Pan Shenhan: The florist with magic hands

Meet the 18-year-old male florist who wowed the world and brought home a gold medal for his unique and inspiring creations.

Filmed by Jack Zhou. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Translated by Ke Jiayun. Special thanks to Holin Wang and Andy Boreham. 

Roses, balloon flowers, gerbera daisies — flowers of different shapes and colors dance on his fingertips, like jewels waiting to adorn a blushing bride.

Pan Shenhan, China's youngest gold medal winner at the 44th WorldSkills Competition, has the magic to turn a plain wooden frame into god's garden.

Holin Wang / SHINE

Pan Shenhan cuts a sprig of roses to achieve an ideal length for his design.

The Shanghainese boy, who just turned 18, achieved high scores one after the other on his flower arrangements during the international competition known as the "Skill Olympics" in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. 

With his fantastic imagination and sense of color, he visualized virtual concepts like "sand", "wind" and "water" in his floral works where he allowed east to meet west.

"This is the first time for a Chinese contestant to attend the WorldSkills' floristry section," said Zhu Yingying, Pan's coach and leader of China's WorldSkills floristry team. 

She is proud, and rightly so. 

"You know, there has never been a newly joined event that brought China home a gold before."

According to Zhu, Pan competed with contestants from 20 countries and regions, including a few frequent medal winners from South Korea and Taiwan. 

"It's not easy for us to defeat those strong competitors."

Meanwhile, changes in the competition rules brought unexpected challenges. 

"Previously, the requirements were often released half an hour before starting so the contestants could prepare," Zhu recalled. "But this time the preparation period was cut to only 15 minutes, and the former 15-minute discussion among contestants, translators and coaches was canceled."

Holin Wang / SHINE

Zhu Yingying gives advice on Pan's work in the training room at his school.

Pan had to memorize the 700-plus English expressions in the guidebook and try to understand the requirements on his own. 

"Thankfully, though he is a non-native English speaker, he understood everything during the competition."

When Pan became too proud of his performance, Zhu said they would "discourage" him by saying the other players also did a good job. However, when he felt frustrated, they would comfort him by "criticizing" the other contestants' pieces.

But most importantly they gave him respect. 

Generally, the player would be asked to follow their coach's orders. In Pan's case, though, his coaches let him follow his heart and create what he wanted. 

"We also talked about the design, but I liked to listen to his own ideas when giving my advice," said Xiang Yiming, head of the coaching team.

"He once said he wanted to be China's youngest gold winner because silver and bronze would not be remembered like a gold," Xiang said.

Ti Gong

Pan works on a bridal bouquet task during the 44th WorldSkills Competition in Abu Dhabi.

Ti Gong

Three award-winning pieces by Pan. His favorite is the "bridal bouquet" in the middle.

Pan is a student of Shanghai Urban Construction Engineering School, which is also known as Shanghai Gardening School. 

With an art background in middle school, he was recommended to attend the school's floristry training camp by his class adviser during the winter vacation of 2016 and entered the city's floristry team two months later. 

Between August 2016 and June 2017, the talented Pan defeated competitors nationwide and became one of the highest scoring members of the national team.

During the one-and-a-half-year training, Pan stayed in the training room from 8am to 8pm, or even later, to make three to four works per day. Although his home is only four Metro stops away from the school, he seldom went home and often decided to sleep at school to save more time. 

If he felt there was a flaw in his work, he would remake it until it was perfect. He performed one simple action hundreds or thousands of times.

"It doesn't matter if it's a game or life itself, I think enjoying the fun of the process is more important than the result," Pan said.

Pan was appreciated for his quick response when an emergency came up in one task, which required players to use a black wooden box to make the frame. 

He soon realized there were no screws provided to fix the joints, so he made holes on the board with an electric drill and fashioned bamboo into makeshift "screws".

The judges were impressed.

Holin Wang / SHINE

Pan teaches his schoolmates, who will compete with youth from across China for a place on the next national team for the WorldSkills.

Jack Zhou / SHINE

Pan shows a wound on his hand which was caused by a hot glue gun — he said it looks like a heart with smile. 

However, his way to gold was not always smooth during the four day event. "One of the tasks was to make a table decoration with a low table," Zhu recalled. "He cut the given table to make a structure to contain the flowers. After he finished, to make his work easier for the judges to look at and evaluate, he put the work on a table."

That turned out to be a bad idea — the judges thought he used an extra table in his work and gave him a relatively low score.

"We argued that the second table wasn't part of his work but it didn't work." 

With tears in her eyes, Zhu signed to accept the score. 

"I didn't tell him about that, because I believed even with that score, he could still win the gold," she said. "And he finally made it."

In Pan's hands, even a plain branch could add a brilliant touch after being magically placed. He knows the details of the plants' growth and how best to use them to achieve a great look.

Since competitors can't compete in WorldSkills twice, Pan said he wants to be a coach and teach the next Chinese floristry contestants. He hopes one day he can become a world-renowned master floral designer like his idol Gregor Lersch, who brought the trend of doing floristry with tubes and steel to the world.

But currently, as an examinee-to-be for the national college entrance exams, or gaokao, Pan is concentrating on his study.

"Because of the intensive training, I was off school for more than a year," Pan said. "My next step is to complete my study and enter the university of my dreams. During my leisure time, I will continue floristry and seek better development."

Holin Wang / SHINE
Holin Wang / SHINE
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