Zhao Yuanwu, a garbage collector also known online as "Brother Whistle", guides students across the street in front of a primary school in Huizhou on Jan 6. [Photo/China Daily]
HUIZHOU, Guangdong - About one year ago, a man wearing a big yellow-green whistle around his neck suddenly appeared in the middle of the crosswalk in front of No 15 Primary School in Huizhou, Guangdong province.
He began blowing the whistle to stop traffic while gesturing for students to cross the road.
At times he angrily banged on the hood of cars when drivers ignored his commands. At times he had to grab students who refused to cross safely.
Many wondered about the man in the crosswalk.
Now, 21-year-old Zhao Yuanwu has become one of the most revered people in the city. People online even kindly refer to the Huizhou native as "Brother Whistle" for his voluntary year-round presence in front of the school.
"He behaves so responsibly and always arrives before my own shift," said a traffic officer surnamed Lin with the Xiajiao traffic police detachment of the Huizhou Traffic Police Division.
Zhao works four shifts a day - like a real traffic officer: 7:10 am when the pupils go to school; 11:10 am when morning school finishes; 2:10 pm when the other half of the school day begins and 4:10 pm when the first group of children leave the schoolyard.
Lin said Zhao's manners have improved a lot over the past year.
"He learns quickly. But I hope he takes more care of himself. He seems to be unaware of the danger when he stands in the middle of the street," Lin said.
When he is not directing traffic, Zhao, who has a slight mental disability, collects waste paper or plastic bottles around the Xiajiao community. He once worked in a nearby factory.
In his unclear voice, Zhao explains that his mother has passed away and "(my) father works outside during the day time So no one is at home in the day".
Zhao always appears quietly, seemingly out of nowhere. Then suddenly they all hear his whistle.
In dark blue ragged sports pants, he raises his right hand with palm straight and fingers spread to stop the cars. Then he waves his arm to the children waiting on the roadside.
"Hurry! Hurry! Stop!" he shouts loudly and clearly.
Three years ago, no one paid this much attention to crosswalk safety. That was until a grandmother and her grandson leaving school were hit and killed while crossing a road, an accident that shocked the city of Huizhou.
After that, the municipal government decided to strengthen student safety by sending traffic police to every primary school gate. Yet sometimes one traffic officer has to be responsible for several schools.
So Zhao takes charge of the whole road until the officer comes. Then he works like an assistant. He blows his whistle in time with the officer, and as the policeman stops cars on one side of the crosswalk, he has already made cars on the other side stop.
After the officer finishes his usual 10-minute shift at the crosswalk, Zhao continues and doesn't leave his position until he sees all the students safely across.
Almost every resident from the neighborhood likes him, especially the students.
"Even though he looks ragged, he acts like a real traffic officer. I like listening to his directions," said Liao Yican, a Grade 1 student in the school. "Every day he helps me cross the street three times."
Before beginning his voluntary shift, Zhao comes to a snack shop across from the primary school and orders a bowl of vegetarian rice noodles with pork feet, costing him 4 yuan (60 cents).
"Rice and vegetables are just too expensive for me," Zhao said.
Sometimes passing teachers or neighbors stop the older children from teasing or bullying him.
An art teacher in the school surnamed He observed: "he deserves more respect than most of us."