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December 17, 2012

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Ex-con helping others get on path to dignity

WU Jingen has spent more than eight years single-handedly transforming a derelict riverbank area of Minhang District into a scenic promenade. It might be called his "road to redemption."

Wu, 59, started clearing what was then a rubbish dump in 2004, out of gratitude for being given a district job as a water-course cleaner following nine years in prison.

The 1-kilometer brick walkway he built with his bare hands is flanked by benches, flower beds, trees and flowering shrubs. The promenade sits on what was once construction debris, weeds, household garbage and even animal carcasses.

He said his labor of love is meant as an example to other ex-cons that the comeback trail is paved with hard work, perseverance and a desire to contribute back to society, however humbly.

"A person's past should not necessarily dictate his future," he said. "I want to save those who slip onto the wrong path and go astray, and encourage them with my own life's experience."

Wu was imprisoned twice - once for theft of clothing, and a second time for stealing money to support his impoverished family, which included his wife, son, three siblings and unemployed parents.

When he was released in 1993 after a total of nine-and-a-half years behind bars, freedom looked bleak. Nobody wanted to hire a former jailbird.

He started selling seafood as a street vendor but found his past dogging him.

"Even if I lowered my prices and my products were as good as others, nobody wanted to buy from me in Minhang because I was once in prison," Wu said. He often rode his bicycle far away to Songjiang and Pudong to sell his products where no one knew him.

Arduous work moves others

Salvation came when Minhang authorities hired him to clear floating rubbish along the shore of a Huangpu River tributary. It is a lowly job, paying only the minimum wage of about 1,450 yuan (US$233) a month.

The job of removing debris from the waterway soon moved onshore. Wu began clearing refuse from the riverbank and then leveled a slope under a bridge. What started as a 30-meter pathway along the river became 40 meters, then 60 meters, and finally 1,000 meters.

He works along the banks of the Beizhugang River almost every day, come rain or shine, heat or cold. His thin blue work uniform is always covered with dirt and dust; his shoes mired in mud.

Wu collected tiles and bricks discarded at construction sites to build the 5-meter-wide pathway. Once he rode for four hours on his tricycle to dig up 15 bricks, each weighing around 30 kilograms, and transported them back to his riverbank site.

In eight years, he has worn out five tricycles and dozens of rubber overshoes. His hands and feet show the scars of broken-glass injuries, and he has sustained head injuries from several falls.

"I want to make it as beautiful as the West Lake," he said of his riverfront parkway. "Though I know that is impossible, I work with that dream in mind."

His Herculean efforts have not gone unnoticed. Some in the local community have inscribed poems on a wall that runs along the pathway, likening Wu to the famous Chinese fable of perseverance, known as "The Foolish Old Man who Moved Mountains."

The path is now a popular spot for local residents. Some stroll along the promenade every day, walk their dogs, do exercises or just sit on the banks with a fishing pole. A local chorus of 10 retirees who go there to sing every day has even composed a song praising Wu's good deeds.

Wu has always refused gifts of money or food, save the occasional bottle of water, but he never refuses offers from people willing to lend a hand in keeping the promenade tidy.

One of those volunteers is 75-year-old Li Dezuo, a former security guard at an electrical machinery factory, who has been sweeping the pathway for almost five years.

"I was deeply moved by Wu's dedication and wanted to help him," Li said.

Wu was the recipient of a "Touching Minhang" community service award and was honored when his promenade was officially designated the "Wujingen Respect Road."

After media reports on his project, Wu started receiving visits from people in neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

"I was almost in tears when state-level model workers visited me," he said. "I was invited to give speeches and I was recognized by the public. That encouragement means much more to me than money."

Wu has also visited prisons at the invitations of wardens, to share his self-rehabilitation success story and give hope to those still behind bars.

"The road is right there under your feet, I tell them," he said. "Only if they have courage and stick to the right path will they finally win recognition and get back their dignity."

Wu's biggest concerns today are his wife and son.

His wife, who recently retired as a cleaning lady, has had heart problems and now needs surgery to correct failing eyesight. His 30-year-old son, a contract meter reader for the Minhang Water Supply Co the past eight years, has yet to be given permanent job status, hindering his marriage prospects, Wu said.

More to Tell
Shanghai Daily's "More to Tell" column focuses on personal stories of people in the news. As the year's end nears, reporters paid a visit to the newsmakers in the past year or two to check out how their lives went on afterwards.
Q: How has the experience of imprisonment changed your life?
I was a model prisoner, which allowed me to be released early, but I faced severe discrimination once I got out. I saw society as very corrupt, and that pushed me to my project. I wanted to set an example for those who have been jailed and want to restore their dignity.

Q: How have the past few months affected your life?
I have won respect and recognition from the public and the media. That has made me even more resolute in sticking to the path of doing whatever will benefit others. I have visited prisons and shared my experiences with prisoners, even though I had received some unfair treatment and my own road was bumpy.

Q: What are your plans for the future?
I will retire next year from my job, but I won't quit my work on the promenade. I have no specific plans, but there are always ways to make it more beautiful.


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