Is it Mao? Is it Che? In China it's Obama

His approval ratings may be plummeting at home but in China, US President Barack Obama is king - or at least the kitsch products bearing his likeness are.

Take a stroll down a hutong - narrow alley - lined with shops in the capital city Beijing and you will see Mr Obama dressed up in communist garb staring at you from a sling bag, coin pouch, T-shirt and even a paper fan.

Selling products with Mr Obama's image is not new. Few would forget Shepard Fairey's blue, red and beige poster of the now President during his 2008 election campaign with the word "HOPE".

Obama stands out among the bright brollies.
Obama stands out among the bright brollies. Photo: Glenda Kwek

But the Obama kitsch in Beijing is influenced by a different source altogether - Mao Zedong, the father of Communist China.

Chairman Mao kitsch has been all the rage in China for some years, and during my week-long visit to Beijing in June, I saw Mao memorabilia everywhere. There was even Mao's face depicted in stained glass.

I came across the term "cult of personality" while studying about the former Soviet Union in high school, so perhaps it's not surprising Mao's mug has graced everything from clocks to bobbleheads.

Man of the moment,, Barack Obama.
Man of the moment,, Barack Obama. Photo: Glenda Kwek

But Mr Obama? What made the Chinese so fond of the American leader they call him "Obamao"? So much so that T-shirts bearing the moniker were banned by the Chinese government in 2009 when Mr Obama visited, fearing they would cause offence.

Associate Professor Feng Chongyi of the University of Technology, Sydney's China Research Centre said Chinese fondness for Mr Obama grew from his links with developing countries through his Kenyan father and childhood stint in Indonesia.

"During the Mao years, he campaigned for the cause of the Third World. And Obama is seen as coming from the Third World, so the Chinese regarded him as one of them," Associate Professor Feng said.

But he hastened to add that during Mr Obama's 2009 visit to China, the President was not warmly welcomed by the authorities.

The allure of Mao, on the other hand, changed over the years, Associate Professor Feng added. While Mao was alive, he was worshipped for his political prowess. The Chinese both respected and feared him. But following his death in 1976, Mao became a religious figure.

"They've sort of turned him into a god that provides protection because he was so powerful when he was in power," Associate Professor Feng said.

And Mr Obama is not the only foreigner to receive the kitsch treatment in China. As I walked through one hutong, I saw a paper fan sporting the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's face beside the caption: "Do not miss me, I'm already a legend."

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