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An exceptional ordinary figure among skaters

By LI HONGYANG | China Daily | Updated: 2020-10-06 09:26
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Ji dances on the ice to music from white headphones connected to his MP3 player. [Photo/CHINA DAILY]

Ji Kaifeng has been a regular at an ice rink in a Beijing shopping mall for 21 years.

Staffers say the 75-year-old shows up at around 10 am nearly every day, like a white-collar worker clocking in at the office.

If there aren't many people standing by the rail to watch when he arrives, he sits and waits for more to come. He enjoys being the focus of attention on the ice.

"I'm only in the mood to skate when there's an audience," he said.

The rink is located in an underground floor of a shopping mall near the Guomao subway station. Groups of passengers stop and watch skaters, who move like fish swimming in a pool.

Ji is easily identifiable.

He dances on the ice to music from white headphones connected to his MP3 player, listening mostly to Russian folk songs. He usually wears an oversized T-shirt tucked into a pair of wide-legged gray suit pants. Ji doesn't have the best form. Sometimes, his legs shake as he struggles for balance. Stunts like spins and jumps are difficult for him.

Ning Fang, a coach at the rink, said: "His movements aren't fluid. They're even a little clumsy. But his bodily expressions and devotion to his performance are pretty eye-catching."

A 10-second video that a subway passenger posted on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, of Ji skating on the rink in July received over 8,000 likes.

In the video, he dances to the song Merry Christmas, Mr Laurence, the theme song of the eponymous film. The top comment said, "It's really good to see him living in his own world at that moment."

Ji began to practice speed skating when he was 8 and has learned figure skating from age 55.

At first, none of the rink's professional coaches dared to teach figure skating to a man of such an age for fear of injury. However, he kept persuading them of his passion and good health. Coach Li Yan finally agreed to work with him.

Li said that Ji works hard and always asks if he's making progress.

"He goes directly to the coach's office whenever he has a question," Li said.

Ji said he knows he can't jump higher or move faster on the ice but still wants to learn new moves.

"I still want to jump and enjoy the feeling of being in the air," he said.

"I don't want to be like other elderly people. They use carts to transport necessities. I can carry bags of rice on my own."

Ji also focuses on aesthetics-hence his flamboyant costumes.

While skating to Russian songs, he wears Russian Cossac nomads' attire.

And he wears large, wrinkled sleeves to appear "like a flying white butterfly" when he performs to the Chinese song, Butterfly Lovers.

He used to work as a cultural-relics photographer at the Palace Museum and later took pictures for a space agency.

His last job before retirement was to snap photos at meetings for a foreign-trade company. "My job was boring," he recalled. "I was tired and busy just to earn a living. Now, I can do what I really like."

In 1990, Ji's son died from a heart attack at age 15.

For the next decade, he experienced a reoccurring dream in which he and his wife bathed their baby boy.

He has spent half a year dealing with his wife's passing in 2019.

"It's the way of nature. I have nothing to complain about," he said.

"Ultimately, I have to cheer up. Skating makes me forget everything and feel happy. When I feel down, I skate more-about two hours a day."

He spends most of his 10,000 yuan ($1,478) monthly pension to support his skating and painting, which he calls his "spiritual life".

He never eats out. He drinks grape juice in summer and Erguotou, a brand of Chinese liquor, in winter.

He doesn't have a cellphone-just a landline at home for his only sister to call him. He knows several acquaintances from the rink and his painting classes but never contacts them. "They all have their own families and lives."

He has never become friends with anyone on the ice rink during his 21 years of skating.

Sometimes, Li and other coaches worry if Ji doesn't come for a while. But they dare not call him.

"It's common for people his age experience health problems. But we don't want to think that way," Li said.

Ji said that many people ask if he's lonely.

"I consider that question silly. My life is happy. I'm lucky," he said.

"I've gained insight into life through skating because I chase what I love and follow my heart."

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