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March 11, 2012

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The Foolish Old Man Who Built a Road

A riverbank cleaner has been compared to the "Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains," but in this case, the Minhang man single-handedly cleared garbage to build a scenic path. Hu Min reports.

A foul riverbank in Shanghai's Minhang District used to be a treacherous no man's land of rubbish, weeds, construction debris and even carcasses. It was scary, few people dared go there and adventurous children got injured playing there.

But after eight years of herculean efforts by one slight man, a 1,000-meter-long section has been transformed into a riverside promenade with lush trees and singing birds.

Wu Jingen, a cleaner who scooped up floating rubbish in a Huangpu River tributary, has been compared to the "Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains" in the Chinese fable about the miraculous results of perseverance.

Locally the 59-year-old man is even called "a latter-day Yu Gong" (the name of the "Foolish Old Man" whose efforts were rewarded by the gods) and his five-meter-wide path is known as Wujingen Respect Road to honor Wu's dedication. But it has no official name.

Wu, who still works as a Beizhugang River cleaner in Minhang, tackled the hazardous eyesore and removed rubbish and filth and graded and leveled the slope, even including a ledge where fishermen could sit. He paved it himself with discarded stones collected from construction sites, built benches and planted trees and flowering shrubs along the path.

He transported the stones and bricks in his tricycle, working day and night. Different sections are paved with stones of different shapes and colors collected from different sites.

He bought seeds for trees and shrubs and as locals saw his work, they contributed their own trees and potted plants to aid the beautification effort.

The project of the Minhang native is a work in progress and Wu uses every spare minute, when he isn't engaged in removing floating trash, to work on his roadway. His cleaning job pays around 1,200 yuan (US$184) a month.

"Looking at it today, you cannot imagine what the path used to look like," says resident Jiang Yimin who witnessed the construction of the path over eight years. "It was a natural dumping ground and few people in the past dared to walk there." The weeds were almost half a man's height, there was excrement and even bones of the dead. It was foul.

Working, rain or shine

It's not hard to locate Wu because every day he's working on his road, even during the Spring Festival and other holidays, even in scorching temperatures, gales, rain and snow.

We found Wu on a chilly morning when the temperature was 2-5 degrees Celsius. He was shoveling soil in the shadow of a bridge, building an enclosure for a large pagoda tree in an effort to create a riverside platform.

Wu stands less than 160cm and only weighs around 50kg. His hands are veined and calloused and his fingernails are broken. His red coat, gray trousers and shoes were covered with dust, dirt and mud, but he didn't mind. He was surrounded by a group of friendly neighbors who were chatting with him.

Bumpy personal path

Wu's own path has not been smooth or straight. He was jailed twice for larceny, serving a total of nine and a half years in prison. In the first case he stole clothing in a dispute; in the second, he stole to support his family, including three siblings and unemployed parents.

After he was released in 1993, he started selling aquatic products but that was far from an easy road.

"Even if I lowered my prices, nobody bought my products because I was once in prison," Wu says.

After becoming a water course cleaner in 2004, he volunteered to work in the dirtiest area in Minhang, the riverbank garage dump, because he felt grateful for the work. At first there was a fellow worker and they cleaned the area in shifts, but the man fled after a short time because of the hardship. At that time, the watercourse itself was clogged with rubbish.

"I treasured the job and hoped to do something in return," Wu says. "I also didn't want others to look down on me."

His responsibility was clearing up floating debris, but when he saw that children were slipping and falling on the sloping bank, he decided that cleaning rubbish was not enough. When he saw bricks discarded at a nearby construction site, the idea of paving a riverside path came to him.

The project started by clearing and leveling a slope under a bridge, then it became a 30-meter-long path. Then 30 meters turned into 40, 50, 60, 100, finally 1,000.

Every single brick, tree, bench and flower bed is Wu's handiwork.

At first glance, the path appears no different from others, but after looking closely and taking a walk from one end to the other, people find the bricks don't match, some are broken, the colors differ. The trees are not planted in a straight line and the benches are irregular in size and construction.

Wu not only built it, but also renovated it four times. At first, it was paved with small pieces of slate and broken bricks. Now the paving is better and there are Chinese rose trees and orange trees.

He has no idea how long he has worked there.

"When I wake up in the morning, I come to the road," he says.

The earliest time he arrived was 4:30am and he has worked as late as 2am, then returning home on bicycle. Sometimes he forgets to have lunch. He lives around 30 minutes' away by bicycle.

Every time he heard about a construction project in Minhang, he visited the site, even if it was far from his path project. He wanted to arrive as early as possible in case the bricks were moved away by forklift.

Once he rode for four hours on his tricycle to reach a site in Maqiao area. There he dug out 15 large bricks, each weighing around 30kg, and took them back to his work site.

In eight years, five tricycles have fallen apart and he has worn out dozens of rubber overshoes. His hands and feet were cut by broken glass and he fell and bumped his head several times.

He built a small house on the road to store his tools and take a rest.

"A person's past cannot represent his future, and I hope with this road to do something for residents," Wu says.

Over the years people criticized, scorned and ridiculed him.

When he sorted through rubbish people shouted at him because it smelled and said he was "searching for gold in rubbish."

Over three years he planted around 1,000 camphor trees and the tallest was around 2 meters high. But all were flattened one night in a storm. Wu wept. But he planted more trees from seeds and saplings.


Once a group of construction workers chased him and wanted to beat him because they thought he was stealing bricks from their site. They wouldn't believe Wu when he explained his project. Nearby residents intervened and came to Wu's rescue; they took the construction workers to the pathway. The workers were astonished and touched.

Gradually, people's attitudes toward Wu and his work changed.

At first Wu's wife didn't understand and complained when he returned home late.

But when she visited the road and heard neighbors praising Wu, she too was touched and became one of her husband's strongest supporters.

Some people presented Wu coupons to buy bread or shopping cards to express their gratitude, but Wu never accepted any gifts. "The only thing he didn't refuse was a bottle of water in summer," neighbor Jiang says.

Today many people in the neighborhood have become volunteers to keep the road clean, working alongside Wu.

Some give the promenade poetic names such as Moon Bay and Sun Island. They write poems praising Wu, comparing him to the "Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains" and thanking him for making their community a better place. Some of these tributes are written on the wall that runs along the pathway. They presented bonsai to Wu to be placed on the road.

Today people stroll down the promenade, do exercises and walk their dogs. Some men just sit on the riverbank ledge with a fishing pole.

"Wandering down the road, inhaling fresh air and gossiping with others is my favorite pastime," says 71-year-old Huang Jubao, who lives in the nearby Hongqi residential complex. "See, even property developers cannot do as good a job as Wu."

"Wu demonstrates what determination and making a contribution to society mean," says resident Chen Shouming.

Wu says he plans to share the oranges and loquats from trees he planted along the path.

He will retire next year from his river cleaning job, but he won't stop building and beautifying his road.


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