The king of cobbler

Wang is mending shoes in his new store.

By Stephanie LI

Nov.19, 2016  Hong Kong


The year was 1976. Leaving the countryside in eastern China with his two-year-old son, he travelled on the train for two days to their new home in Guangzhou. It was the same year when the Cultural Revolution that shattered the nation finally came to an end as Chairman Mao passed away.

He was there to reunite with his wife, who had settled in Sun Yat-sen University a few months before, getting ready to embark on a brand new future for the family in a city known as the “land of opportunities.”

Ever since the day he put up a cobbler stall right outside the gate of the student residence, he has been known as “Wang Shi-Fu,” a Chinese term for skillful manual laborers. “You can call me ‘the king of cobbler’,” Wang declined to reveal his full name to me, “a local newspaper gave me that title.”

A young customer showed up with a pair of flat-heeled shoes. She hesitated before coming. Her shoes were tearing in a tricky spot. “No worries. It can be easily fixed,” Wang said with confidence. His craftsmanship has been perfected since he started as a teenage apprentice in the village.

After carefully examining the shoes, Wang grabbed a pair of scissors, cut a piece of leather that fitted the size of the hole and stuck it with some glue. Everything was scattered on the floor, but he never failed to get the right tool out of the seeming chaos. Yet the most incredible part of the show was that a 60-year-old man passed a colorless thread that resembled a fishing line through the eye of a needle without having to put on his glasses. The stiches were barely noticeable. “He gives shoes a second life,” the student said in awe.

The old stall was basically made of three things: a shoe-mending machine, a toolbox, and an umbrella. And those had been everything the Wang’s family lived on for 30 years, until a sudden announcement came last summer vacation: an eviction notice to remove some small businesses from campus, for they “looked unpleasant to the university’s overall cleanliness.” They were given 12 days to clean up and leave. Non-negotiable.

Shocked, confused, disappointed, angry, lost…the feelings were shared not only by the business people whose mere existence had constantly gone unnoticed by the school authority, but also the campus dwellers who had been used to having them around.

“It’s been 30 years. I’m emotionally connected with the people here. They need me, and I need them too.” Wang was not that much of a talker. Even when he talked, his hands never stopped working on the shoes, needle by needle, thread by thread. His place is now a decent store of 10 square meters with glass windows.

“People here put up a good fight for us. They have always been nice and warm-hearted,” he said while looking at the student dormitory across the yard. “Although my store is hidden in the backyard now, they still manage to find me.” Deep wrinkles formed around his eyes when he smiled.

News of the eviction exploded like a bomb went off, as students, even alumni, started to protest by signing petitions. Eventually, it attracted the attention from local television stations and newspapers, questioning the school’s decision as “unthoughtful, impersonal, and ungrateful.” The university had to yield to a growing public pressure and agreed on new arrangement terms.

Relocation came with a price – higher rents. Wang chose to stay, but many others left. According to the school’s real estate management team, the monthly rent for the shoe-mending stall has quadrupled from 50 yuan to 200. However, the entire afternoon I spent in the stall went by with only four paying customers and no more than 5 yuan charged for each repair.

“It’s a sunset business,” said a student in senior year who claimed that he had never worn repaired shoes. Since everyone today can simply order cheaper shoes online with a click on the mouse, most of them wouldn’t bother to have their shoes repaired. “I play basketball a lot. As long as my sport shoes are worn out, I’d replace them with another pair,” he added.

Time seems to have stood still in this little stall. Friends and neighbors like to stop by and chat. Among his oldest customers, there are elderly residents in the neighborhood, professors living across the campus, and alumni who graduated two decades ago. For 30 years, the stall always opens at 8 a.m. and closes after 10 p.m., the same schedule that matches students’ daily routine.

“My son keeps asking me to live with him. He got married, and found a decent job in the city after graduated from college,” Wang’s eyes glowed every time he talked about his son, yet they dimmed when retirement came up in the conversation. “One day when I’ve gotten too old and frail to work, it’s time to retire, but I’ll feel very lonely to leave the school and the people.”

A beam of warm pinkish sunlight in late afternoon painted a blush on his tanned cheeks, and the old “king of cobbler” buried himself in work again.


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