"Little Fatty" or "Xiao Pang" and his puppy [File Photo: Xiaopang.cn]Little Fatty is a soft-spoken, chubby-cheeked, shy teenager. He is an unlikely candidate to be one of the most famous faces in China.
And yet the Internet and a fascination among China’s Netizens for playing with Adobe’s PhotoShop have transformed this unassuming 19-year-old into a household name. One Chinese newspaper described his plump features as “the face that launched 1,000 clicks”.
That face, photographed four years ago when he volunteered with classmates to attend a traffic safety day in Shanghai, has resulted in a nationwide burst of photo-altering creativity unrivalled in China.
Internet aficionados have superimposed his slightly suspicious sidelong glance and cherubic cheeks on such iconic images as Harry Potter, the Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe and Austin Powers.
No sooner has a movie poster appeared than Little Fatty’s features appear, replacing the face of the star.
Qian Zhijun – the teenager in question - says he is none too happy with his Internet fame and almost hopes that the hysteria surrounding his portly features will gradually wane.
His is a tale of how China’s obsession with the Internet reflects the need of people to communicate openly and freely in a country with few other means for self-expression.
It all began four years ago. The first time Mr Qian saw his image online was when he was sitting in an Internet cafe and another customer approached him to ask if he was the real-life “Little Fatty” - or “Xiao Pang” whose face was perched on the shoulders of the world’s celebrities.
The young man was stunned. “It was as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt. I felt really humiliated. I couldn’t bear it and I left.”
But there was no escape from the embarrassment. At a concert, giggling girls wanted their photograph snapped with him. He declined. That was one of his worst moments, he recalls.
Faced with the inevitable, Mr Qian told The Times he had tried to make the best of the situation.
“I have tried to turn sorrow into strength. At least this makes people smile and I have had quite a positive response from many surfers.”
He most dislikes pornographic images, those with his face superimposed on the shoulders of nubile young women or replacing Buddha’s features. His favourite, if forced to choose, is Little Fatty as Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”.
Little Fatty, who seems unconcerned by the nickname, tried a diet and exercise regime last year but soon regained the 10 kilograms he lost and now weighs in at about 100 kg.
He demonstrates some pride in a website www.xiaopang.cn - named after him and founded on his fame - that he happened across by chance when surfing the Web.
“At first people on the site didn’t believe that I was the real Little Fatty. But now that I have registered and people know me there are more and more people who come to this site.”
Such Internet phenomena are likely to reoccur in China, despite government plans to force bloggers to register their real identity and a proposal to ban online satire - or “e-gao”.
Would-be humourists have unleashed a flood of online spoofs that have angered individuals and sparked government anxiety that the ruling Communist Party could become a target.
Wang Sixin, professor of Social Science at the China Media University, said: “It is understandable that people like the Internet, especially young people, because it satisfies their desire to challenge authority, to express themselves and to pursue freedom. It is in the nature of young people.”
Mr Qian is now attending a vocational school and earning 1,000 yuan (?65) a month as a petrol pump attendant in his free time.
He has no ambitions to translate his fame into a career in showbusiness. “I was completely passive in all this. I don’t have that kind of talent.”
But he was willing to fly up to Beijing at the invitation of Chinese Central Television to appear on one of its most popular talkshows “Tell the Truth”. He said: “I haven’t prepared anything, I’ll just answer their questions.”
If his unexpected fame can bring him some reward, Mr Qian hopes that it might enable him to find a job as a television chef. “I love to cook and I would like to teach people how to cook well and how to eat better.”