Happy end to Net fad for beggar

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 April, 2010, 12:00am

Brother Sharp, a homeless man in Ningbo, Zhejiang, captured the fancy of millions of mainland internet users early this year.

Many called the 34-year-old, whose real name is Cheng Guorong, the country's coolest man.

Cheng sported a layered look, often incorporating women's cast-off clothing, and was never seen without a cigarette as he roamed the streets of Ningbo.

Thousands of online fans nicknamed him Brother Sharp. Some likened him to Japanese movie star Takeshi Kaneshiro.

The mentally ill beggar rose to national prominence in January after a Ningbo resident posted a picture of him on the internet.

Cheng left his hometown, Shangrao, Jiangxi, 11 years ago, after his wife was killed in a car accident, and became a migrant worker in neighbouring cities to support his two children.

His parents and brother lost track of him. They do not know when his mental problems began.

Cheng emerged as a fashion icon despite, or because of, his eccentric behaviour and style of dress.

On taobao.com, the mainland's most popular online shop, a set of clothes modelled on those Cheng wore in photos posted on the internet sold for several thousand yuan. A Brother Sharp jacket was priced at 8,888 yuan (HK$10,100).

How did a homeless, mentally disturbed man win thousands of fans nationwide?

Some say Brother Sharp touched a chord with the mainland's millions of homesick migrant workers. Others say Beijing's heavy-handed crackdown on perceived anti-government content online has turned grass-roots mavericks like Brother Sharp into the darlings of the country's nearly 400 million internet users. These cyber-citizens now wield a greater influence on the national conversation than the harshly censored media's.

In online chat rooms, the identity of the homeless man became the hottest topic in February and March. Several people claimed they were acquaintances of the handsome beggar.

With the help of the internet, his family finally managed to track him down. It was reported that Brother Sharp burst into tears when he saw his parents and brother again.

Before that reunion, dozens of journalists and internet users flocked to Ningbo, hoping to capture the fashion icon in a photograph.

The frenzy caused Cheng to panic. He rejected offers of help and cried out when dogged by photographers.

Some people complained online that the photographers displayed a lack of sensitivity in disrupting the life of a homeless man. Others said it was unethical to report about and take photos of a mentally ill man for entertainment purposes.

On the sidelines of the annual meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference early last month, Luo Pingfei, a vice-minister of civil affairs, fired a salvo at internet users who had offered to help Brother Sharp.

Luo said helping homeless people was the government's responsibility.

He said governments of all levels would establish a system to help homeless people return to their homes but did not elaborate.

An article in the Medical Journal of Chinese People's Health last year said the country had nearly 40,000 mentally disturbed homeless people.

As one of them, Cheng was lucky that his popularity online led to a reunion with his family.

'He is not a star in the entertainment industry,' a commentary in the Yangcheng Evening News said. 'It was pointless to eulogise him on his dress style and appearance.

'He is a man to whom we should show sympathy and offer help.'