BEIJING — The Chinese have learned English from his speeches and celebrated the way he rolls up his sleeves. Now President Barack Obama is finally coming, and he's being greeted with "Oba Mao" T-shirts and a statue of him that bursts into flames.
Sunday's arrival of a U.S. president admired for his charisma is already a source of profit and brief fame for some Chinese.
Strangest is the burning Obama, tucked away in a Beijing warehouse. Artist Liu Bolin hopes Obama can take time from his visit to drop by.
"He's so hot right now, so I wanted to translate that through my work," said Liu, who was inspired by the idea of the first black U.S. president.
The bronze Obama bust is modeled on Time magazine's "Man of the Year" cover and is speckled with holes for gas that ignites every couple of minutes.
It's a positive work, Liu said.
"Yes, setting something on fire can have negative connotations, but this piece represents energy and life that Obama has given to the world," said the 38-year-old, who made a similar piece for former revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.
"We're eager to see what he can do for China and U.S. relations."
'Avant garde' t-shirts
One Beijing shop owner wanted to see what Obama could do for sales. Liu Mingjie created "Oba Mao" T-shirts, with the president wearing the uniform of the Red Guards, who caused chaos during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
"It's just kind of avant garde," Liu said of the images, saying they were no longer political, just fashion.
He sold hundreds of the shirts, to both foreigners and Chinese, until authorities told shops selling the shirts to stop.
Other inspired salesmen have used Obama for product "endorsements." One was for a knockoff handheld called the BlockBerry — although the photo of the president showed his American flag lapel pin on backward.
Obama will have no trouble being recognized in China. He's been the top-ranked foreigner in searches on Baidu, China's leading search engine.
Official media low key
But it will take more than making United States history and winning a Nobel Peace Prize to make him a superstar.
"He's special for the Americans, but definitely not for the Chinese," said Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. "On the contrary, we are always influenced by the tone of government-monitored media."
That media, so far, has not played up Obama's visit with the breathlessness of U.S. media — or of Chinese media whenever President Hu Jintao leaves the country.
"He's coming?" asked one clerk at a state-run Xinhua Bookstore, which displayed biographies of Obama and his wife, Michelle, as well as collections of his speeches.
At newsstands in the past week, Obama could be found on the cover of just one magazine: Men's Health.
At Beijing's epicenter of kitsch, the Silk Street market, shop girls giggled at requests for Obama products.
"Obama! She wants Obama!"
"I'm Chinese, I only pay attention to Chinese."
"I don't know him."
"No one have," a young man in a T-shirt stall said in English, before switching to Chinese. "Mao sells better."
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