Tao Qingjian has problems. Five-foot-six and bent from decades of being hunched over an anvil, Tao is the city’s last woksmith, making beautiful iron woks by hand. He doesn’t have a shop. For the past seventeen years, he’s worked on a gritty stretch of sidewalk – his business consists of an awning, a hand-made sign, and a handful of tools. The waiting list for a Tao wok is a month long. He’s built a life and a business on a cluster of paving stones, in a compromise with the chengguan, the code enforcement officers. For seventeen years, he has promised not to start hammering before noon. For seventeen years, the truce has held.
But Tao’s agreement is starting to fray.
I first met Tao after spending time with the Cen brothers, a pair of second-generation wokmakers whose woks garnered some acclaim. The brothers weren’t big on talking. The older one would spend fifteen minutes explaining to me that he was so busy he couldn’t spare fifteen minutes to talk. I would eventually spend more than 10 years visiting them off and on, and the only emotion they ever displayed was impatience.
The Cen brothers first heat their iron discs and then hammer out the basic shape while the metal is malleable. For many years, I visited, thinking they were the last wokmakers in Shanghai. In that time, their woks had become cult items on the internet. Williams-Sonoma picked their woks up, selling them for a markup. (I asked the Cens one day why they didn’t raise their prices. They shook their heads and explained that their dad set the price of a wok by pegging it to the price of a 50-bag of rice, and that’s what they’ve done ever since.) Their fans, including cookbook author Grace Young, insist that the heating process makes them far superior to machine-made wok, and much easier to develop the all-important patina. One theory has it that the micro-abrasions on the surface of a handmade wok are better able to trap oil particles, which then form a better patina. By contrast, the surface of a machine-made wok is too smooth to trap those oil particles and so can’t develop a proper patina. I had a more shallow reason: I simply found the Cens' woks beautiful, and I appreciated that; in an era of industrialization, they were handmade.
So it came as a surprise when after almost a decade of visiting the Cens, they derisively mentioned another wokmaker, one who, they smirked, hammered his iron cold. I had to beg for an address, a neighborhood, a district, a goddamn cardinal direction, at least.
This was Tao and I found him sitting in a lawn chair on the side of road, a few silver-colored woks and a mess of blacksmith’s tools spread out in front of him. It was late morning and compared to the non-stop hammering I had just come from at the Cen’s workshop, I was a bit skeptical that he wasn’t just a charlatan having a picnic. A radio chattered away from a hanging tool belt. Yes, he sold woks, he told me.
Yes, he made them here, though it took a while to register, as I looked around for a furnace or some other way to soften the discs of shiny iron. We talked for a while and then he got into position, bent over his anvil, a glove stuck on his shoe, which he used to hold the metal in place. He picked up one of his hammers, a thick slug of steel sitting on top of a very short wooden handle, and he began pounding the iron. Slowly but surely a wok began to take shape.
Tao began making woks in the '80s, moonlighting while working days at an iron factory. In his spare time, he taught himself to make woks through trial-and-error, selling them at cost or even giving them away in order to build a reputation. Picking up an extra skill proved prescient when the wave of lay-offs came, part of the massive restructuring of state-owned enterprises in the early '90s. The political slogans of the day were about “resolving unemployment.” When the police bothered him about his work, he pulled out an official letter from the Shanghai Casting and Forging Factory, proving that he had been laid off. The implication was that here was a man resolving his own unemployment, one wok at a time.
Meeting Tao set me off on a search for other wokmakers in Shanghai. Tao mentioned a guy near People’s Square. Wasn’t he still there? he asked, and, oh, he heard there was an older master somewhere in Pudong, but he didn’t come out often these days. I started downtown, a couple blocks west of the city government, where I found a wok storeroom on the top floor of an old lane house. A middle-aged woman sitting in the dark explained that her father used to make woks in the front yard, but since he died, they hired out the business to a village in Zhejiang. The woks were identical; they looked machine-made.
A friend canvassed Pudong on a scooter. She followed the telltale ding!-ding!-ding! to an itinerant wokmaker, working on the sidewalk in a pair of boxer shorts and nothing else, but he ran off the minute she asked questions.
My last lead was for a wokmaker in the northern part of the city, and by now, I knew what I was looking for: a marginalized part of the city, a neighborhood in transition, ideally along the border of two districts, where code enforcement might be ambiguous. I walked down a narrow alley, past the ruins of buildings that had been partially torn down, until I heard signs of life in one of the houses. Woks? I asked. Sure enough, there were still a few holdouts living in these buildings, waiting for higher compensation for the destruction of their house. A grandfather pulled out the keys to a storeroom. Woks of all sizes sat in the dark. I looked at one. The surface was stamped, smooth, machine-made. I don’t what he was doing with 500 woks in a half-demolished neighborhood with no running water, but it was a dead end.
By the late '90s, business had picked up and Tao was working overtime to make five or six woks a day, three hours per wok. It was a living, not a craft, but it paid his bills with enough left over for his daughter’s clarinet lessons. The chengguan were friendly and when he lost one workspace they helped him find another, as long as he promised not to start hammering before noon. Yes, there had been a lot of other bumps in the road – a sudden illness that paralyzed him for months; paying his daughter’s college tuition – and in more than one of our conversations, Tao cried while reflecting on the last couple decades of his life. But things were generally going well. Slowly and imperceptibly, his work had gone from lowly trade to cultural heritage in the eyes of at least some city officials. Once in a while, a newspaper would interview him. New customers found him and old ones returned, and the waiting list for a Tao wok stretched to several weeks. He had persevered long enough to become more than just a worker, but a craftsman.
December 2016 was a bad month for woksmiths. After more than 70 years, the Cen brothers closed the family business. Rumors had swirled through the neighborhood for years that several blocks would be torn down, and in December, it finally came to pass. The Cen brothers, ever stoic, had little to say about it. They don’t plan to re-open the business. What will you do?, I asked the younger brother, a broad-chested man with a massive right arm. He shook his head and looked away.
“Maybe drive a taxi,” he said.
For Tao, December brought news that a Big Official from the Central Government would be visiting the district, and the chengguan offered to help Tao clean up his workshop – just temporarily, they promised – taking down his sign and his awning. And, by the way, would he mind taking a month off? After decades on the street, Tao is nothing if not practical, and he knew the relationship was give-and-take, so he cooperated, letting the orders for his woks pile up. But by the time he came back in January, things were different. Suddenly, the chengguan were not so friendly. They no longer saw him as the laid-off blacksmith, struggling to feed his family, but as an illegal businessman “improperly using the sidewalk” and disturbing the neighbors. Conveniently, a rash of new noise complaints emerged. The police began to come by more often.
A work report appeared on the Hongkou district website about the “blacksmith problem”.
That was where things stood on a recent visit, where I found Tao crouched over a wok in a nearby alleyway. The sidewalk was clear but Tao was anything but. Tears welled up in his eyes as he explained his recent problems. His wife pulled out clippings from magazines he’s been in, and asked how the government could just sweep away a crafts-person like him? They explained one of the contradictions they feel trapped by: to the government branch that is responsible for paying social welfare, Tao is an entrepreneur, and thus ineligible for government help; yet to the chengguan, his business is illegal and thus should not be allowed to continue.
After going through this, and many other details, I asked Tao what he ultimately wants. A space of his own? To just retire? His immediate concern is finishing up his orders and then finishing up his stock of iron sheets, which he estimates will make about 300 more woks, taking him through to June.
Then he wants to quit. His health, the money, the chengguan, the trouble...
He is so wrapped up in his current predicament, I had to prod him a few times to think beyond it. What if someone offered him a space where he could keep his tools, be free of enforcement officers, and just have a space to work on his woks, a clear source of pride, despite all the difficulties? Would he take it? He stood silent for a minute before answering. You could see the problems running through his head.
He said quietly, “I’d have to think about it. There is just something about this craft.”
The last week has been even worse to him. The cat-and-mouse game with the chengguan moved into a more serious phase, this time involving Tao’s daughter, who is in a probationary phase to become a government official herself. According to Tao’s wife, the chengguan showed up at the daughter’s work last week and asked her, “If you can’t even manage your family, how are you ever going to be able to manage the country?” The message was clear. Tao cancelled all of his orders and has stopped until at least July, when his daughter’s probation will be over. Until then, he is avoiding the neighborhood.
There is a larger question to all of this, and it is: Do we need woksmiths anyway? One could say that they are the calculator repairmen of our age – once useful but now eclipsed by technology. Tao himself gives an argument for this. According to him, restaurant stoves were not always standardized. Some would be hotter than others, and chefs needed different woks for different stoves. They used to come to him with exact measurements, but alas, no longer. The same happened with the Cen brothers, who once sold to restaurants but for the past decade have relied on people in their neighborhood for sales. Chefs have told me it’s cheaper to throw away mass-produced woks than invest in handmade ones, and without that support, the Cens and Taos of China are not much longer for this world.
And then there is the idea of craft. Neither the Cens or Tao started in their work with the spirit of an artisan. It was hard labor to feed their family and it’s taken decades for them to gain even a slight recognition. Tao has sacrificed his health and material comfort, fought petty officials and the bureaucracy and contradictions of three decades of economic reforms, and in just the past month, had his livelihood threatened and his daughter’s career jeopardized. There’s no way to prove that food cooked in his wok will taste any better.
But I’ll be sad to see him go.
Tao Qingjian is not currently accepting orders. However, he can be contacted at 134 7265 4008.