It all started about three months ago. Duncan Scowen was doing his usual busking gig outside a supermarket when a man approached him and, sheepishly asked him if he could take some money.
"I don't know for sure if he was homeless but he did look like he needed money," he recalls.
"Yeah, man, go hard... What the heck," Duncan replied. He could tell the man was incredibly embarrassed and wanted to put him at ease and show him it was ok to ask for help.
That's when he had this idea: if he wrote a sign letting people know they could just take money, maybe they wouldn't be so embarrassed to ask.
"If you need $, please take what you need," the cardboard sign resting on his guitar bag reads.
It worked. Over the last three months, people have helped themselves to small amounts of money from his bag while he is out singing his songs. No questions asked.
The 20-year-old, originally from Rotorua, moved to Auckland about three years ago, to be with the girl he loved. It was a big brave step but it paid off: Duncan and Gaby are still happy and in love, and have moved in together.
When he got to Auckland, Duncan needed to earn some money so he did what he knew how to do best: he picked up his guitar and started singing outside spots with decent foot traffic. He lives in Torbay, north of Auckland, but goes busking all around the bays, from Takapuna to Brown's Bay.
It's no big money maker but busking earns him enough to support himself. "Most days I go for a busk," he says. Duncan plays his guitar and sings for about three or four hours every time. On a good day, he might go home with $200, other times the singing only gets him about $40.
"If the sun isn't shining, not many people are smiling," he says. "It's a gamble sometimes on what you're gonna make."
He wouldn't have it any other way.
"It takes a lot of confidence to start busking," he tells the Herald. His friendly personality means he is quick to befriend people wherever he goes. He no longer needs to ask the New World supermarket in Browns Bay for permission to busk. He used to ask every day and then the manager told him he didn't need to ask. "They're really good to me," he says.
Those who know him know that his generosity is no stunt. "Definitely one of the most genuine guys I have met and always looking out for others," a friend wrote about him.
"We are very proud of him and so blessed to have in our family," his grandmother weighed in. His mum also spoke of her pride on Facebook: "so proud to be your mum," she wrote. "Be a blessing by blessing others, well done son."
"I had a lot of help growing up," Duncan says. "So I just love to help."
"It takes a lot of courage to ask for money. People struggle to ask so I just try to make them feel welcome. I know they need it so it makes me feel good when they take it."
It's a trust-based system, for sure, but the busker believes only those who truly need it ever take his money. "If you didn't need it, you wouldn't put yourself through that, to be seen taking money from a guy busking."
He also believes more people are willing to give them money when they see someone else taking money so, in the end, there's a kind of balance in his generosity that means he doesn't miss out for helping others.
For Duncan, that's not even the most important thing. Money aside, as long as he earns enough to support himself, he's a happy man. "I just want to continue music and any path it takes me on."
A local star is born
On Friday, a video captured by a New World shopper who walked past Scowen while he sang hit the local Facebook group and was an instant success. "How sweet and kind this young talented man is... I was not expected to read this and I'm blown away by his kindness and talent," Sonia Mnc posted with the video.
"He totally represents the real New Zealand," she added.
Others agreed. "What an awesome young man," someone commented. "Made my day," another person said.
The video was viewed more than 9,000 times in under 20 hours on Facebook as many heard of Scowen's kindness for the first time.
Sonia didn't expect the video to be so popular but thinks Duncan deserves every bit of recognition.
"I was on my way to get things for a picnic when I heard him sing. I looked and was amazed, just blown away, by his card. It was the kindest thing I've ever seen," the Browns Bay resident told the Herald.
"I couldn't stop thinking about how awesome he was so got some cash out for him on my way out. I then asked him to take the video. He was very friendly, lovely young man."
Sonia hopes "New Zealand falls in love with him", his "lovely voice" and his kindness. "We need more people like him, he brings sunshine to everyone's days."