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About the Author

Robert Stefanicki
Journalist (Warsaw, Poland)

Old salt international affairs writer. At present freelance (looking for a job!), most of his professional life worked for the largest daily in Poland. Focused on Asia and Middle East, where witnessed some dirty wars, now more and more interested in development and other global issues. In collusion with Institute of Global Responsibility, our new and fast growing NGO. Self made photographer (see my website), scuba diver, sailor, cyclist and movie addict.

Post

Meet the coolest man in China

Published 14th May 2010 - 13 comments - 10751 views -

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.

Legend

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.

Business

 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).

Reality

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.

Doubts

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”.

 


Category: Media | Tags: china, internet, mental illness, privacy,


Comments

  • Hieke van der Vaart on 14th May 2010:

    Wow, what a story! And I must say, quite a hot guy. For more content than just looks, look at the “Invisible people”  blog: it contains interviews and pictures with homeless people from all over the US. It was set up by homeless advocate Mark Horvath, who used to live on the streets himself.

    http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/

    http://twitter.com/hardlynormal


  • Robert Stefanicki on 14th May 2010:

    Good idea. Pity the homeless seldom have net access.


  • Johan Knols on 15th May 2010:

    Hello Robert,

    Nice article.
    To come back to your question you raise at the end of the article.
    Maybe it is far better to bring one example under the spotlight in the hope of change for millions than trying to bring change in the form of MDG’s 2015 that, according to Bart’s article, hardly anybody knows.


  • Robert Stefanicki on 15th May 2010:

    I would say more: maybe it is better to help one person than talk about helping millions… Nay, that is populism.


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 16th May 2010:

    I have this suspicion that if the guy wasn’t good-looking, his pictures would have never made it to the world’s papers and he would have continued roaming the streets just like millions still do.

    On another note, your post reminded me of a social ad I saw in some ad book. It was a picture of some steps and a door, in the night. The capture was “Don’t pretend you don’t see them”. Just the door in the night… and in small font, John Smith, 43 (so you don’t actually see a person laying there). The effect was huge!


  • Hussam Hussein on 18th May 2010:

    Well, as Giendre said the aspect usually plays an important role…


  • Robert Stefanicki on 18th May 2010:

    Just a good look, really? Picture#2 is a Photoshop work. Look at the two last pictures, to me the guy looks average at best. I see the growing phenomenon of hunger for idols more as a mind virus. Dangerous, because susceptible to manipulation and fraud. In some places (India and the Philippines, to name just two - oh, I forgot about Arnie…) idols have won elections… Excuse me for such a detour from the original subject.


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 19th May 2010:

    Yeah but it was picture no.1 that made him famous wasn’t it? That’s the one I saw in many papers which run this story. It’s a good picture, vivid colours, and this almost James Dean-like rebel looks romantic - perfect to make a buzz!

    This hunger for idols as you call it Robert is the very celebrity culture storming in the rich world, don’t you think? At least here in the UK there are so many celebs one starts wondering where the common people are smile


  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 19th May 2010:

    Very interesting article Robert! and the photos caught my attention!


  • Robert Stefanicki on 19th May 2010:

    @Giedre: This is exactly my point. Too often a proper-angle PICTURE make people famous, not their real qualities (let it be the look, why not). We are being manipulated. And this is not just rich world any more…

    @Iris: Thank you. Looks like your celebrity (Erap) has just lost elections, damn.


  • Aija Vanaga on 20th May 2010:

    Agree about quite hot guy smile
    And story illustrates modern world of fast boost to be famous when accomplishing one successful action. Hope he will stay on this path in the future too.


  • Andrea Arzaba on 20th May 2010:

    Hahah this was just crazy! Great post but the question would be…who is fooling who? Is media takin advantage of this guy…or is it the other way? wink


  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    Wow, great story, thank you for sharing!


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