If you felt that Kenny G popping up in Kim Kardashian’s living room last month was some sort of harbinger of end times for us as a species, then you might want to look away now. In Shanghai, a story has emerged that perfectly, disturbingly captures the power and problems of China’s wanghong (“internet famous” and “influencer”) culture: a poetry-quoting “hobo” has had to ask people to leave him alone after his verses went viral and crowds eager to use him for their own TikTok video or livestream made his life a nightmare.
Even amid the odd mix of banal “lifestyle” tweets, US-goading “opinion pieces”, and Xi Jinping fawning that make up Party paper The Global Times‘ Twitter feed, this post summarizing the story stood out as especially bizarre:
Then there’s the actual article:
“Literature-loving hobo Shen Wei, 52, a ragged and unkempt homeless man who lives near Yanggao South Road Subway Station in East China’s Shanghai Municipality, has become an internet sensation after being filmed quoting from famous works, but he told his fans he just wants a quiet life.”
And that’s just the opening sentence.
Shen has reportedly been on sick leave from his job since 1993 and was evicted from his apartment in 2002. He’s been living on the streets since then, he told The Paper, sorting through trash, caring for stray cats, and doing his best to indulge his passion for reading.
Yet last week, ironically around the time of World Poetry Day, Shen’s propensity for reciting lines of verse and offering up philosophical musings went viral after a video about him was posted on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform. The millions of views garnered by Shen has caused those in search of their own viral hit on short video platforms such as TikTok (known as Douyin in China) to follow him around Shanghai’s streets.
A Quick Guide to China’s Competing Short Video Apps
The attention from “online influencers” and livestreamers has gotten so great that Shen has had to issue repeated pleas for people to leave him alone, while some video footage shows him waving to onlookers from behind crowd control barriers. Under the term “Wandering Poet”, Weibo is now full of photos and videos of Shen surrounded by crowds of mobile phones, and of his “fans” holding lines of poetry (and in one case a marriage proposal) on bits of cardboard.
There’s even been this Jesus meme:
Numerous commenters have hit out at those who have flocked to get a glimpse (through their mobile phone lens) of Shen. “It’s soothing to hear him speak,” one commenter has written under a widely-read news story on Shen, “Maybe in these violent times his wandering soul can awaken something in us all – but I hope people don’t go to disturb him.”
Another is more scathing: “Turning a person into a monkey and using them as a ladder for internet fame.”
At least there may ultimately be an upside to the whole affair. Shen was last seen being whisked away in a car by benefactors who took him to get showered, gave him a change of clothes and a haircut, and helped him have photos taken in order to gain a new ID card after his old one was lost. Naturally, the whole thing was filmed and posted online.
Incidentally, if you really want to do some good for homeless people in Shanghai, please consider supporting the work of The Renewal Center.
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