It all happens quite seamlessly. You’re at Tha Pae Gate on a peaceful Saturday morning. The square is mostly empty save for a few stray tourists, some street vendors, and a flock of pigeons. Then a frail old man with a puffy gray beard casually rides along your line of sight on his three-wheel bicycle. He stops, looks at you, smiles, and opens his arms wide, revealing the design on the oversized t-shirt he’s wearing, which reads “free hugs” in over a dozen different languages. You know what you’re supposed to do next, but understandably you might hesitate a bit. He’s a scruffy man in his early 50s, and looks like he might be homeless. But he has kindness in his eyes, and gives you a head nod to let you know it’s alright. You open your arms and it happens: a hug. Stepping back, returning to your day slightly changed, you may wonder why people don’t do that sort of thing more often. It’s kind of nice.
Luciano Pozzi, 54, has been giving free hugs to weary tourists and locals in Chiang Mai, Thailand every day since last Christmas. In just one year, he’s easily become part of the Tha Pae Gate experience; for many, he’s considered a worthy reason to visit Chiang Mai. “You are famous in China!” shouts an excited young tourist. I’m standing beside Luciano at his usual spot as the girl inches towards him for a hug. The two strike up a conversation about where she comes from and what’s brought her to Chiang Mai. “Can I take a picture?” she asks. “Of course.” They pose together and she continues on her way. That’s how it usually goes.
Born in Medona, Italy on Valentine’s Day, 1960, Luciano has lived most of his life as a recluse. From a very young age, he was cursed with an unstable home environment that’s stayed with him throughout his life. “My family is a little bit destroyed,” he explains. “My father died at a very early age. My sister died two years ago. My family and friends screwed me over many times, abandoned me, so I preferred to be alone.”
In his mid-30s, Luciano sold his home in Italy and used the money to move to India, where he lived by himself for 17 years. “I didn’t like people, I didn’t want to talk to them,” he says. “I decided I needed to be free for myself, so I left.” About five years ago, Luciano had a bad motorcycle accident in India which left him paralysed. He went to Italy for medical care but they told him he wasn’t going to be able to walk again. “They said I was going to be in a wheelchair for life,” he recalls. “I would say ‘I want to get up.’ ‘No, no, you sit here. This is your place.’”
Luciano was determined to move again, so he went to Chiang Mai to check out a Chinese medicine clinic he heard about called Mungkala in the hopes of recovering. For 500 baht a session, a couple days each week, he began to receive acupuncture treatment. “I improved slowly and slowly. Before I walked with two sticks, after I walked with one stick. Now with the bicycle I’ve gotten better.” Luciano lived primarily in India during this time, but would make periodic trips to Chiang Mai for treatment. His foray into free hugs didn’t begin until last December, a few days before Christmas, when he stumbled upon an English man at Tha Pae Gate on his way to Mungkala. The man was at the plaza with his wife and friends giving out free hugs for the holiday season. He spotted Luciano alone and asked him to join them. “I explained the situation to him,” recalls Luciano. “I told him I don’t like people, I like to be alone.
He told me, ‘We’ll make you forget about being alone.’ He opened the door for me. It’s very nice to hug people. You talk, you exchange experiences.” On Christmas Eve of last year, Luciano’s life took an astounding new turn: he decided to give out free hugs on his own. He remembers hugging a Thai soldier on his first day. “If my friends from Italy see the picture of me hugging police, they would think I’ve gone crazy!” he laughs, recalling the time back in Italy when he got into an argument with a young police officer that commanded his respect. Luciano, not the type to give respect when respect isn’t due, fought the officer and was sent to jail. “In Italy, I beat the police. In Thailand, I hug the police,” he jokes.
Rise to Fame
Most people that actively seek out Luciano know him from his Facebook page, which he hasn’t been able to access since his tablet broke a few months ago. However, thanks to his visitors, he’s found that he doesn’t actually need to anymore. In almost every picture with a smiling tourist, he holds up a sign with the web address to his Facebook page. Visitors frequently post pictures they take with him on his page, thereby keeping it updated.
He also keeps a poster with him that has all the best wishes from the people he’s met. They’re welcome to add “free hugs” in their own language to the poster if it isn’t already there, although this doesn’t happen often, considering he has “free hugs” written in over 20 different languages at this point. Oftentimes, people ask Luciano if they can buy his Free Hugs T-shirt, but he’s made them only for himself. They cost about 300 baht each to make and he’s considered investing some money in them and starting a business, but the idea of monetising free hugs makes him uncomfortable. He’d rather keep it, well, free.
The Perks of Free Hugs
Luciano is a small man with a wiry body and his accident has made it difficult for him to walk and move his arms, so the physical demand of free hugs can take its toll on him. “I walk out of my dormitory and immediately there are four or five people I need to hug,” he says. “In the evening time I’m tired, sure, but I enjoy it.” And indeed, while it may sound to some like a bunch of hippy dippy silliness, studies show that hugging actually has a calculable effect on the body, causing the release of the hormone oxytocin which makes us feel warm and safe.
It can have healing components to it as well and is a powerful hormone for connecting with people. One time, Luciano was filmed for a short documentary about his life by a Chinese filmmaker. They spent the entire day on the square capturing hugs on camera. He swears he hugged at least 200 people that day from dawn to dusk. “Sometimes, 16 hours I’m out here to hug people from 9 am to 1 a m. It starts to be like a job, but I would never call it a job. I enjoy it too much,” he says with a smile.
While I’m chatting with Luciano at Tha Pae Gate, an Australian man joins us. Luciano introduces him to me. “This man, I met two weeks ago,” he says. “Every day I meet him and we have coffee or something.” Luciano has made many friends through his free hugs campaign, some of whom come back to Chiang Mai with gifts. “There’s a Japanese guy that’s massaged my hands with oil, another girl brought me cheese and crackers from Italy,” he recalls. While he used to get acupuncture treatment on a daily basis, he cannot afford it on his own anymore. He gets about 10,000 baht per month from his pension in Italy. Sometimes, people will give him money which he uses for treatment when he can.
Why He Does It
I ask Luciano if people ever object to free hugs and he says yes, telling me about instance involving an older Italian woman that was against the idea…at first. “She goes, ‘No, no, no I don’t want that.’ I told her, ‘Come on, come on!’ We started to hug and the next day she sent me a picture of our hug. For many days, she came back for free hugs.” Since he’s been doing it so long, Luciano can tell a good hug from a bad hug. “There are many different kinds,” he tells me. Sometimes, he gets the awkward huggers with little ex perience or the nervous types that aren’t sure whether hugging an old man in Chiang Mai is okay or not. Their hugs are tense and rigid.
Other times, it’s the complete opposite: the travellers that are simply excited to be there swoop in for a hug before Luciano can even put his sign down. These are easily his favourite. “One day, I was here and a big man with a beard pointed at me, took off his jacket, took off his shirt, and under that shirt was another shirt that said ‘Free Hugs.’ He gave me one beautiful hug. I get hugs that I never got from my family or my son.” Luciano won’t be leaving Tha Pae Gate anytime soon. For the first time in his life, he has found something that truly feels right. “Every day I do free hugs,” he says with a slow smile. “I have this very nice thing. It changed my life.”
This Christmas, the 25th of December, Luciano will host a very special Free Hug Holiday Gathering at Tha Pae Gate. All are welcome. www.facebook.com/luciano.pozzi.940