China's "studio city" Hengdian, who, for their unstable lifestyle, have come to be known as "Heng Piao," roughly translating into "the drifters in Hengdian."

The town of Hengdian in eastern China's Zhejiang Province is home to the largest outdoor film and television studio in the world. Every year, thousands of people from all over China come here to experience and try their luck at acting, and signing up for the role of an extra is often their very first step. 

Another set in Hengdian featuring a Hong Kong-style street. /CGTN Photo

Another set in Hengdian featuring a Hong Kong-style street. /CGTN Photo

Even though an extra's role barely requires any acting skills, for those who do wish to become bona fide pros, it can still prove to be a challenging first step.

"We only know which crew we are going to, and which lot. We don't know how long the shooting will last," Zhang Wencai has played extra for three years. "They call us anytime they need us. Sometimes if a crew has many scenes that ask for extras, we could work all night."

The hours are not fixed, but extras get paid a set amount of money: 100 yuan for 10 hours (one said after the new year it would rise to 120 yuan for 10 hours), then an additional 10 yuan if it's night shift, or if they play lying corpses.

Extras waiting outside of a studio. /CGTN Photo

Extras waiting outside of a studio. /CGTN Photo

When asked about his Chunjie plans, Zhang, 37, single, and the youngest in his family, confessed he rarely talks with his parents because they are against him doing this job, plus he couldn't really afford a trip home. 

"I want to go home, but I won't. I make more money during the New Year celebrations. A round trip would cost me more than 1,000 yuan. That's half of the money I make in a month here," Zhang said.

For most of the extras, a passing glimpse in one short scene is often the closest they'll ever get to the limelight, and there's hardly any real acting training. But despite the long hours and lousy pay, many persist in pursuit of the dream of making it big.

"It's not totally meaningless. Sometimes I can watch the actors perform, and learn from them," said 22-year-old Yang Yixiang, who also worked as a food courier and waiter before coming to Hengdian, adding that he still enjoys the novelty of playing an extra, even though he, too, has been in this role for three years. "I make less money than in my previous jobs, but I can still sustain myself."

(Video by Li Siqi and Li Jian)