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R.I.P. The Wokmakers - Cen Family Hammers Out Their Last Wok

Dec 15, 2016 | 10:56 Thu
Openings & Closings: The circle of life churns at a frantic, untenable pace for venues in Shanghai. Follow our equally desperate attempt to keep up.
After more than seven decades, the corner of Baotong and Baoshan roads in Zhabei district was quiet today. The Cen brothers, who have been making woks by hand for 40 years, finally put down their hammers and work gloves for good. Their neighborhood has been slated for destruction for years, and this being Shanghai, it was inevitable that a scrappy working-class neighborhood like theirs would be redeveloped.

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I've been writing about, and visiting, and buying woks from them for the last 10 years. When I first met the brothers, they were already worried about becoming obsolete. They had been making custom woks and pans for many of the city's well-known restaurants, but that business was dwindling, as a younger generation of chefs turned to the cheaper, stamped woks. People from the neighborhood still came but not often -- it's a testament to their quality that their woks last ten, fifteen, twenty years in a home kitchen.

The past decade must have been a surprise to them, then. In that time, their woks have ended up in the catalog from bougie kitchen supply store Williams Sonoma, where they quickly sold out -- at 130 USD. (Williams Sonoma never mentioned the Cen brothers, but I've bought enough of their woks right away to know one when I see it.) Cookbook author Grace Young, who featured their handiwork on the cover of her book The Breath of a Wok, wrote a tribute to the brothers earlier this year, when it seemed like the wrecking ball was just around the corner. They have a cult following on the internet, though the most high-tech equipment at their workshop was a transistor radio.



When I arrived yesterday morning, the younger, stocky brother was loading a van, and the older brother was on the phone, explaining to a customer that, no, they are not moving, they are closing, and sorry, but there are no more woks left. A few of the old neighbors dropped by to chat. Their tiny workshop, usually stuffed full of woks, was empty.

The Cen brothers were masters of their craft, though they remain stubbornly unsentimental. The younger brother is 56. He has spent more than four decades on their little patch of Shanghai, turning out tens of thousands of woks. I asked him about his plans for tomorrow. He's got four more years until retirement, he tells me. He'll have to find a job.

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