EARLY every morning, 80-year-old Yang Shenxi pushes open the wooden shutters of the Yangruiji Shoe Shop in his small house in suburban Shanghai’s Fengxian District and gets down to work.
Yang is actually younger than the building that houses his business. Most of the structures on Zhuanghang Old Street were built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. His own shop was first opened by his grandfather more than a century ago.
The shop sells only two types of handmade shoes: cotton-padded ones with plastic soles and cloth ones with cloth soles. The shoes are old-fashioned, commonly seen on TV dramas portraying yesteryears.
“But my shoes are popular,” says Yang. “Sometimes I don’t even have the time to complete all the orders.”
Yang’s business is mostly by word-of-mouth. He has never published his phone number online nor does he have a website.
A pair of his handmade cloth shoes costs 170 yuan (US$25.70), at least five times more than similar mass-produced shoes on the market.
But that doesn’t stop customers traveling all the way from downtown to order shoes.
“One regular customer came to order four pairs in a month,” says Yang. “He said he has never found any shoes more comfortable than the ones I make.”
Most of the shoes on Yang’s shop shelves are size 39 or larger, suggesting that most clients are men. No doubt that’s because traditional Chinese men tend to put comfort above appearance.
Yang began making shoes as a child. At his peak, he would make four or five pairs a day. Now, in old age, he manages only two pairs at most, despite starting at as early as 6am every day.
He used to make soles by himself, but as age sapped his strength, he was forced to order handmade soles from a village in Luoyang in central China’s Henan Province.
“Several years ago, the owner of the Le Foot Shoe Company in Luoyang found me and asked me to teach him about making cloth shoes,” says Yang. “He said he could provide completed soles handmade by local villagers in what is a cottage industry there. Now he delivers soles to my shop regularly.”
Each pair of shoes is tailored to a client’s foot size. Yang makes a pattern and then cuts starched cloth made with a homemade paste of flour and alum. After the starch dries, he adds elastic to the cloth before shaping it into the top part, or vamp, with an old-style sewing machine.
The next step is to bind the vamp onto the sole, using an awl and waxed threads. Then the sole edge is polished and wooden shoetrees are inserted to maintain the shape. The shoes are then dried in front of a small stove.
“Many of the tools I use are not available in the market anymore,” says Yang. “I have had to make a lot of tools by myself. For example, the awl I use is adapted from a pedicure knife.”
Yang’s hands show the effects of long decades of work.
They are strong, with rounded protuberances at the end of some bones and countless small scars. The nail of the middle finger is broken as the result of an accident when he was using an awl at 11 years old.
There is also an old-looking tattoo reading “AKQJ” on the back of his left wrist.
“The tattoo is from my army days,” says Yang. “I joined the army when I was 18 years old and served for four years. AKQJ refers to poker cards — ace, king, queen and jack.”
Yang came to own the shop because of family circumstances. His father inherited the business from his grandfather, and then the shop passed to his older brother. Yang served as his brother’s assistant until his sibling died early.
In the late 1950s, when China was implementing its transformation, the shoe shop was confiscated by the local government and renamed Fengxian Shoe Factory. Yang became a worker in the factory.
In the early 1960s, he was accused of being a “tail of capitalism.” His first wife left him because of the humiliation. Just when he felt abandoned by almost everyone, a young woman named Zhu Jin’e entered his life. They eventually got married.
“She was a teacher, eight years younger than me and very beautiful,” says Yang.
In 1985, the local government decided that Yang’s case had been wrongly adjudicated, and the shoe shop was returned to him.
Since then, he has worked tirelessly. He’s still living on the upper floor of the shop, amid old furniture and appliances.
His wife, after retirement, began working part-time for the local neighborhood committee.
“My wife does everything except shoemaking,” says Yang. “She’s still very vibrant and can do anything.”
But Zhu does sometimes assist Yang with the business. When the soles arrive, she helps unpack and arrange them. She has suggested he retire, but as long as orders keep flowing in, Yang is reluctant to stop.
“I’m getting on,” Yang admits. “I don’t know how much time I have left for the shop. Our son isn’t interested in becoming a shoemaker. Not many of his generation are interested in such things. I don’t expect them to be, either.”
At one point, he tried to recruit apprentices, but none of them stayed the course because the work was hard and the pay minimal.
“I will have to shut the shop sometime,” Yang sighs. “That day will come.”