June 3, 2011

CHINA: For seven decades he has tamped on sheets of tin to make perfect patches

SHANGHAI / Global Times / Special Report / June 3, 2011

A tinsmith's life in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province

Text and photos by Zhou Qingnan


Xia Yihai's handmade pots and pans dangle from his shop,
while the sign advertises his key-cutting service.

For seven decades Xia Yihai has tamped on sheets of tin to make perfect patches for pots and kettles or to fashion stovepipes and even candle shades.

He's one of the last master craftsmen of what used to be an essential service. His little outdoor, roadside shop in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province will soon be demolished to make room for modern buildings that will be home to consumers who more likely to just go buy a new appliance than seek out Xia's repair service.

The octogenarian began work as a sheet metal apprentice when he was just 11 years old.

Taking a break at this workshop, Xia catches up on the news.

Xia taps out the rim of a burned-out kettle bottom.

"When I was young there were only three or four tinsmith shops around here. Back then business was good. People were poor so they would have their broken pot and even a spoon repaired rather than throw them out." said Xia.

"After liberation the number of blacksmith shops increased, but most were gone by the 1980's when China began its reforms and opened to the world," said the old man with a poke at today's consumer society filled with disposable goods.

Slapping down a flat sheet of metal on his workbench, Xia starts to expertly hammer the side to create a perfect right angle. His rough-hewn hands have repaired countless worn-out kettles and pots by first cutting out the burned-out bottom and then creating a perfectly sealed and seamless replacement.  

There's a place for everything that's useful in a tinsmith's shop.

Not only does the craft require handiwork and dexterity, Xia has also mastered the knowledge required to turn a flat piece of metal into some odd, three-dimensional shapes. Two years ago he was asked by officials from Beijing's Summer Palace to fashion several metal vases.

"They couldn't find anyone in Beijing who could make these pots with meter-long spouts, so they came to me. It just took me a few days to finish the job," said Xia proudly.

The coming end of Xia's tinsmith shop is not only the end of a career; it's a sign that another time-honored handicraft may be on the verge of extinction.

"It is a pity we are losing traditional craftsmanship, but people seem to be happy enough without it," said Xia wistfully.

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