We certainly did not have enough time to explore all of Shanghai. It would take years. Our main mission was to find the Shanghai Wok Man and purchase some of the last-known handmade and hand-hammered woks.
Shanghai is now a city of over 24 million. This makes it the largest city in China as well as the largest city, in population, in the world. It covers an area of land of over 2,448 square miles. This status could change in the near future as China is on track to move 60% of it’s rural population into cities by 2020 according to the South China Morning Post article.
It is an international city, and it has a very nice vibe. Not as frantic in feel as other big cities in China like Beijing and Shenzhen. Surprisingly, we did not have a lot of trouble moving around the city by taxi. Thankfully, we did not get caught in the hour’s long traffic tie-ups that are common.
I learned about the wok man from my friend, Grace Young, author of Stir-Fry to The Sky’s Edge, The Breath of a Wok and Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. She met him doing research, and in fact, the lovely photo of the Wok on the cover of Breath of a Wok is one of the Shanghai Wok Man’s. I decided to try to find him and add one of his beautiful woks to my growing collection.
In Shanghai, and really all of cities in China, the older neighborhoods are under assault. Development is fast and furious. The wok man’s neighborhood was rumored to be on the short list of redevelopment. So, it could be a bit iffy to find him. I had recent reports from another of Grace’s friends that visited in early 2014 that he was still working at the same location. Then I found this great post on Jamjnr, an expat blog, confirming that he was in the same neighborhood, and the post gave terrific directions to his place.
We drew a lot of attention walking down the street which was bustling with activity. Wet markets, dentists, hair cutting stations and hardware stores lined the alleys. The buildings were old, but you could see the charm in the old architecture.
We had a little bit of a hard time finding the Shanghai Wok Man, Mr. Cen. It was a rainy day and he was not outside working, so we could not follow the sound of the hammering to find his place. Thanks to Steve, he noticed a rusty wok hanging outside. It was a sure sign. We polked our head inside and and found Mr. Cen’s associate. Westerners turing up must be common, he did not speak any English, but knew right away what we wanted.
You know how sometimes your life is made up of soundtracks? Well, my beautiful Shanghai Wok will always have a country feel to it because Slim Whitman was singing the Tennassee Waltz over an old AM/FM transistor radio as we selected, discussed prices and wrapped up the woks.
If you go:
Cen Rong Gen’s woks
214 Baoyuan Lu, near Baotong Lu
To Mr. Cen’s knowledge, he belived himself to be the last know artisan of hand-hammered woks. However while we were expoloring other areas of Shanghai, we found a book a little book titled Shanghai Housewares recently published. It lists another artisan, Little Tao’s Handmade Wrought Iron Woks. His location is listed as Zhoushan Road, Houngkou District. We discussed it with a coup le local Shanghai people and determined that there was not really a shop location listed and he was probably working on the street. We did not have a chance to visit this street and find his location. If anyone does, please let me know!