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China too plays sillyhuggers*

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia
 

Juan Mann with placard hugging his victimAustralia's highly infectious Free Hugs syndrome, which is sweeping through the western world, causing normally sane grown men and women to embrace strangers in public places, is also affecting young people in Asia. The latest outbreak has just been reported from mainland China, where traditionally impassive Chinese have started playing sillyhuggers.

"Hugging for Chinese people is as rare as speaking English at home," says a report in the national English language newspaper China Daily. "But free hug campaigns are spreading across the country's major cities, such as Beijing, making this alien custom more popular.

"Dozens of netizens in Changsha, capital of Central China's Hunan Province, have initiated the campaigns, offering a heart-felt hug and smiling faces.

"According to Yu Le, founder of the free hug group in Beijing, she drew inspiration for the action after seeing a video on YouTube (www.youtube.com) about Juan Mann, an Australian who, noticing how sad everyone looked on the trips he takes, launched a mission to reach out and hug strangers to brighten their days."

The newspaper quotes Yu, a dancing teacher, as saying, "As a stranger in the city myself, I felt the estrangement and apathy keenly at times. I felt the impulse to start the group immediately."

Using a "personal website", Yu gathered a group of like-minded people, who began hugging AIDS patients, disabled people, helpless migrant workers, and people in terminal care wards in hospitals.

But Yu and her friends face a major problem. As the China Daily points out:

In this Eastern society, where emotions are kept under control and touching of others is seldom initiated, the hugging of strangers has prompted fear, misunderstanding, refusals and even attacks.

Many of the hugging youths were scolded by police, mostly for blocking pedestrians' paths in the ever-more crowded cities.

"If they have the time to hug people, why don't they use the time to do something more useful and concrete, such as helping someone in need?" said Liu Zhen, a Peking University student.

But many Chinese still support their action. Huang Wenqing, 56, of Beijing, said "indifference is a major problem in current society, which is driven by material profit. I personally approve their action, and I want to join them in the future."

The China Daily predicts that "slowly but surely, the huggers will win."

Free hugs have already spread to Korea. The website Collective Heart says: "The Free Hugs Campaign has officially spread in a big way. Korea's own version launched on YouTube yesterday and already has over 60,000 views, placing it in the Top 10 videos viewed today.

"It's interesting to see what the YouTube community gravitates toward. I love the idea of free hugs. We all have to start somewhere, and maybe that's what this world really needs right now."

An anonymous 24-year-old Australian schoolteacher who calls himself Juan Mann (pronounced One Man, a bilingual pun) kicked off the Free Hugs craze in 2004 It has snowballed as it rolls around the cyberworld, and nowadays few countries are immune to the craze.

On his much-visited website he describes how it all began:

I'd been living in London when my world turned upside down and I'd had to come home. By the time my plane landed back in Sydney, all I had left was a carry-on bag full of clothes and a world of troubles. No one to welcome me back, no place to call home. I was a tourist in my hometown.

Standing there in the arrivals terminal, watching other passengers meeting their waiting friends and family with open arms and smiling faces, hugging and laughing together, I wanted someone out there to be waiting for me. To be happy to see me. To smile at me. To hug me.

So I got some cardboard and a marker and made a sign. I found the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city and held that sign aloft, with the words "Free Hugs" on both sides.

And for 15 minutes, people just stared right through me. The first person who stopped, tapped me on the shoulder and told me how her dog had just died that morning. How that morning had been the one year anniversary of her only daughter dying in a car accident. How what she needed now, when she felt most alone in the world, was a hug. I got down on one knee, we put our arms around each other and when we parted, she was smiling.

Everyone has problems and for sure mine haven't compared. But to see someone who was once frowning, smile even for a moment, is worth it every time.

The Free Hug movement went gangbusters when up-and-coming band Sickpuppies used video footage from Juan Mann’s campaign for a music video to their song “All the Same” and posted it on YouTube last September.

More than seven million people have viewed the video, which has inspired thousands around the globe to launch their own campaigns.

And filmmaker Lisa Murray's "Free Hugs in Hollywood" video was featured recently on Yahoo's home page. Within two hours, it had been viewed more than 250,000 times.

In Toronto, Canada, according to a report in The Star Joanna Potratz, 24, and Laura Weaver, 20, stood at Yonge and Dundas Sts., giving out free hugs for an hour in -9 C weather, with the windchill.

In all, 22 strangers, from toddlers to grandmas, got hugs from the pair. That's more than one hug every three minutes.

Peter Pisico, a 35-year-old Torontonian, saw Weaver, a Humber College student, giving out free hugs at the same location a few weeks ago. He was too skittish when he faced his first chance. But this time he decided to go for it. "It's just different. I am kind of surprised it's happening in Toronto. It's free and it's fun and it's inspirational. So why not?" asks Pisico.

Another Toronto hugger, Deborah Isaac, 24 said, "One person tried to grab my bum." She told him why she was offering free hugs, and he apologized.

Last October, the Oprah Winfrey nationwide TV show flew Juan Mann from Sydney to the US for a live interview. After that, he launched a Free Help Campaign, an online charity connecting people in need with those wanting to provide help.

Juan Mann partially revealed his identity in an interview with Jenna Good, of Who Magazine when he said:

I live in Roseville, near Chatswood [a Sydney surburb] in a quiet little area, nothing much goes on and that’s the way I like it. It’s like a little refuge. I went to university four times and I always do really well and I don’t feel challenged.

Giving free hugs is one thing that I’ve gone back to week after week without fail because I know I’m doing something. It doesn’t matter that the money’s not there and that it’s not a career path, what matters is that it makes a difference to somebody’s life just for a moment. Life ambitions? I’ve never had an answer!

Last month, three students from the Las Viñas secondary school in Mollina, Malaga, Spain, hugged passers-by in the streets, J.J.Buiza reported in the weekly newspaper SUR in English. He wrote:

It was an unforgettable experience for both them and the people they hugged. “We had not expected people to be so willing to be hugged,” says 16-year-old Juan Carlos Reyes, one of the three huggers.

The Malaga video, made on calle Larios, was placed on the Internet on New Year’s Eve, and has since attracted approximately 50,000 hits, which is the population of Mollina multiplied by ten.

“I was very excited when I saw a Free Hug video for the first time, and I decided there and then it would be a great idea for some of the pupils to do,” says ángel Rueda, the computer science teacher in the secondary school. It was he who actually taped the hugging sessions in the streets, and who edited the final film.

Many people from all over Spain have since called to congratulate him on his initiative, saying they were deeply touched by the Internet video showing the reactions of the recipients of the hugs.

"It was a wonderful success,” says Yamila García. He hugged people of all ages: men, women and children, old and young, including firemen, waiters, street cleaners, cyclists and postmen. “There was one old woman who was so touched by what we did that she gave us a lottery ticket and a bar of chocolate,” says Yamila.

Creative Jo, an attractive 24-year-old female blogger in Bidor, Perak, Malaysia, has written a long and interesting story about hugging. She says:

The video is about free hugs by this guy name Juan Mann. Well, I wish I can be as brave as him - I mean...if Msian are open to the extend that they will not take advantage of a hug....I wun mind trying giving free hugs. =) But well, I dun blame on Msia totally....mayb part of myself is not ready to that extend yet. But I really lurves HUGS! I wish I can heals ppl hearts with one big and warm hugs.

Hugs that heals a broken heart. The last time I hugged a friend....she cried in my arms. I am not sure if my hugs help a lot, but at least that's what I'm always ever ready to give it to her. I can remember I hugged her and keep on telling her "It's ok". We were sobbing. That's how emotional I can be. Cant be sure to what extend a hug will helps, but at least it express our cares and love to a broken heart.

New York author, broadcaster and psychic Ellie Crystal has doubts about accepting free hugs in the Big Apple. She wrote:

To hug a stranger goes to many factors. If a man was holding up a sign asking for a hug, where I live in NYC, I would be cautious. Too much big city conditioning with crazy people, pickpockets and horny men. If a woman held up a sign, most men would go for the hug, and perhaps women as well. I know me ... I would walk away. What would you do?

Well, Ellie, I'm one of many grumpy old men who hate the thought of being hugged by a stranger (unless she's young and pretty). We prefer to shake hands.

FOOTNOTE. Some 50 years ago, I wrote as Sidney Mann, as stand-in editor of the front-page trivia column of the Sydney afternoon newspaper The Daily Mirror. So perhaps I can claim to be One Mann's grandfather.

A young South Australian newspaperman, Rupert Murdoch, later bought the Mirror, and merged it with his Sydney Telegraph, giving birth to a hybrid morning tabloid, the Daily Telegraph-Mirror, popularly referred to as The Terror. These days the Mirror part of its name has disappeared, and the paper is simply called The Daily Telegraph. It's one of hundreds of publications around the world owned by the US-based News Corp, controlled by an older Rupert Murdoch, an American citizen and multi-millionaire.

* To play sillybuggers means messing around, wasting time. Example: Stop playing sillybuggers and finish your homework. - Australian slang

Links
An edited version of this story has been published by the citizen reporters' journal, OhmyNewsInternational.

Story first posted February 2007

Copyright © 2007

Eric Shackle

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