Bard employs poetic licence to peddle wares from an airport booth
Yu Leping, 40, who has a booth at the airport in Dalian, Liaoning, is part artist, part philosopher and part salesman. For 10 years, he has sold personalised Chinese poems to individuals and corporate clients. The Jiangxi native tells how he spotted a trend in Chinese culture and turned it into a profitable niche.
What is your background?
I was born in Ningdu county, Jiangxi, and went to Guangdong to work as a stereo salesman after dropping out of college due to financial constraints. By the time I was 25, I was a millionaire. One day in March 1998, I was attacked by a hit man and spent over two months in a coma, which drained me of all of my fortune. I was in such despair, I almost killed myself before I went to Dalian in April the following year. I found a job selling a magnetic card which creators claimed could control the amount of nicotine smokers inhale. One day, a customer refused to buy the product, but paid me 10 yuan (HK$12) for an ancient-style poem I wrote playing on his name. At that moment, I thought to myself: 'Why not try it as a career?'
So, is that what you do for a living?
I sell personalised poems to individuals or corporations, making reference to their names. Each line normally starts or ends with a character of their name. To do that, it's better for individual clients to talk with me face-to-face or at least over the phone so that I can hear the voice and compile a poem for him or her - because the voice can say a lot about a person. For a corporate client, I need to know at least what kind of business it is.
How do you come up with the theme?
After face-to-face talks or conversations over the phone, I have a better understanding of my clients, their unique characters, strengths and areas they need to improve. Then I begin to play up these aspects. Essentially, I am offering my clients advice in a constructive way.
What sort of messages do your poems normally contain?
Each name, either a person's name or a corporate name, is unique in a way; it is the root of everything, according to Chinese culture. So behind each poem I compile is actually a philosophy or a piece of advice for people to heed as I play through each character of a name. For instance, I would tell an assertive person to be moderate and a moderate person to be more forthcoming. For a corporate account, the poem has much to do with its core values and its motto; or it serves as a call for more social responsibility towards the less privileged and the environment, as well as towards themselves.
Who are your clients, and why do you think they seek you out?
Most of my clients are businesspeople or people who are at least 50. I think the reason people come to me is that everyone has an aspiration for success or greater achievement. And what I can do is to find an element in their names to empower them by getting the message across in a nice way. It's like a consultation session, but through poetry. You know, Chinese people have a long tradition of poems, and many people nowadays still buy into it. On top of that, there has been a revival of Chinese culture and historical studies in recent years.
How many poems have you written?
I have written about 15,000 poems in the past 10 years. I've made more than one million yuan, and I'm very happy with that. However, I still live in a rented home - not because I can't afford to buy, but because I choose to live simply.
Have you ever been mistaken for a fortune teller?
Before I answer this question, I would first ask this: would I be allowed to do business in places such as airports if I were just a fortune teller? Yes, I know why you are asking the question. It doesn't matter what people say about you; what matters is what you can offer. I'm not the only one in this business, but I'm the only one I know to make it a profession so far.
Why do you sell your poems in places like Dalian's airport?
I've sold poems in many places, including Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But since 2002 I began operating from booths at airports, including the Beijing airport a couple of years ago and the Dalian airport now. The reason I chose airports is because the patrons are more high-end, with a better understanding of what I do.