Once upon a time, far far away, in a Chinese city of Ningbo, there was a homeless tramp who led a miserable but peaceful life out on the street, until... he suddenly became famous. No, he neither, as you might have expected, was kicked to death by bunch of drunken youths, nor found a million dollar in a bag.
He became celebrity after an amateur photographer posted a set of photos taken of the homeless man online. Somehow – inscrutable are ways of the Lord and Internet – he was spotted by netizens and admired because of his good looks, penetrating gaze and fashionable dress. His fondness for women's clothes only fueled his status as a fashion icon. The ever-present cigarette in his mouth or between his fingers further enhanced his image as a rebel without a cause.
Ladies and gentleman, meet Brother Sharp, also known as Beggar Prince, Handsome Vagabond and the "coolest man in China". “Look at him wrinkle his brow…nothing needs to be said…sexy…”, wrote one of his fans. “So handsome, except he seems to be a little short, as expected no one is perfect”, mercifully added another.
His news and pictures started surfacing on almost every newspaper, television channel and online news portal. Homeless man was hounded by paparazzi and a growing band of groupies as he made his daily check of litter-bins. A legend was born.
Although this is a tale from China, could happen anywhere in the West. The suggestion that homelessness can be cool is one of fashion trends: in January, the designer Vivienne Westwood presented a "homeless chic" show, and two years before the supermodel Erin Wasson revealed the homeless were her fashion inspiration, saying: "When I... see the homeless, like, I'm like, 'Oh my God, they're pulling out, like, crazy looks and they, like, pull shit out of like garbage cans.'"
No time to loose. Web domains with words “brother sharp” have been quickly registered. China's most popular shopping portal, taobao.com, introduced a Brother Sharp fashion line, with a jacket inspired by the tramp's motley wardrobe priced at nearly 9,000 yuan (US$1,318).
Speculation about a background of the new pop hero became rife. Is he an outcast of greedy, inhumane Chinese society? Is he jilted lover, who lost his mind?
The reality turned out to be more prosaic. Cheng Guorong, 34, is a schizophrenic who left home for work 11 years ago and lost contact with his family three years later. He has two sons, aged 10 and 11; last year his wife died in a car accident.
Thanks to media hype his family recognized him and took back home [picture 3]. On May 1 he started a modeling job [picture 4] and will be paid reportedly about 3,000 RMB ($440) per month. “Before the first performance, Brother Sharp had stage fright. Only after comforting and encouragement from his family members he hurriedly make an appearance on stage, his movements very awkward”.
Happy ending? In this particular case, probably yes, though reading the above sentence, I was wondering if Brother Sharp wasn’t more happy living in the street...
One man was rescued, others can’t be. The news is full of reminders of a growing mental health crisis in China. This weak, in fifth such attack in less than two months, a man with a kitchen cleaver hacked to death nine people at a kindergarten in northern part of the country.
A national survey reveals about 17.5 percent of Chinese adults suffer different forms of mental disorders. Most of them are left without help. In Beijing six new mental health clinics are planned, but keep in mind that psychiatric hospitals are used here not just as facilities to help the mentally ill, but also as lock-down centers for those who oppose the Communist Party.
The amazing story of Brother Sharp rises some questions. One of them:
Do we have a right to use others pictures wihout their consent, even with an intention to help them? This question is applicable to African kids’ photos on covers of aid organizations’ brochures too, but all the more to recognizable persons, like Brother Sharp.
"Homeless people are vulnerable. It is incorrect to use them for entertainment purposes," said one social worker at a homeless center in Ningbo. Certain actions – like taking photographs – may be considered invasion of privacy, but after all they led to reunite the man with his family. Local residents and authorities showed their support for Cheng's homecoming by sending his family food, and a local entrepreneur even offered him 2,000 yuan. The debate triggered by netizens propelled China’s vice minister for civil affairs to call on the government to "increase financial support to improve social security services to the vulnerable groups", turning a non-issue into a national issue.
So now you know what to do when you see a cute beggar or sweet African kid, don’t you? Seriously, rising awareness about poverty and other urgent issues via tears-squeezing personal story is a good way. Transforming problems of millions into one-man story is easy. But there comes the hard part: how to transform one-man story back into a problem of millions? We still care less about a million of beggars or mentally sick than about the one “with penetrating gaze”.