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The pavement painter of Shanghai
Within spitting distance of high street boutiques and watch hustlers, an 85-year old Shanghai native paints great Chinese epics onto thirsty concrete
Editor's Note: Click the gallery button above to see more images Mr Xu painting.
Elderly men and women assemble in grid patterns along the wide, diagonal entrance to Xiangyang Park, located on the north side of bustling Huaihai Road -- they're practicing tai ji quan, a shadowboxing dance. Stop briefly for a moment and take it all in if you must, but walk around them since the best part of the park is still ahead.
Stop when you see a sprightly, blue-eyed man with hair as white as it is thick and full. This is the Xiangyang Park, you'll know him when you see him. If his appearance doesn't alert you, the first words out of his mouth will. "Can I have the pleasure of your name?"
Not your average writing system
Once you offer your name he'll get right to his daily business and paint your name (in traditional Chinese characters) vertically onto the pavement in front of you. But don't let the ease of his brush strokes fool you -- Xu (who goes only by his family name) is nearly fluent in English and will be more than happy to tell you all about himself.
Forced to practice calligraphy during his childhood in lieu of playing with friends, he was originally less than smitten with the ancient art. Eventually, he learned to "put [his] full heart into" it before beginning a career as a corrosion prevention engineer. But this was on paper, mind you.
Sidewalks were another story. "When I retired, I began to visit the park and found that some people were writing on the ground," he says, reflecting on his past. "I did not agree with this kind of writing, because it's not the normal writing system."
So how did he finally come around?
"After two years of looking and appreciation, some friends of mine asked me, 'Why don't you just try to write something?' And I accepted the invitation because in my home I scarcely write so big, but here every word is such a big one!"
Writing for release
Can I have the pleasure of your name?— Mr Xu, Xiangyang Park sidewalk writer
Excepting the occasional names of passers-by, Xu's labor of love is mainly concentrated on telling an old tale known as lan hua, or "blue flower." He paints for us two characters. "Saints, this story is about eight saints," he explains.
It's not clear whether the volume is ever really finished, nor where he chooses to start or restart his telling of it each time he paints. Another park visitor tramples over the farthest edge of the artist's work, which is evaporating anyway. He paints with water, so each line of script lasts only a short time before dissolving away.
He pauses for a moment. "When Chinese words are written on the ground and somebody is to step on them, it's a shame for us." As for the brewing clouds above? "I come here every day, even when it rains."
And he's dedicated out of habit, Mr Xu explains. "I had a good record when I was in school and in my research institute." Keeping up with his old habits now fills his days, although Mr Xu doesn't accept tips for his work. He does it for more than monetary gains. "But when I'm writing, it's like practicing tai jie chan. I find I can release my heart pressure. "
Xiangyang Park (襄阳公园)
1008 Huaihai Xi Lu , near Xiangyang Lu