Cometh the hour, cometh the garbage guru
Shen Wei’s life has been one of enormous changes. From civil servant to social outcast to a vagrant living on the street, scavenging for food.
Nothing, however, prepared him for life as a wanghong.
The word means "Internet celebrity" and refers to any overnight sensation — from pop singers to coffee shops, to a monkey riding an ostrich.
In March, videos about Shen appeared on Douyin, or TikTok, a popular live-streaming platform, and immediately went viral. In them, the tramp talked confidently about Chinese classics such as "Lun Yu" (The Analects of Confucius), quoting from texts to explain the problems of modern society.
Besides admirers and onlookers, a vast entourage of hangers-on, live-streamers in particular, flooded to where he was staying to bask in reflected glory, and get him on their streams.
“When people told me videos about me had gone viral on Douyin, I didn’t even know what Douyin was. I had always hoped people would pay attention to me, but I had never expected this. People approached me and asked me to go with them so that they could ‘take care’ of me. Thinking back, I see now that they must have wanted me to promote their products. Then people asked me to cooperate – set up a company, win-win results! I refused. Even though they offered me millions, I don’t like commercialized shows.
“I didn’t know that being famous would be such hard work. I didn’t want to be a wanghong anymore, so I just went to stay with some friends.”
In early April, shaved and well-groomed, Shen was back in the public eye with videos and live-streaming on the Kuaishou video platform. He was staying in fancy hotels and was always flanked by his two “assistants” — Liu Xiaofei (nicknamed Xiaofei), who he treats as a son, and Wang Along (nicknamed Xiaowang), who has a car. I followed him for two days in June to get a close-up look at the 52-year-old’s new life.
Shen’s schedule is now packed. A wanghong’s work is never done. He spends most of his time traveling around the country at his fans’ invitation. “Usually they contact Xiaowang or Xiaofei to invite me. If I have time, I rarely say no.”
Easily recognized, he is constantly assailed for autographs and selfies. It’s a far cry from his 26 years of sorting garbage on city streets.
Picking up waste and reading were then the only things in his “very regular” life. He got up at 2am or 3am to search for “valuables” in the trash. At daybreak, he started to sort the waste — food, newspapers, plastics, cans, glass. At noon, he did some reading. In the afternoon, he sold what he could to recyclers before heading to a nearby Metro station where he would read till about 8pm, when he went “home” to sleep.
“Except houses, everything can be picked in the street,” he says. “Food is the easiest. Food waste is a serious problem today.”
After feeding himself, he fed stray cats and dogs. He even fed fish. The money he got from recyclers, he spent on second-hand books.
Now, he is a trendy live-streamer with more than a million followers on Kuaishou, a striking change for a man who once said he hated the Internet because it had cost him his freedom.
He does at least an hour of live streaming almost every night, talking about classics, history, his life, current affairs and anything else that crosses his mind. He also publishes four or five videos on Kuaishou each week about what he sees or thinks during his trips and his interactions with friends and fans.
I met him at the Ramada Encore Shanghai, a five-star hotel in the Pudong New Area. His vagabond appearance has given way to a smarter look and a more relaxed demeanor. He remains humble, apologizing for keeping me waiting as he shakes my hand. Handing him a copy of Shanghai Daily, he said he knew the paper from waste he collected but regretted that he could not understand English. He asked me why foreigners were interested in his story.
When I had asked for an interview, I was told when and where to meet, with no schedule for the day. At noon, Shen said he wanted to go to the Confucius Temple in Jiading District to pray for students sitting the college entrance exam.
While I was talking with Shen, his assistants began live-streaming and soon about 600 fans were watching. As we got in the car to go to Jiading, they asked where we were going. Naively, I said: “A Confucius temple” and Shen immediately hushed me. “Don’t reveal anything in advance!”
When we arrived, he was instantly recognized and people asked for photos. Shen is used to it. We stepped into a museum by the temple and quickly drew a crowd of about 20 people. Shen spoke about the exhibits without even glancing at the labels. Most people, including his two assistants, did not seem interested in anything he had to say, but all seemed highly skilled in handling their phones for live-streaming. No one interrupted Shen’s flow, quite a contrast to the time in March when was he anointed “Master Shen” and anything he did or said set social media aquiver.
He told me he thinks one of the reasons behind his overnight fame was that people found it difficult to reconcile his ragged appearance with his erudition. A tramp who spent hours reading at the roadside or inside the Yanggao Road S. Metro station did not fit into any convenient category.
“They were shocked that a tramp could talk about such profound things in such simple words. And they were moved by a homeless man who never gave up the pursuit of knowledge, even in the most dreadful of conditions.
“I exude positive energy. I am neither cringing nor arrogant. I never change my principles. Also, I am an ugly man who never sought fame or wealth. I have a love of reading, which today’s society seems devoid of. I touched many people’s hearts.
During the most chaotic days, up to 1,000 people besieged the budget hotel where he tried to hide from the increasing crowds. People would drag him from the building in case others stormed in, demanding for autographs, photos, calligraphy; asking all kinds of bizarre questions. Both size of the crowds and complaints by local residents soon drew the attention of the police.
“The most ridiculous thing was that, all of a sudden, wives, girlfriends and sons popped up. Some young women claimed: ‘I want to marry you, master!’ I have to clarify, I didn’t even know them. I have never been married, and I am not interested in women in that way. Then, of course, a new rumor came out. I must be gay! And then young men began following me all the time.”
The most frequent besiegers were a group of merchants from Yiwu, the world’s largest market of small consumer goods in Zhejiang Province.
But Shen is surprisingly tolerant of those who seek to take advantage of him for profit.
“I don’t think this is such an ugly phenomenon. If joining my bandwagon benefits them, I think it is good. Without them, I wouldn’t have the impact I have today, so I actually want to thank them.”
He may want to thank them today, but at the time, he was driven to the brink of a breakdown. “I lost my peace. I wanted to go back and continue to do what I had been doing for so many years. But it was impossible, they never let me alone.
“I always wanted to speak my mind but nobody had ever listened to me before. Now, everyone was eager to hear my views. Is that not exactly what I had been looking for? After a while, I began to think I should adapt and grasp the opportunity I was presented with. I may have lost a measure of my freedom and don’t have much time for reading but perhaps I have gained more in return.
“My creed is as an old saying goes: In obscurity, scholars maintain their integrity; in times of success, they make perfect the whole empire.
“In a Western context, if I had a chance to be a president, I would want to be a great leader like Abraham Lincoln. If not, I would hope to be a useful person, like Florence Nightingale.”
With the help of Xiaowang and Xiaofei, he decided to become a live-streamer on Kuaishou. His shows attract about 100,000 viewers.
Shen calls his life now “advanced wandering” because he still does not have a permanent place to live. He calls live-streaming “advanced begging” because nobody knows how long his popularity may last. People’s likes and dislikes are capricious and live-streaming platforms change all the time.
He said he had earned 200,000 yuan (US$29,122) from “advanced begging” and his total assets now amount to about 500,000 yuan. He said he spent no money, because he lives with Wang and Liu and they “pay for everything.”
“In return, I make appearances on their live-streaming shows so that they are given more tips and rewards.
“My biggest wish is to own a house where I can keep all my belongings, especially my books.”
If one day he lost his popularity, he said he wouldn’t mind going back to the street.
“My concepts and outlooks have not changed. Being famous has changed my life but hasn’t changed my heart. I don't fear becoming a nobody again. What I fear is not taking reading seriously or putting on airs.
“Live-streaming gives me a lot of pressure. It is difficult to pick a topic that most of my audience like. I cannot see their reactions while I am talking. Unlike most live-steamers who are just rambling on about their personal lives, my life is about knowledge and culture, so I can’t get anything wrong. And I have had to get used to many rules of live-streaming. I will adjust my topic to meet viewers’ interests according to their comments, but never play to the gallery for fame. I hope I can persuade viewers to read more and care more for others than for material comforts, also to do garbage sorting.”
On my second day with Shen we headed for Zhaojialou, an ancient watertown in Minhang District. After we arrived, a family of four showed up.
The woman was very excited and highly emotional, claiming to have seen Shen’s live-streaming at lunchtime and had rushed to meet him.
I asked the woman what she saw in Shen. She said he was humble and detached, with no desire for personal fame or gain.
Meanwhile, two passers-by stopped and shouted, “Vagrant Master!”
Shen replied: “Don't call me master! Just call me Teacher Shen,” and again insisted he was just an ordinary man who likes reading.
Later, Shen turned to a young man who was looking on and claimed to be a vagrant. Everything seemed a little staged as they engaged in a long conversation about the meaning of vagrancy.
“Why do you keep silent and just stand there? I have seen you somewhere.”
“I am a vagrant.”
“A spiritual wanderer?”
“No, a real vagrant, no fixed abode.”
Shen then took the opportunity to give the young man some homespun advice and relate some details of his own personal history.
“Sometimes I feel living a hard life is good,” said the younger man.
“I agree. I can’t stand to eat fish and meat every day. I like simple food. Peace of mind is the ideal state of life,” Shen replied.
“I wish I could follow you, Teacher Shen, and listen to you.”
“I like to meet everyone ... It is a pleasure to meet you today. I think the best way to listen is to ‘listen’ to books and nature,” Shen replied.
“I want to listen to humans.”
“You come across people every day on the streets. They (Liu and Wang) follow me because of fate though I have different ideas about life from them. There are some people who want to wander with me, I understand.”
Shen was born in Shanghai in 1967. He has a younger brother and two younger sisters. His father was a university graduate and mother had a college degree.
He told me he had poor relations with his parents. They all lived with his maternal grandmother. “My father regarded grandma and me with disdain, couldn't bear the sight of us. Every time he came home, I got nervous, he always picked on me. He hated me reading or painting. That is why I don’t fear cyber bullying. I lacked paternal love, and my father even prohibited me from meeting women so that I had thought interacting with the opposite sex is sinful. That’s why I am not interested in women.”
He said he started “garbage sorting” in his childhood, checking waste and keeping what he could use at home. People around him thought he was crazy. His parents even sent him to a psychiatric hospital. Eventually, he decided to live on the street.
“I picked garbage not because I had a hard life, or I wanted to earn money from it. Garbage sorting is good for society and I do all I can do to contribute to society. I don't understand why I am still misunderstood and considered by some people mentally disordered even now when Shanghai and the country wages war on garbage.
“In most people’s eyes, garbage is something to get rid of. Chinese people think garbage is ‘dirty.’ But for me, people discard things they don’t need, but that doesn't mean these things are useless. They said my home was full of garbage. How to define garbage? What I picked up and put in my home was useful to me. Garbage is not destined to be garbage. Why do you designate my things according to your definition?
“People think the government should clean up their garbage for them. Why is it the government’s obligation to clean it up for you? Why can’t you control for yourself your output of garbage?”
Despite his repeated claims of simplicity, there is no doubt that Shen is a very complex and very smart man. The degree to which he is, or ever was, “crazy” is a matter for conjecture, but there is no doubt some of the behavior would be seen as eccentric in most societies.
At our last meeting, I watched him collect plastic bottles and store them in Wang’s car. He said he no longer sold the bottles, but would put them beside a bin somewhere for other waste pickers to take.