Shanghai has a serious lack of characters. Back in Kalamazoo, Michigan, this guy named Uncle Sam used to just wear an Uncle Sam costume and talk to himself all day. Totally harmless. Other characters in town included Willie The Can Man and Boombox Ronnie. I miss these guys. Shanghai has…Pang Laoshi? Most of the well-known "characters" in Shanghai are just entrepreneurs anyway, like The Avocado Lady, or The Beer Lady.
Then there is Wang Lili, a.k.a. Wanglilinovels. You may know her as the Fashion Week Lady, who stands outside of the front gates, camera in hand, peacocking in bizarre outfits, snapping street photos and projecting happy vibes. Last year Lili wore a dress she made out of plastic bags. This year she sported a hat with a foot-long feather sticking out of the top. She's one of the few eccentric characters at Shanghai Fashion Week. This is her bio, from her website:
"Daughter of God, Wife of the apple(in the future), Guest of Queen England(tomorrow), Winner of Nobel Prize(next). author wanglili herself is a story."
Orignally from Henan (she visits Shaolin annually), Lili has been active and trying to find fame in Shanghai since around 2004, first as a novelist, when she wrote books about life as a migrant worker, amongst other subjects, and now as a photographer. She claims to be the original street photographer at Shanghai Fashion Week, and that her books were published by the top publishers in China [not the case]. I'm skeptical about many of her claims, but she is certainly a character, and that is something to appreciate. In person, she is charming and warm-hearted. After fashion week, I sat down with her at Xintiandi to discuss fashion in China, street photography, and why people here think stealing from Starbucks is wrong but stealing photos is fine.
Wang Lili: You know, street-style photos is kind of new, very fresh in China, especially in Shanghai. From one year ago I [stopped watching] catwalks, only [stood] outside Fashion Week to take photos, because [inside I didn't] have much spirit, much energy
Wang Lili: Of course. I think I need the respect of my audience. I think I need respect from the people I take the photos of.
Wang Lili: Yeah, because they’re not really very smart. It's because of the education, you know.. In China people are educated to [dress] normally. So, not so many crazy people in the streets. Shanghai Fashion Week is only ten years [old]. New York Fashion Week, it's about 100 years. Paris Fashion Week about 100 years. And so before Paris Fashion Week there are a lot of crazy people, very creative. I’m here. I am just one of them. Very few people [like me].
Wang Lili: I am crazy, yeah. Creative [laughs]. I’m the only one, maybe. I mean creative, crazy. Mad.
Wang Lili: Of course! [Laughs] You know that… Its very crazy... Embarrassing, embarrassing..
Wang Lili: I don’t know, actually.. Someone I want to stay with, someone who wants to stay with me and wants to spend the good times and bad times together.
Wang Lili: Inside [is] quite boring. Outside it is quite exciting because it's like we have a war outside. Most of the people want to be photographed by me because I am very old. I mean very old street-style photographer in Fashion Week. I’m the earliest one.
Wang Lili: Yeah, I’m very old -- not the age. I’m the best one. So people always want to be photographed by me, you know. If not they feel quite frustrated. It's like a war, a drama. It's theater. A lot of people now are quite commercial.
The brands give their staff, [or their family], or their friends the clothing to wear [Ed: and they wear it outside on the street, kind of undercover]. But I can see, I can see who is really cool and who is trying to be cool you know.
Wang Lili: Experience... I can see that, you know. I just take photos of people who are really cool.
Wang Lili: We always talk. A lot of people don’t know what is fashion. I mean I guess because fashion in China is quite new, even a lot of editors from the big media, they don’t know anything about fashion. Maybe they don’t know but they need money, so the brands tell them this is fashion, this is right, this is fashion. So this makes them very stupid, you know. I guess they must know, because they learn and get a high degree abroad. Otherwise, they couldn’t get their high positions in the bigger fashion media, right?
[But] they are slaves over the money, so they have to say something [that] the brands tell them. It's very hard to be independent because you need the money. So now I publish my photos in my website, I encourage people to donate. That can make me really independent. Otherwise, I need cash…I need rice.. So I have to do something which the brands tell me to say.
Wang Lili: Oh I can’t say that because you know, my job - I can’t say that.
Wang Lili: What is fashion? A lot of people ask me this question. Every time when I answer the question, my answer is totally different. [Laughs]
It is hard to explain what is fashion. It's hard to explain, [like what is love] what is fashion? [Fashion] is very close to luxury, also very close to creative. Creative to mad. It's a feeling, you know.
Wang Lili: A lady [from Italy] dressed very beautifully, [who came to the] show with two men. The lady took off her high heels and just carried her high heels. To walk to the fashion weeks without her shoes, to carry the shoes is really crazy…
Wang Lili: Yes, very crazy. Because no one dares to do that. To take off your high heels, you know. To carry your high heels you wear, you know.. with socks. Bare, you know. Also her style is really quite stylish. A lot of people -- especially the Chinese people -- are very nervous; they want to try and be somebody. So that is not really cool. I say be yourself, you are really cool.
Wang Lili: Henan has no fashion [laughs]. I guess only Shanghai.
Wang Lili: I come from Henan, but Henan has no fashion.
Wang Lili: They know nothing about fashion. They just know the beauties. They are retired, they have enough money to buy very expensive cameras. But they really know nothing about fashion. Most of them know nothing about photos.
Just a nice camera. They really have fun there. Yeah, a beautiful girl dressed expensive.. [snap snap snap]. Especially girls [who] expose their breasts [laughs]. That is what they want to see.
Wang Lili: Ah huangniu… The first time, I really hated them. Because [they] bother my work, you know. But [one time, I was wearing] high heels [and they helped me]. We are friends! The huangniu tell me how much they earn.. I said 'oh my god, you earn so much more than me as a photographer'. They said 'well, you just see how much we earn a day. But you didn’t see how much we didn’t earn [in] a day.'
It is a hard work. I need to respect them and give them some pity. Though sometimes [it's too much], sometimes 15 huangniu are there and they ask you 'do you want to buy the ticket?' Some rich girls do not have the tickets, but they can buy from huangniu.
[Even a girl wearing a] 100,000rmb dress, [if] she doesn’t have the tickets, [she can only buy] from huangniu…I really don’t understand why they want to go to the inside the fashion week. Maybe [so] they can show up on WeChat and say “oh I’m inside and look!” *laughs*
Wang Lili: Yeah, right. So huangniu do a great thing.
Wang Lili: It will be better, because people really have emotion. People really like it, so I think it will be better. People have money too.
Wang Lili: You know The Sartorialist -- the top street style photographer [?] He earns millions [of] US dollars. Here it is very hard to earn money because people always want free footage from you. Media pay very [little] money.
People [always say] 'Ahhh you took my photo give me that photo!' Why should I give you the photos? It's mine.
And a lot of [self-media in China] -- bloggers. They earn one million rmb a year, even several millions a year. They steal a lot of photos from the best photographers [and] never say who took the photos, [never paid] the photographers. This is why they can earn money. Even some media, now they have WeChat... They put [other people's photos] in their WeChat, and they never credit.
Wang Lili: They do not dare steal photos [to use in] their magazine, but they dare to steal [for] their social media. If you don’t earn any money, that's ok. But you earn millions -- you should pay. So this is why I put my logo. Everytime when I publish my photos, I put my logo. And one time I found somebody published my photos, they [removed my logo].
Wang Lili: I say... okay, I put my logo there. You publish my photos, you don’t pay me, but that's okay because I have my logo there.
To Chinese, if they steal a coffee from Starbucks they say 'oh this is really a shame'. But if they steal from a writers [or] photographers, they think this is [not stealing]. They feel very proud of themselves because they get free photos from the top writers [and] top photographers. This is an honor [to them]. This is really a shame.
Wang Lili: So, if I could choose, I would be a French person, or Italian. Why not? [Laughs]. I don’t like French because French always nose up. And they just only speak French. So what? They buy my books. They don’t know anything about Chinese. But when they know I am a writer, they say, 'oh, let me buy your book'. I say, 'are you crazy? You don’t read any Chinese characters'. They say, 'no no no no -- I just want to have a memory'.
You have to pay. You have to learn to pay. Of course, now sometimes Chinese start to pay. But too few.
Wang Lili: I don’t know, I don’t know. Because this is heritage. Maybe several hundred years later. By that time, I’m already dead.
Wang Lili blogs at Records Of Today, and on Weibo. In the past, she has held exhibitions at Contesta Rockhair and may do so again in the future.