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Unable to get train ticket, man strips in frustration, becomes Chinese Internet sensation

January 24, 2011 |  6:32 am

Photo: A scantily-clad Chen Weiwei directs his anger at a rail official. Credit: China Foto Press With the spring festival approaching, hundreds of millions of Chinese are competing for rail tickets and a sliver of space on the country’s overcrowded trains to get home for the annual holiday.

With so many enduring the same hardship, it's no wonder the story of Chen Weiwei has resonated nationwide with its perfect brew of everyman rage, clumsy official damage control and hint of cover-up.

Chen's unlikely saga started last Tuesday when he couldn't buy tickets home despite waiting in line 14 hours at the west Jinhua railway station in China's eastern Zhejiang province.

Though he stood only third from the front of the line, Chen complained people cut in front of him, costing him his chance at the few tickets available to his hometown in central Henan province, 15 hours away by train.

With nothing left to do, Chen ripped off his clothes down to his underwear, shoes and socks and stormed into the station master's office looking for an explanation.

A photographer for a state news service captured the moment in the office, snapping pictures of a doughy Chen in tight boxer briefs next to a poker-faced rail official smoking a cigarette and writing a text on his cellphone.

The photos of Chen quickly went viral, with Internet-users nicknaming him the "running naked man" and calling him a hero for standing up to the state's rail monopoly.

"Running naked didn't put shame on you," said one Web post addressed to Chen on the popular portal Sohu.com. "It put shame on the system." . . .

The story took an unexpected turn Friday. Chen was quoted in the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post as saying that rail staff helped him secure tickets for himself, his pregnant wife and some co-workers after his public meltdown.

However, a railway official speaking to state media denied the report, saying Chen did not receive any special treatment.

Lu Mei, the Oriental Morning Post reporter who interviewed Chen, told The Times that a follow-up story she wrote defending her original article was denied publication. Officials were concerned people would think "once you strip, you'll get a ticket," Lu said.

Contacted by text message Monday, Chen declined an interview with The Times and wrote: "Family scandals should not be exposed to foreigners."

The irony that Chen may have benefited from the unequal ticketing system he was first complaining about was not lost on some.

"This is nonsense," read another post on Sohu. "After running naked he got five tickets so easily? This is called following the rules? This is what we call 'Chinese characteristics.'"

National media are normally awash with travel horror stories before the Chinese lunar calendar new year, better known here as spring festival. China's fragile rail network, the main mode of transportation, is always snarled for the country's biggest holiday.

Travelers not only have to contend with a limited number of seats, but scalpers known as "yellow bulls," who reduce the pool of available tickets and sometimes share their profits with railway officials.

China is currently laying over 20,000 miles of high-speed rail, but it will do little in the near term to mitigate repeated scenes of crammed, slow trains. Passengers often have to stand shoulder to shoulder on journeys that can last days. Wiggling your way to the carriage toilet is sometimes impossible. One company has even gone so far as to market its diapers for seniors as an alternative.

-- David Pierson

Photo: A scantily-clad Chen Weiwei directs his anger at a rail official. Credit: China Foto Press

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