the Shanghai wok thread (e-woks, the Cen Brothers and Mr Tao)

stcavish | Jul 22, 201511:47 PM     36

right, i've just been through the 568 comments on this thread about hand-hammered woks and other things:


and am starting a new topic to offer some firsthand information.

i'm the one who tracked down the Cen brothers from Grace Young's book, towards the end of 2006. she didn't leave many clues but fortunately the family surname was on one of their work shirts, as i recall, and that eventually led me to their outdoor "workshop" by the metro tracks.

i've been visiting them off and on since then, sometimes once a year, sometimes more, sometimes less. i've bought dozens of their woks over that time for myself and as gifts for friends. i've taken photographers and chefs up to visit them, and have recently started shooting a short documentary about them. i spent three or four hours with them--and the neighborhood--last week and can clear a bunch of things up, i hope.

first, they are still going. they've been telling me every year that the neighborhood will be torn down "next year", and they'll retire. that seems plausible. they are in a marginal neighborhood that is pretty down on its luck these days, and they are in a row of old, cramped houses that have seen better days. the neighbors are either very old (the immediate neighbor is 91, and remembers their dad coming to shanghai from yuyao, in zhejiang province) or migrants from other parts of china. typical of the neighborhoods on the edge. given the history of development in shanghai, it seems inevitable this neighborhood is going to come down, and it's a bit surprising it hasn't already. the local government puts up notices every year that say "this is the year" but nothing has happened yet. the cen brothers, and the rest of the neighborhood, speculate that whatever developer is involved has run out of money. who knows...

in the meantime, they are still there from 8.30am-5.30pm, every day except chinese new year and the national holiday in october.

second, the woks from williams-sonoma and the woks from e-woks are definitely from them. they're quick to tell you that their woks sell for $100 in america. i've been dealing with the Cen brothers for several years, and i can spot their woks from a distance.

they know people are selling them on for profit. in fact, they have an order right now for 200 (or so -- i forgot exactly) for an american guy, due by the end of august. they're not ignorant but they are old-fashioned. i've suggested they at least sell them on taobao, which is sort of similar to ebay, but these are not the type of guys who spend their days or free time on the computer, and they're not interested. i've asked why they don't raise the price, or double the price, but they don't have a great answer. for what it's worth, the younger brother was a Model Worker, a Party award, and has a plaque showing his Party status inside their storeroom. they are very salt of the earth, and as you can imagine about guys who have spent the last three or four decades hammering iron, are a little set in their ways.

third, there are other people making woks in china by hand. i've bought a few from taobao. until last week, though, i was under the impression that the Cen brothers were probably the last ones in Shanghai. in fact, as someone else has already found, there is another wokmaker named Tao on Zhoushan Lu. he's much friendlier than the Cen brothers, and his woks are more polished-looking. the most obvious difference is that his woks are hammered cold, straight from the sheet of steel, while the Cen woks are shaped hot. (the last two or three rounds of hammering happen cold.) Tao's woks now sell for 260 RMB or 330 RMB, depending on size, and he does one-handled or with ears, but he doesn't keep stock. if you want to buy one, you're limited to the few he keeps on display or waiting for him to make you one. Tao says there is a third wokmaker--maybe. an old guy in Pudong who comes out from time to time but doesn't do it for a living anymore. i haven't tried to track him down yet.

fourth, it's true that the Cen brothers used to sell primarily to restaurants. they sold to a lot of the old laozihao places, and there's a board of yellowing name cards in their workshop. besides woks, they also used to make the flat-bottomed shengjian pans for Da Hu Chun. but those days are mostly over. restaurants/younger chefs don't want to spend on their woks, and the majority of their customers these days are foreigners and people in, or from, the neighborhood.

much of the older generation thinks it's wasteful to spend so much on a wok (so much being the 120-130 RMB they now charge) but not all. if you talk to the residents in the apartment block opposite the Cens, you'll find that quite a few people use their woks. the morning i was there last week, i met a woman in her 50s or 60s who had grown up in the neighborhood but moved out to the suburbs, about an hour away. she came all the way back into town just to get a new wok from the Cen brothers. she'd somehow managed to wear through the bottom of her last one. so, no, not a lot of people use them (because not a lot are made, to start) but there are still holdouts who prefer the older ones.

there must be more but that's all i remember. i chuckled at the idea that the Cen brothers are "famous" in any way, and i'm sure they would too. they bristle at the idea that they are artisans and are fairly non-plussed about the tradition--at least in their family--retiring with them. they don't want their kids to be wokmakers and if you saw how much hard, thankless work it takes to make a single wok the way they do, you wouldn't either.

- c

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