China economy

China’s budding inventor culture finds an improbable online hero

  • Geng Shuai, the ‘useless Edison’, is the social media star of a new generation of quirky tinkerers
  • Among his inventions are a meat cleaver smartphone case
PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 3:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 4:12am

His fans call him “The Useless Edison”. But inventor Geng Shuai does not mind. In fact, he kind of likes it.

“People say my inventions are useless, but I think there are two dimensions to usefulness: practicality and amusement,” said the 30-year-old former welder, who left his job last year to focus full time on making his questionable contraptions, such as a motorbike with its own toilet. “I like doing this. So it’s useful.”

Every country has its toolshed inventors. But China – which gave the world movable type printing, gunpowder and the compass – has spawned a population of tinkerers who display the kind of outsize ambition that has helped the country become a global economic giant.

There’s a surprisingly large subset of farmers and other DIY devotees who have built submarines and light aircraft, various kinds of robotic ploughs and monster truck-style tractors.

Geng may now be the best-known among them – a new kind of social media star whose calling card is his quirkiness.

Standing in his workshop in this tiny village outside Beijing, Geng shows off his inventions. There’s the meat cleaver turned hair comb. And there’s a tennis racket-size watermelon-slicer.

There’s the earthquake-proof noodle bowl that swings in its stand to allow the eater to continue slurping through seismic waves. There are the slippers made from metal nuts.

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But Geng is most proud of his hammer bag. It’s a hollow steel mallet with a compartment that slides out of the head. Perfect, he says, for storing your phone, keys and wallet. It has a strap so it can hang over the wearer’s shoulder.

“It’s very fashionable,” he said, with apparent seriousness, modelling his creation. “And if someone tries to steal your bag, you can just throw it at them.”

But Geng, who grew up making things in his family’s pump factory, is a special kind of Chinese entrepreneur. He does not make money from his inventions.

Well, not directly.

He makes a living through inadvertently hilarious videos – filmed with the Chinese beauty filters that make everyone look like an airbrushed star – in which he shows how he makes his inventions and then hams it up for the camera as he shows how to use them.

With smouldering eyes, he combs his messy hair with the meat cleaver. He falls out of the slippers while trying to walk down a country road in them. And he presents a motorbike with a seat that lifts up to reveal a squat toilet. Just turn the throttle to flush. (Luckily the video cuts out before Geng unzips his fly.)

He now has almost 2 million followers on the video site Kwai, and they give him mobile phone “tips” for his performances – the internet equivalent of a busker getting cash dropped in a hat. His biggest tippers get their names on plaques on the wall in his workshop, which is often the set for his videos. The bigger the tip, the bigger the plaque.

Geng tries to come up with a new invention every week and to make videos two or three times a week. He makes about US$150 every time he does a live-streamed broadcast – decent money in a town where five people can have a lavish lunch for a total of US$25. He makes enough to support his family – he and his wife have two children – and his brother, who shoots the videos.

“Most people think I’m an entertainer, but I think of myself as an inventor,” he said, naming as his hero the eccentric Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla.

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Geng attributes his fame to China’s rapid industrialisation, which has seen millions of people migrate from rural regions to small flats in the big cities, where they work long days.

“Chinese people love inventions and inventing stuff, but because of economic development, most people do not have the time to do it,” he said. “That is why I am popular – they watch me making things because they can’t make things themselves.”

It’s a similar phenomenon to the “live eating” videos that started in South Korea and are now popular in China. Internet stars eat in front of the camera, often so viewers can eat with them and not feel alone.

Once, a fan who was living particularly vicariously through Geng’s videos sent him US$720. Which is lucky, because he wouldn’t make much if he had to rely on sales.

When he first quit “boring” construction work to follow his passion, he started making catapults out of metal nuts soldered together. He offered them for sale on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media app, for about US$10. He sold two or three.

No one wanted his water pipe that supposedly filtered toxins out of cigarettes. But the metal nut cannon, which shoots rubber bands, has been one of his bestsellers. He’s sold four.

Geng’s most popular product is the meat cleaver smartphone case, which he makes to order depending on the customer’s phone. He walks around with a meat cleaver handle sticking out of his own pocket, which he grabs to whip out his phone as needed. So practical. He’s sold 10.

But it’s the videos that have catapulted him to success.

“People might not want to buy my inventions, but they like watching my videos, so they support me by tipping,” he said.

His family did not quite share his passion. Geng’s wife, Ji Xiangying, was initially against his decision to throw in his steady job for a fickle life of internet renown.

“But I came to accept it after seeing how many people like his inventions,” she said, holding their baby, the younger of their two children, on her hip.

And when Geng told his grandma that he had garnered more than 1 million fans online, she asked how he could possibly eat that much. The phrase in Chinese sounds a lot like “one million bowls of rice noodles.”

Now, his fans are encouraging him to push the boundaries. Some threaten to stop following him if he dares make anything that is actually practical.

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“I realised that my small inventions can’t satisfy you any more, so I spent a lot of money to buy this motorcycle,” Geng said into the camera in one of his recent videos. “This time, I’m going to make something really useful.”

Cut to the next shot and there’s Geng with a wheelbarrow with half a motorbike on the back. A motorbarrow. He proceeds to tear around a warehouse with it, barely able to control the contraption which, fortunately, is empty for the filming.

For Geng, the lack of sales is neither here nor there. It’s the online celebrity that is motivating him. After all, before it was only his family and friends who laughed at his inventions. Now he is got almost 2 million people laughing at him.