Handsome Chinese vagrant draws fans of 'homeless chic'

Identity of 'Brother Sharp' – dubbed China's coolest man – remains a mystery

The photograph shows a starkly handsome Chinese man walking with a model's measured gait, and wearing a rag-tag but well co-ordinated overcoat on top of a leather jacket. His eyes peer into the middle distance, in what one fan described as "a deep and penetrating way", and he strides confidently forward.

But this is no catwalk model. This is a homeless man in the city of Ningbo. And now a band of web followers are calling him the coolest man in China.

His good looks and bohemian dress sense have won him thousands of online fans after a resident of Ningbo posted a picture online. Web users in China have called him the "Beggar Prince", the "Handsome Vagabond", and, most often, "Brother Sharp".

He is 5ft 8in, around 35 years old, and always has a cigarette between his fingers. He also appears to have a fondness for women's clothes, which has only served to fuel his status as a fashion icon. His good looks are reminiscent of popular Asian actors like Takeshi Kaneshiro or the Oscar- nominated Ken Watanabe.

One particularly striking picture juxtaposes Brother Sharp's with a model showing the latest Dolce & Gabbana collection. "Look at him wrinkle his brow... nothing needs to be said... sexy...", ran one comment on the Tianyu site.

Another wrote: "He doesn't really look like a beggar, more like a vagabond. The quality of this person's tops are all not bad, a down jacket, cotton jacket, even a leather jacket inside, and though they're a bit dirty, they're all in good condition, not the kind that beggars find from the trash."

The suggestion that homelessness can be cool chimes with a fashion trend that many have considered tasteless: in January, the designer Vivienne Westwood presented a "homeless chic" show in which models were styled to look like rough sleepers, a move prefigured by Ben Stiller's satirical film Zoolander, which featured a similar show called Derelicte. Two years ago the supermodel Erin Wasson revealed the homeless were her fashion inspiration, saying: "When I... see the homeless, like, I'm like, 'Oh my God, they're pulling out, like, crazy looks and they, like, pull shit out of like garbage cans.'"

But anyone with similar designs on Brother Sharp's sartorial tips is out of luck. His identity remains a secret, and social workers in Ningbo say they want to keep it that way. "Homeless people are vulnerable. It is incorrect to use them for entertainment purposes," said one worker at a homeless centre in Ningbo. Brother Sharp is said to appear mentally disturbed when approached on the street.

In China, begging is technically illegal, as the Communist Party-run state provides all a citizen could need. In reality, the rapid development of the Chinese economy in the last 30 years has marginalised many.

The rumours surrounding Brother Sharp's true identity persist. Some say he is a university graduate who lost his mind after his girlfriend left him. Others have blogged about how they sought him out and tried to help him find work or to go back to his family, but that he appeared frightened and cried out without speaking.

The local government in Ningbo said it had a policy of looking after the homeless, and that it would extend the same treatment to Mr Sharp.