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Pang Mingtao, whose quirky song “My Skateboard Shoes” shot him to internet stardom in 2014, was recently admitted to a psychiatric hospital in a dramatic rise and fall from fame that intertwines online bullying, Michael Jackson and an obsession with shaking his rural origins

By Qiu Guangyu Updated Jul.1

Pang Mailang performs at a venue in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, January 2016

Pang Mingtao, the eccentric singer-songwriter who is both loved and loathed in China for his apparent unmusicality, was admitted to a psychiatric facility near his home in rural Shanxi Province.  

Pang’s long-time manager Bai Xiao announced in March that the 37-year-old had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and had increasingly been exhibiting violent behavior toward his parents, who he lived with on the family farm.  

Bai said police were called on March 1 when Pang attacked his father with a chair. Five officers came to Pang’s home to escort him to hospital. The episode is the latest in Pang’s long bout with mental health issues, Bai said.  

Pang’s unusual journey in the public eye began in the summer of 2014. His viral hit “My Skateboard Shoes,” which chronicled his search for his dream pair of kicks, garnered immediate attention with its quirky lyrics and signature off-key performance.  

However, Pang remained secretive about his past. Going by the stage names Pang Mailang and Joseeh Pummanlon, he lied in interviews about his upbringing in Ningqiang County, a rural area within the city limits of Hanzhong, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. 

Perhaps his fears were justified. With his fame came ridicule online, where people not only mocked his voice and lack of conventional musical talent but also his heavy rural accent.  

As short video platforms and livestreaming began dominating the internet space and new celebrities surfaced, Pang was sidelined as a one-hit wonder. While he would go on to release more music, interest in him faded. The online bullying, however, continued.  

For Pang, music was way to escape his past and chase a dream for international fame. “Time, time will tell,” he sings in “My Skateboard Shoes.” But so far, the answer that time gave him has been a cruel one.  

Cosmopolitan Dreams 
Pang renames places in his world. In his diaries, he calls his Ningqiang County home “Gulag” and the city of Hanzhong “Gashbeak,” where he declared himself president. In total, Pang gave 292 cities in China a kaleidoscope of exotic sounding names to make them sound more “cosmopolitan.”  

That also goes for himself. Before starting his career, he took the name Joseeh Punmanlon, which he says is short for “Banglastew Gashbeak Shniyack Joseeh Punmanlon.”  

Initially Pang told media he was born in Keelung, Taiwan in 1990. But Pang’s strong rural Shaanxi accent betrayed him. In reality, Pang was born six years earlier in a scenic but impoverished village in Ningqiang County near the border of Sichuan Province.  

Pang was insecure about his origins. “I tried to convince him to be more honest about himself with the public, but he said ‘If I tell people I’m a peasant from a village, would people listen to my music and come to my shows?’” Bai told NewsChina.  

The second son in his family, Pang was a quiet boy who was fond of literature. “He loved modern fiction,” his father told NewsChina.  

In 2008, Pang left his village after high school to look for work. Over the next four years, he found work in nearby Hanzhong, then the giant cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai, mostly at karaoke bars.  

In a 2015 interview, Pang told Chinese magazine People he first heard Michael Jackson’s music while working at a Hanzhong karaoke bar in 2008. Jackson’s work was “so trendy and cosmopolitan,” he said. When a coworker told him that Jackson earned millions from his songs, Pang not only decided he would write music, but set his sights on becoming “China’s most cosmopolitan singer.”  

Sudden Fame 
With dozens of songs written in an old notebook, Pang moved to Beijing in February 2013. There he spent his savings – 6,000 yuan (US$918) – on what turned out to be a subpar demo. Without much money left, Pang slept in 24-hour internet bars and on park benches for months. 

His big break came in September 2013 when he took part in a talent contest held by Beijing-based record company Warsu.  

Pang immediately stood out among the contestants. Despite not having any musical training or apparent vocal talent, the company reps were impressed by Pang’s ambition and unconventional songs.  

Warsu paired Pang with experienced producers for “My Skateboard Shoes.” A combo of cheesy pop synths and autotuned R&B, the song borders on novelty. At the center is Pang’s robotic sing-speak melody with its off-kilter rhythm, giving it an unrehearsed feel. In other words, it sounds like a guy singing karaoke.  

The lyrics tell of Pang’s long-running search for a perfect pair of skate shoes. He looks for them in every city he works. When he finally finds them, he celebrates while shuffling down the moonlit pavement – a nod to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.  

“Rubbing on the smooth ground / like the steps of the devil,” Pang repeats.  

Released on May 27, 2014, the song was an instant hit. It got more than 500,000 views on Weibo in just three days, and soon was topping mainstream music platforms. On the now defunct Xiami Music, it got 8.18 million views. “My Skateboard Shoes” made Pang a star.  

But with its popularity came parody, taunts and criticism, particularly over his out-of-tune singing and heavy regional accent. Many dismissed the song as an internet meme.  

But the sum of “My Skateboard Shoes” is greater than its parts. Some critics and artists recognized its value, interpreting the song as an ode to the diaosi (self-deprecating loser) who struggles to chase his dreams in neon-splashed cities, no matter how small those dreams may be.  

Even Chinese film director Jia Zhangke came to Pang’s defense. “My Skateboard Shoes moved me to tears,” he posted on Weibo in January 2015. “[The line] ‘time, time will tell’ is a precise portrayal of loneliness,” he wrote, adding: “Don’t mock a person for their origins, accent or dandruff. You have them too.”  

In 2016, Hua Chenyu, a respected art-pop vocalist known for his eccentric catalogue, covered “My Skateboard Shoes” on an episode of music variety show The Next. Hua’s stirring performance reacquainted the song’s themes to audiences nationwide.  

Today “My Skateboard Shoes” has an 8.4/10 rating on Douban, China’s leading media review website. The song’s critics have fallen silent as more express their appreciation and empathy for its creator.  

“Having played it 30 times on repeat, I feel that [Pang] is persistent, and a great musician. He is much more honest and lovable than most people,” posted Douban user “RD.”  

“The song delivers a touch of sadness and gritty reality in a seemingly clumsy but actually cosmopolitan way,” RD wrote.  

Forgotten Overnight 
Bai Xiao first met Pang in a recording studio in the autumn of 2015. A singer and published poet, Bai loves folk, particularly the work of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Bai told NewsChina that it was Pang’s humor and lyrics that first resonated with him, and soon they began collaborating.  

In 2016, Bai helped Pang book a 24-show tour of small venues in major cities across China. A poster from the tour shows Pang in a fedora and white shoes doing Jackson’s signature toe stand.  

The first show in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province saw more than 240 people. But as the tour continued, audiences shrank.  

The low point came in March 2017 at a show in Anyang, Henan Province, where only seven people showed up. The next day, media outlets ran a scathing story with the headline “Seven concertgoers, 14 security guards.”  

Pang had no choice but to face a bleak reality: His fame disappeared as quickly as it came.  

He returned to Ningqiang County, living in a small house next to his family. When not performing, Pang helped his parents on the farm.  

In 2020, Taiwanese singer-songwriter Kenji Wu made a documentary about Pang’s life titled Have You Said Thank You with Tears. In one segment, Wu captures the singer working in his room, writing lyrics in an old notebook with a short pencil. On his desk are a laptop, empty beverage bottles and books. Among them is The Manuscripts of Vincent van Gogh.  

Pang admits he has plenty of new songs but no money to produce them – he spent all his earnings on making recordings. “It took me 50,000-60,000 yuan (US$ 7,657-9189) to produce a single song,” Pang said in the documentary.  

The musician also opens up to Wu about his inferiority complex. “To be honest, we [rural people] are underprivileged. We seem so rough and less refined compared with urban people. I’d be content if I was accepted as one of them,” Pang said.  

Although Pang tried to conceal his origins, he was starkly honest in his songs. Since 2014, he has released an eight-track album Old Metal and four singles.  

In them Pang reveals his own struggle of living and working in cities as a migrant worker. In “The Drifting Motorcycle,” Pang sings about how he gets injured in a motorcycle race with fellow workers at a construction site, “Spanish Bull” tells of his dream to become a Spanish matador and “Beggars Sleeping on the Street” recounts his bitter feelings of seeing child beggars in the cities.  

None struck a chord like “The Skateboard Shoes.”  

Like most artists around the world, Covid-19 put the brakes on Pang’s performance schedule. To make ends meet, he and Bai tried promoting a skate shoe brand through livestreaming. After several sessions, however, the two only managed to sell three pairs.  

“Some of the comments were really cruel,” Bai told NewsChina. “One time Pang tried to sing a song during the livestream, when a comment popped up: ‘Forget about your music dreams. Go find some job in a factory.’”  

Bai said the disappointment toward his music career, combined with his sudden fall from fame and merciless mockery, were ultimately too much for Pang. As his mental health deteriorated, Pang became increasingly aggressive and paranoid.  

In the winter of 2019, he attacked Bai by trying to gouge his eyes out. Pang carried a knife on him at all times, in fear his friends and family were trying to murder him.  

Pang was first hospitalized briefly in late 2020, where doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia. He checked himself out after three days, saying he had a performance soon. Of course it was an excuse. There were no more shows to play.  

Bai compares Pang to another tortured soul, Vincent van Gogh. “He is innocent, if not naïve. His biggest strength is that he is stubborn, but to a fault – sometimes he is too stubborn,” Bai said. 

Pang Mailang’s home in Ningqiang County, Hanzhong, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province