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Ebb and flow

Chinese artist Zeming Zhao equates his life in America with that of a fish in water: He is free to go where he wants. But he also is at the mercy of the current.

Published February 21, 2006

[Times photos: Lance Aram Rothstein]
This painting portrays one of the artist’s favorite subjects.
Zeming Zhao, who came to the United States from his native China in 1996, paints at Gulf View Square in Port Richey.
Zeming’s father taught art but cautioned him not to become a painter because it wouldn’t pay the bills. For Zeming, there was no choice.

PORT RICHEY -- Every morning, a 56-year-old Chinese man steps out of his mobile home and pedals his blue bicycle to work beside the rush of U.S. 19. Zeming Zhao makes the 20-minute ride to Gulf View Square mall and opens a small kiosk in front of the food court.

Other kiosks display T-shirts, cell phones and skin care products, but Zeming offers something more personal. Most of the people who pass by, clutching their shopping bags, don't notice the man surrounded by his paintings.

They don't know what he has gone through to be here, how far he has traveled.


* * *


Zeming grew up more than 8,000 miles from Florida, in Taishan City, China. As a teenager, he dreamed of being an artist, and of being free.

But in 1964, the world around him was in turmoil. Mao Tse-tung had amassed troops along the border with Vietnam. China had tested its first atomic bomb.

But Zeming saw art in everything around him. He didn't want to eat or sleep, only to practice his artwork. He painted, sculpted, even wrote poetry. Practicing these skills was his life.

"I dreamt about it," he says, looking back on those days. "I thought if I could be an artist, I could make all the world really beautiful."

Zeming's father was an art instructor, but he didn't want his son to follow that path. Zeming persuaded his father to teach him the skills, but he was given constant warnings that "artists go hungry." At night he would practice brush strokes until his hands ached. Only then would he rest and turn to his other fascination: learning English. Risking imprisonment, he secretly listened to BBC broadcasts from Hong Kong, using them as his English lessons. He believed this would lead him to a better life.

After schooling, Zeming did become an artist, selling his paintings wherever he could. But he found it difficult.

"China was not a free country," he says. "For my dream, I need freedom."

The officials, he says, were corrupt, and he was prevented from showing his artwork because he didn't have political connections or money for bribes. He recalls one time when police knocked over his table and forced him out of the area for not making a payoff. There was no justice.

Zeming saved for years and years. He tried to make an artist's living, traveling through every province, but he struggled while other artists with political ties became successful. To make ends meet, Zeming sometimes worked as a laborer.

"A few times I had to quit my artist job," he recalls. "It was really, really hard on my heart. You'd see an over-40-year-old man just cry, cry, cry."

Zeming promised himself that if he could, he would practice his artwork until the end of his life. His friends and family saw great potential in his talent, so in 1996 they gathered enough money to send him to the United States. The first of his family to come to this country, Zeming had heard of the openness of America his whole life. But the oppression of other places had made him a skeptic. Maybe all the talk of freedom was just for publicity, he thought. But as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles, he sensed the difference.

"I thought, everything and everyone is so peaceful here . . . This is my destiny."

* * *

Just before 10 a.m., as the rest of Gulf View Square is coming to life, Zeming takes out his paints and brushes and a small stack of paper.

Everything is laid out just so within the 4- by 4-foot space he rents. Prominently displayed are the Chinese-style name paintings he specializes in. Each letter of a person's name is shaped like a colorful bird or butterfly or bamboo tree, etc. These are the paintings he uses to try to make a living.

But at his kiosk he also shows off a few of the works he paints to express something deeper. All of them are images from nature. One, titled Splendid Mountain and Water, shows his delicate brush stroke. Other pieces feature expertly styled groupings of shrimp, plants and especially fish.

As the mall traffic goes by, Zeming sits quietly. Normally, he is reserved. But when a customer actually stops and notices one of his works, his face breaks into a smile.

* * *

In 1997, shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles, Zeming wanted to celebrate his newfound freedom using his brush. He continuously painted images of fish, a metaphor for his new life. In China, he explains, he felt like a caged bird. In America, he felt like a fish, free to swim wherever he wanted.

"The fish is me," he says. "Now I am in water."

Unrestricted, he worked on his new paintings. Traveling around the West Coast, he saw old friends and made new ones, selling his artwork wherever he could. Soon, a phone call summoned Zeming to Florida, where a friend was making easy money at a theme park called Splendid China. So Zeming packed up his supplies and made the trek across the country.

Zeming's friend was right. There was money to be made in Florida, and Zeming received many commissions. He also became engaged to Frances Ayala, a Puerto Rican woman born in New York. Soon he was making wedding plans and moving to Manhattan to meet his in-laws-to-be. He and Frances were married in August 2001.

After the wedding, he fell in love with New York City. He soon found a place in the financial district that would be the perfect location to display his artwork. It had lots of pedestrian traffic and an international flavor. He finally spoke to someone about setting up a table among the other artisans and merchants, then spent all evening walking around the area and imagining how great it would be.

The next morning he awoke at 8 and went with his wife to a Chinese restaurant for tea and to discuss their plans. Then he looked up at the television. The exact place where he had been until midnight the evening before was crumbling to the ground. It was the morning of Sept. 11. Zeming, along with millions of others, watched as the World Trade Center was reduced to rubble and dust.

Today, thinking back on those images, Zeming still breaks into tears.

After 9/11, he and his wife were afraid of more terrorism and decided to return to Florida, where Zeming had purchased a small mobile home in Port Richey.

* * *

Sitting beside his kiosk at the mall, Zeming watches the shoppers walking by. Occasionally, they glance his way. Most just keep going. To stay awake, he plays solitaire on his computer.

During the holiday season, business was brisk. Many people saw his paintings as a perfect, one-of-a-kind Christmas gift, so Zeming stayed busy filling orders. But at $15 or $20 per painting, he was barely able to make ends meet. Now, with holiday shoppers long gone, business is very slow. Money is running out.

At the end of each day, he packs up his paints and brushes, takes his meager earnings, if any, and pedals home to his wife.

Soon his mobile home park will be demolished to build a hotel and restaurant. When that happens, Zeming is not sure where he and Frances will go. They don't have enough money to move, and he is afraid they may become homeless.

For now, Zeming still feels free to do what he wants. So he will continue to keep the promise he made to himself back in China. He will be an artist. His hand will hold a brush. The brush will move across the page. The fish will swim forward.

-- Lance Aram Rothstein can be reached at (727) 514-0956 or

[Last modified February 23, 2006, 03:51:29]

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