The 'Vagrant Master': In China, a homeless Web sensation flees the fame

Mr Shen Wei, dubbed the Vagrant Master or Master Shen on the Chinese Internet, is a vagabond who doesn't have a social media account and doesn't own a smartphone.
Mr Shen Wei, dubbed the Vagrant Master or Master Shen on the Chinese Internet, is a vagabond who doesn't have a social media account and doesn't own a smartphone.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

BEIJING (WASHINGTON POST) - The "Vagrant Master" has been offline for more than a week.

The last time people saw him, the scrawny 52-year-old known as Shen Wei was being escorted into a white Mercedes-Benz by a middle-aged man in an orange jacket.

When asked where he was going, Mr Shen replied: "To seek refuge."

But even before he could get into the car, a man in his 20s ran up to ask for an autograph. Mr Shen turned to sign the fan's notebook.

China's latest Internet sensation isn't a wild cat locked in a staring contest with her zookeeper, a wealthy businessman caressing his thousand-dollar pet ducks or a children's choir dedicating a whole song to tech giant Huawei.

He is a vagabond who doesn't have a social media account and doesn't own a smartphone. He defied stereotypes: Mr Shen is educated and eloquent, and he provides for himself. He is dubbed the Vagrant Master or Master Shen on the Chinese Internet, and his every word has been recorded by live-streamers, shared across social media in the form of short 15-to-30-second videos and closely watched and analysed by millions.

After three months of stardom, he'd had enough.

"I blame no one, but I hate the Internet," Mr Shen told Chinese newspapers on March 22, at the height of his fame. "The Internet has brought me nothing but trouble."

This unlikely viral star was discovered by social media when clips of him quoting Aristotle, Confucius and Dante began to surface on Douyin, a short-video platform. To the surprise of many, this homeless man - with uncombed hair, soiled clothes and unwashed beard - turned out to be well versed in literature and philosophy.

Viewers were intrigued.

"Extraordinary hair worthy of a Taoist priest, eyes brimming with radiating vigour, and the deportment of a real gentleman," read a top comment on Douyin. "This is what a true master should look like!"

Mr Shen quickly became an antihero for those tired of trying to climbing social and economic ladders in a country obsessed with youth, novelty, education, fame, wealth and good looks.

But Mr Shen's virtual fame became all too real in mid-March.

One video showed a road sign pinpointing Mr Shen's location, and visitors soon started flooding into the otherwise unremarkable neighbourhood in Shanghai's suburban Pudong district.

Among the pilgrims were e-commercegurus who promised him a six-digit payment in exchange for commercial endorsements, curious spectators eager to catch a glimpse of the celebrity in person, and Internet-fame wannabes fighting for the best camera position to get up close with the master.

Over the following days, "Liu Lang Da Shi" (literally "the Vagrant Grand Master") began trending on Weibo, a microblogging site like Twitter, and clips of the erudite vagabond easily got hundreds of thousands of views within hours on short-video platforms.

Short videos are huge in the world's second-largest economy. China has nearly 830 million Internet users, and more than 70 per cent of them now use short-video or live-streaming applications, according to the state-run China Internet Network Information Centre. By 2020, the short-video sector is expected to exceed US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) in market value.

To attract more traffic, established media apps such as TikTok, Kuaishou and Vigo Video seek out pop stars, artists and big names from other social media sites.

Starting on March 17, the name "Shen Wei" topped searches on the Chinese search engine Baidu, and Weibo posts related to #VagrantMaster were read by tens of millions.

 
 
 
 
 

Every morning when the vagabond opened his door, he would find dozens, or even hundreds, of people already waiting at the doorstep of his temporary shelter - a deserted office storeroom. Each time he opened his mouth, dozens of phones and cameras were ready to record. As soon as he finished a memorable quote, people would respond with thunderous applause and cheers.

Mr Shen quickly came to think he was being exploited.

"I know people are treating me like a monkey," Mr Shen said in a 25-second video on March 19, more to himself than to a full room of smartphone-wielding spectators. "Nobody came to see me with a pure heart. You did this for money."

People who hung around Mr Shen sought other rewards: A woman in a leather jacket who claimed to be Mr Shen's girlfriend attracted 400,000 followers within four days after setting up a TikTok account. A jobless young man in a red coat, purporting to be Mr Shen's child, became a regular guest on popular live-streaming channels. A 10-word piece of calligraphy Mr Shen wrote on a piece of scrap paper was reported to have sold for more than US$13,000 at an online auction.

Mainstream media took notice, too. Led by the Red Star News, newspapers and TV crews began arriving at the modest space that Mr Shen had called home for the past 26 years.

Soon, everyone wanted to know the mysterious man's life story.

Born into a relatively well-off family in the southwest city of Chengdu and raised in Shanghai, Mr Shen was among the first generation of Chinese after the Cultural Revolution to attend college, according to the Chengdu Economic Daily. After graduation, he worked as auditor at a district government office in Shanghai, the Audit Bureau of Xuhui confirmed.

In 1993, he was forced into early retirement for his "abnormal behaviour", including salvaging waste paper from office trash cans and sorting recyclable garbage that only "beggars" would touch, Mr Shen told the Meiri Renwu newsmagazine.

After that, he was hospitalised twice. In 1995, he decided to live as a full-time garbage man, local newspapers reported.

"I was destined to be a trash collector," Mr Shen told the Red Star News. "I admire Gandhi and want to live an ascetic life like him."

By March 19, Mr Shen's cult following on social media had a cult following on social media. A widely shared photo on Weibo shows smartphone-wielding young people surrounding him, drawing comparisons to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

Citing safety hazards and the disturbance to neighbours, police cordoned off the area around Mr Shen's squatting space and set up metre-high wood fences. But his fans remained undeterred, with some gathering before 7am.

Mr Shen took extreme measures.

He showered and got his hair cut. Of course, videos of him with a trimmed mustache, combed shoulder-length hair and a brand-new black blazer appeared on multiple live-streaming sites within minutes.

By Monday (April 1), there was a note on his squat that read: "Mr Shen is exhausted, both mentally and physically, and will be away for a while. Thank you!"