Leng, a Michael Jackson impersonator, has his photo taken with correspondent Bill Birtles. (ABC News)
What would the streets of Beijing look like without the regular presence of karaoke singers, buskers and street peddlers?
Once upon a time they were all a regular presence on the streets of Chinese cities, but are now increasingly being squeezed out by governments.
But in some corners of Beijing, you can still find singers and dancers determined to add some colour and sound to the streets.
On a chilly Wednesday night at one of Beijing’s busiest intersections, 29-year-old Shi Chen prepares for a ballad.
“The equipment I’ve got here is really not too good, but I still like singing, particularly Hong Kong star Andy Lau,” he said.
“Some people know these songs, people who pass by usually recognise the music; there’s a lot of commuters here.”
Mr Shi lost his arm in a construction accident, and struggles to find work.
“In a single night of singing, I might make about $20. I’m here until about 10:30 each night — you make more money when it gets late,” he said.
“There are more people here later on coming out of restaurants, and they’ve got time to stop and listen. Not like the people who are here earlier rushing home from work.”
Lang came to Beijing from the relatively poor central province of Henan with dreams of bigger and better things. (ABC News: Bill Birtles)
The king of pop on the streets of Beijing
Chen teamed up with a fellow traveller, 26-year-old Lang, who came to Beijing from the huge and relatively poor central province of Henan with dreams of bigger and better things.
Each night he channels the king of pop Michael Jackson, with the hat, the glove and all the moves.
“When he died in 2009, I always worshipped him. His dancing is very special. Although he’s gone, I still feel really sad. I really, really like him,” he said.
Jackson was a huge star in China, with the prime of his career timing perfectly with China’s opening to the rest of the world in the 1980s.
Mr Lang says it doesn’t matter how much money he makes emulating his hero, so long as people enjoy it.
“I’m not dancing here for any reason really than to make people remember him,” he said.
“As long as they don’t forget him, that’s important. People really like watching me. Michael Jackson is a hero of that era.”
Audience made up by all walks of life
As the two young men settle in to the evening’s performance, they take turns — Lang dancing his moves, and then taking a rest and a cigarette while Chen takes over the amplifier.
A steady stream of mostly twenty-something onlookers stop and film them, occasionally giving small change, before rushing off to dinner, bars or a nearby cinema.
But there’s another group of onlookers. Several dozen older men sit on benches and watch the performance for hours on end — with seemingly nowhere else to go or nothing to do.
Lang dances while Chen rests, then they swap, taking it in turns to use the amplifier. (ABC News: Bill Birtles)
And security guards for the privately-owned shopping square corner they’re on, who quietly mouth the lyrics as they watch, instead of fulfilling orders to shoo the buskers on to somewhere else.
There are motorbike food couriers too, who rest from their 12-hour shifts, perched on their scooters and watching until they’re called to their next order.
Crackdown on out-of-towners
Like Chen and Lang, they too are all migrants from other provinces who have come to Beijing to find work, taking the low-paying, long-hours manual labour jobs that local Beijingers won’t take.
Their presence in the city is a constant source of underlying tension in a city with close to 22 million people living within it.
Beijing’s roads are clogged, its air is polluted and there long waits for basic services like doctors appointments.
The city government regularly shuts down small shops and food stalls run by out-of-towners, in a bid to discourage uncontrollable growth of the city.
And there’s now a policy to try to move many of those people without stable jobs out of Beijing.
But without them, the Chinese capital would grind to a halt.
The maids who clean apartments for $5 an hour, the tuk tuk drivers who race people through traffic, and the men and women cooking the midnight egg pancakes on tricycle-mounted hotplates — all have something in common — they’re not from Beijing.
So as Chen and Lang sing and dance away the night, many of their rusted on fans appreciate the small city hits and the free entertainment they provide.
For it’s here on the corner of this busy intersection that the Chinese capital’s great social divide is on full display.