Illustration Graham Roumieu
European-Chinese relations seem to be hitting a high note on a fall afternoon in Brussels, as workers carefully dress a statue named Julien— the so-called “first citizen” of Belgium—in a traditional red leather Chinese outfit crafted by the finest tailor in Haining, a town in Zhejiang Province. As a brass band plays and Haining’s vice-mayor beams before a large crowd, a Brussels councilman declares the outfit “one of the most beautiful costumes Julien has ever received.” And that’s saying a lot, because Julien has worn many outfits—at last count, more than 820, many of which are on display at the city museum. On some days he’s a butcher, others Christopher Columbus, a Roman emperor or Mickey Mouse.
Better known as Manneken Pis (which means “little boy peeing” in Dutch), Julien is a two-foot-tall bronze figure representing a little boy urinating into fountain on Rue de l’Etuve; he’s also the most famous landmark in Belgium, a tiny, 390-year-old cherub surrounded by gawkers toting digital cameras. Sort of the Bart Simpson of 17th century Belgium, Julien is based on several folkloric tales that involve a quick-thinking young lad thwarting a siege of Brussels by dousing the attackers’ lit fuse. Say what you will, but to the thousands of municipalities and trade unions around the world that petition Brussels to dress Julien in their favored garb, he may be the most sought-after mannequin since Twiggy.
“We’re so proud of little Julien,” says a beaming Belgian bystander at the Haining ceremony. “Just by wearing clothes, he makes the world a better place.” —GILLIAN TELLING