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March 12, 2012

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Chinese street artist paints names with flowers

WANG Shi arrived in Italy in 1998, hoping to make money, and though he has worked very hard at many jobs, he hasn't had much luck. Since arriving, he has been a worker in a tofu factory, a beach masseur, a master of ceremonies at Chinese weddings and a tour guide for Chinese tourists in Rome, among other jobs.

Today the 50-year-old native of Fushun, Liaoning Province, is a name painter, a street artist working in the shadow of the Colosseum. He's joined by other artists and Italian street performers dressed as Roman soldiers.

Wang's story is not unlike that of many other Chinese working overseas. He says he can't go home for various reasons, partly because he would be ashamed to admit he had not made a lot of money or achieved some status, like some other Chinese who go overseas.

Wang is among millions of the new generation Chinese diaspora who left China during the "open door" policy in the late 1980s, which opened China to the outside world and allowed some Chinese to step out for the first time. Many of them migrated to Western Europe seeking their fortune.

However, Wang's journey is not a typical immigrant success story. His migrant compatriots have done better. Today there are more than 100,000 Chinese living in Italy, not counting many illegal immigrants. Many may have started in leather and garment workshops in the 1990s but soon became self-employed, often capitalizing on China's export boom.

Some have brought cash back to their villages and built modern town houses to impress their families, others have moved their relatives with them to Italy and now run family restaurants, video rental stores and immigration services, participating in the local ethnic economy.

But a happy ending is not for all. Those who still struggle with legal status or do not have the skills required for the mainstream workforce still remain China's outflow of cheap labor. After many attempts at various jobs, Wang decided to practice name painting when it was a popular job for Chinese in Italy.

"Four or five years ago there were a few hundred Chinese name painters in the streets of Rome and around Italy," Wang says, "but today there are probably only five or six left.

"A lot people do this for money, rather than art, so most quit after it became too hard to make a living," says Wang, quick to point out his difference from others. He is neither cheap labor nor a rich immigrant. He calls himself a "fake artist."

Along with other Chinese name painters and origami craftsmen, Wang's business relies solely on the flow of tourists who visit the Colosseum. Unlike most name painters, Wang became an apprentice to a master painter in the Chinese community in Rome, and his work is quite good, enabling him to make a living by selling each for around 5-10 euros (US$6.63-13.26).

Each day he sits at a small, portable cardboard table and paints the names of people and places in English, such as "Sara" and "Roma." He often puts the Colosseum in the background and embellishes the work with traditional Chinese elements, such as birds, flowers, grass, bamboo and dragons, all symbols of luck and wealth. He works so fast and skillfully that he can paint an ornamented name in around five minutes.

Chinese name painting is derived from flower painting, which dates back a couple of thousand years, but today in China there aren't many old-school folk artists working in name painting.

While he was growing up in Fushun, he was very interested in name painting but it wasn't until he left the major manufacturing hub and went to Italy that he finally found a master who would teach him.

He paints deftly in water color on paper, using brushes and various implements cut from the inner soles of shoes.

Wang spent a lot of time researching and experimenting with different patterns and colors. "I practiced on more than 10,000 pieces of paper before I dared to make money with this," Wang says, his hand constantly in motion as he executes many pattern and color combinations.

He also incorporates the Colosseum and other European landmarks, depending on tourists' wishes. For example, for a customer named Amelie, he paints the "A" like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and then decorates it with auspicious symbols.

In front of Wang's table there's a sign in Italian, asking anyone interested in learning Chinese or flower painting to stop for a chat. "I am happy to exchange opinions and language skills - and we can make friends," he says.

(Dong Nian is a Hong Kong-based freelancer)


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