South China Morning Post, Nov 14, 2008

Suffering for his art


A young man walks through an alleyway near Beijing's ancient Rear Lakes area, weaving in and out of the crowd with some difficulty. Disabled since birth, Xi Fu has trouble walking, and almost no use of his hands.

He arrives at a square beside the lake just as the sun is going down and plops his things on the ground. Deftly using his feet, he spreads a cloth, mixes his paints, lays out his brushes and selects a piece of rice paper. He looks up from his makeshift studio to see about 60 people gathered around.

Xi picks up a brush between two toes, dips it in water and then a pool of thick black ink and begins to draw large Chinese characters on the paper. The characters are not perfect, but display a certain indescribable quality. The crowd is transfixed as each character slowly appears. When he is done, his audience breaks into a collective smile of appreciation at the words - 'joy amidst bitterness'.

This simple expression aptly sums up the life of the 30-year-old 'foot' artist, who has turned disability into advantage, a notable feat in a society where the vast majority of disabled are isolated by a lack of infrastructure, social prejudices and well-meaning but overly protective families.

The calligraphy is snapped up by a well-dressed man and another steps forward to buy the next one before Xi has even begun. A few sympathetic people toss some money in front of him. A little girl of around five is so mesmerised that her mother has to drag her away.

Few in the crowd would guess that this itinerant artist, whose name means Seeking Happiness, is a complicated figure, an avant-garde dancer, a performance artist, a fan of western rock music and Asian folk tunes, a man who is articulate about the obstacles life has thrown in his path.

Xi has worked hard to get where he is but, like many successful people, he met a few helpful friends along the way - encounters which mainlanders like to describe as yuanfen, or fate.

He explains how a nurse at the hospital dropped him shortly after he was born, causing his disability. He went to school for just three years, being forced to drop out because the school said it was too time-consuming to teach him.

After his father was laid off from his factory job in 1993, the family moved to Beijing. Three years later, when Xi was 18, his mother took him to an after-school arts centre and approached teacher Ren Zhijun about teaching her son to paint.

Ren recalls his first meeting with Xi, whom he described as smart and confident. Since childhood, Xi had used his toes and feet as others use their fingers and hands, and so Ren was confident he could teach him.

'I told Xi Fu that a lot of people use art to feed themselves,' recalls Ren, 'and that if he worked hard, he would never want for anything, no matter where he went.'

After three years of one-on-one training, Ren declared that it was time for the 21-year-old to hit the streets and earn a living.

For the next decade, Xi roamed Beijing looking for places that provided protection from the weather. Often, it was one of the many pedestrian underpasses where he had to dodge officers of the urban affairs administration, who would force him to move.

His life changed in 2006 through a chance meeting. Ma Er, an artist-turned-graphic-designer, happened upon him in an underpass.

'I could tell with one look that he was different,' says Ma. 'He had all of these art supplies in front of him and I could see he was a serious artist.'

The two men - from completely different worlds - hit it off immediately.

Soon after, with Ma's help, he staged his first performance art at the trendy 798 Art District in Beijing.

Xi stood completely naked as artist friends covered him from head to toe in paint. With some effort, he used his body as a human brush to apply the paint to a large piece of paper on the ground. He dubbed the work A Perfect Life.

Xi admits that there was a time when he resented comments people made on the street about his disability, and he says his parents were a bit taken aback when they saw a video of their son naked in front of a large crowd. He remains unfazed. 'To me, wearing clothes is not much different to not wearing clothes,' he says.

Xi next wanted to do something much bigger, confiding to Ma that he wanted to dance. 'There was one problem,' Ma says with a smile. 'Xi Fu didn't know how to dance.'

Undaunted, he convinced Yu Jian, a yoga teacher, to teach him and several disabled friends. They didn't lack skills, they lacked confidence, she told them. They should strive to find their advantage and use it.

Ms Yu told them to believe in themselves and to believe that they were the best in the world. 'They were so excited,' says Ma. 'No one had ever told them this before.'

Next to step into the picture was Xue Zhen, a Taiwanese dancer, who was working on a project at 798. She agreed to help and the small group began dancing together in a yard.

'She taught us how to communicate without words, but with our bodies' says Xi. 'It was a different language that even the disabled could learn to speak. The other dancers eventually pulled out, too embarrassed to show their disabilities in public, but Xi was undaunted. His performance in October 2007 incorporated dance, music, calligraphy and drama to tell the story of a disabled person - Xi's own story.

In the summer of 2007, Xi met Wang Feng, 29, a graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy, in a Beijing bar. The young choreographer saw an inviting challenge in working with the disabled man. 'For a choreographer, he is a completely different type of material,' says Wang. 'I never doubted his ability.'

Wang has long rebelled against conformism in modern dance on the mainland, and the concept that art must serve politics, describing it as unnatural and false. He was impressed by Xi's naturalness and openness, which is lacking in official dance circles. 'Modern dance emphasises the differences in each person,' he says. 'You can't just copy.'

He said that his first impression upon seeing Xi dancing was 'awesome'. And then he makes the most astute comment about Xi, something so obvious that many people miss it. 'Xi Fu doesn't consider himself disabled,' Wang says.

In July, Xi, Wang and some friends took part in a dance festival in Guangzhou. There were more than 500 in the audience, but the venue sank into complete silence as Xi was carried on to the stage hidden in a traditional Chinese quilt. He then slowly emerged into view - clad only in a thick loincloth - and began to dance. Despite his disability, he displayed a remarkably strength and beauty - his disability almost disappearing in his nakedness.

'Since I was small, I have always wanted to express myself. I wanted to do what other people can do,' he says. 'I won't surrender. If people think I can't do something, I want to prove myself.'

It's around midnight and Xinjiang Well Wine, a popular Beijing bar, is wall-to-wall people. Big Wheel, a band from Inner Mongolia, which uses western and Mongolian instruments, has the crowd rocking. There is no dance floor, so people make use of the small spaces between tables to dance.

Xiao Hei, a professional dancer and friend, looks over at Xi and urges him to get up. Xi bends over to take a sip of his beer from a straw and then stands up.

His movements are somewhat constricted but at the same time graceful. He dances with abandonment, thrusting a sole finger into the air, then pretending to play a few notes on a guitar and, at times, mimicking the lyrics much as one does when lip-syncing in the mirror at home.

No one in the bar appears surprised to see a disabled person dancing. The song ends and the crowd breaks into applause. Someone shouts 'Xi Fu niubi,' a popular Beijing profanity-cum-compliment that can be translated as 'f****** awesome!'

When asked if he ever feels down, Xi turns serious: 'Everyone has his or her bad moments,' he said. 'It doesn't matter if you're disabled or normal.'

He says there were times when people were insensitive or rude. And that it is difficult getting around the city. Only a handful of buses can accommodate the disabled and taxi drivers are reluctant to stop for them. 'Taxi drivers don't want to take us, and so we sometimes have to wait as long as an hour for a ride.'

When he sets up on the street to work, the urban affairs officers will often chase him away. He returns as soon as they leave.

On one recent night, as a group of officers surrounded him menacingly, a disabled friend threw himself into the crowd, setting off a small melee. They were all taken to the police station, but were released shortly afterwards. 'You should have seen it,' gushes Xi. 'It was amazing.'

He can't understand why the government doesn't establish a place for handicapped artists to work. He says there was a lot of talk about helping the disabled leading up to the Paralympics in September, but that nothing significant resulted from the Games.

His biggest frustration in life is his failure to find romance. 'I wanted to find a girlfriend, but who wants a boyfriend who is disabled?' he asks. 'When we got old, would she care for me or would I care for her?'

When asked what he will do when the day comes that he can't earn a living any more, he is quiet. 'I don't want to think about so much now,' he says. 'I'm not afraid. I only think about being happy.'