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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

What ‘China’s coolest grandpa’ thinks about his fashion icon status for photoshoot in suits

Ding Bingcai, who survived civil war, revolution and famine, has become the darling of Chinese media and internet users after he wore suits for the first time for a photoshoot by his grandson

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 2:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 2:34pm

An elderly Chinese farmer who has lived through civil war, revolution and famine, and one of the greatest economic booms in history, has spoken of his delight at becoming an unlikely international fashion icon in his twilight years.

Ding Bingcai, 85, was catapulted into the headlines last month after his photographer grandson, Ding Guoliang, made him the star of a fashion shoot for which he donned green, blue and mulberry suits, tartan bow ties, designer glasses and fedoras.

Photographs of the dapper grandfather-of-10 – who had never before worn a suit – quickly went viral, with internet users anointing him “China’s coolest grandpa”.

One Chinese newspaper claimed the octogenarian trendsetter had achieved world-class levels of charm.

The English-language edition of the People’s Daily, the Communist party’s official mouthpiece, gushed: “The old man has totally turned into a heartthrob.”

Speaking this week with the help of his grandson, Ding said he enjoyed his unforeseen transformation from farmer to fashion icon.

“They are beautiful,”the softly spoken grandfather said of his grandson’s viral photographs.

The retired farmer added he was unable to pick his favourite look from his menswear collection. “I like all of them,”he told The Guardian.

Even more remarkable than Ding’s rise to fashion fame are the staggering social and political upheavals he has witnessed during his life.

Ding was born in 1931, six years after the death of China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen, and almost two decades before Chairman Mao’s communists seized power in 1949.

He grew up in Songshuping, a rural village on the outskirts of Shaowu, a city in Fujian province in the country’s southwest, and became a subsistence farmer, growing rice and cutting bamboo for a living.

Ding was in his late twenties when Mao’s Great Leap Forward push for industrialisation caused a calamitous famine that devastated rural China and is thought to have claimed up to 45 million lives.

“It was very hard in the past,” Ding recalled of those days. “Before, I didn’t have enough food to eat. [We were] always starving. Back then, we had no money. Things are much better now.”

In 1961, as the three-year Great Famine came to an end, Ding married his childhood sweetheart, Zhang Jiyu. Over the coming years the couple had five children; two daughters and three sons.

Today, China’s most glamorous grandfather boasts 10 grandchildren spread between the eastern cities of Xiamen, Shanghai and Fuzhou. His wife passed away in 2014.

Ding Guoliang, a professional photographer who uses the name Jesse, said the three-day photo session, which took place last September on the streets of Xiamen, was intended to make his grandfather feel both useful and elegant.

“He looks amazing in the pictures,” the photographer told the China Daily in an earlier interview. “Not everybody looks good in suits. But he’s got class.”

This week, Jesse described his grandfather as a kind and gentle man.

“I’ll give you an example. Once we were in a lift with lots of other people. He decided he wanted to take out his cigarettes and share them with everybody else. He felt everybody was his friend. He is really honest and simple.”

Ding said his elderly grandfather had struggled to fully comprehend the extent of his fame.

“[But] he is happy that people are being nice to him and to be welcomed by so many people. In fact, noise and excitement is what elderly people need the most. Having people pay attention to him and having a sense of existing are important to him,”he added. “I want my grandpa to feel that he is useful.”

Asked how he felt about becoming an internet celebrity, 85-year-old Ding was coy.

“I am not good at talking,” he said. “Is that OK?”

The Guardian