The Blacksmith Turning Decades of Chinese Bombs Into Kitchen Tools

In the first 20 years Wu Tseng-dong lived in a war zone his life. Growing up on Kinmen Island, a small Taiwanese area four miles off the coast of mainland China, bombs were a constant threat. “It was terrifying. We were always in a panic, ”says Wu. “We had to look for places to hide when the bombs fell. A big tree is good because it can block impact, but the best place to hide was in a gutter. “

Kinmen was a battlefield for much of the 20th century. The People’s Liberation Army repeatedly bombarded the tiny island of Kinmen as the focus of the Cold War between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China or Taiwan. As of August 23, 1958, when Wu was barely a year old, around 479,500 bombs were dropped on Kinmen from mainland China in 44 days, an event later known as the 1958 Taiwan Crisis. “The only time they stopped bombing was during meals,” says Wu, noting how his mother would use those moments of calm to run out of her bunker into the fields and pick sweet potatoes for them to eat before the bombardment resumed.

The intensity of the bombing eventually subsided, although the mainland bombed Kinmen every other day until 1978. “Some of these bombs would explode into many pieces,” says Wu, holding up a piece of splinter from an old artillery shell. “Back then we didn’t have machines to cut the bomb into small pieces, so we collected those fragmented pieces and made knives out of them.”

Wu has been in blacksmithing for 50 years. Clarissa Wei

Wu is the third generation blacksmith behind his family’s brand of the same name, Maestro Wu. In his forge in Jinning Township, Kinmen, he specializes in making knives from the same artillery shells that rained on his family for two decades. “Bomb steel is really good quality. The better the quality of the bomb, the more damage it can cause, ”he says.

Making art out of war rubble is nothing new. Craftsmen in Europe have turned WWI bomb covers into decorative vases, tobacco glasses and jewelry. But the Kinmen bomb knives were born out of necessity. Kinmen was a tiny island with a hostile neighbor within swimming distance. Sourcing materials from all over the street was out of the question, so tools had to be forged on site.

Fortunately, steel literally fell from the sky. “Kinmen was an agricultural society, so our livelihoods were tied to hardware,” says Wu. In order to provide the island with tools and support his family, Wu was accepted into the family blacksmithing business at the age of 10. He took orders for almost anything that could be made of metal, including door hinges, machetes, plows and, of course, kitchen hatchets. In Chinese culture, the cleaver is not just a knife. It’s the most important tool in a kitchen – an all-in-one versatile tool that you can use to chop vegetables, chop bones, or chop ground beef.

Stacks of bombs lie in Wu's forge, ready to be transformed.Stacks of bombs lie in Wu’s forge, ready to be transformed. Clarissa Wei

The family had already started making tools from bombs during World War II. Wu’s grandfather collected scrap metal bombs dropped by the US and Allied Air Forces. During the Cold War, locals sold bombs to families for pennies each. As a child, Wu started out as an assistant blacksmith, operating the grinding wheel manually while his father shaped each knife. There were no power tools back then, so the grinding wheel that shapes and polishes the knives had to be carefully hand-powered.

Finally, Wu was commissioned to shape the knives. “My father made the knives and waited for me to come home from school to grind them,” he says. It was a task assigned to all seven of his siblings, but Wu eventually inherited the business. Customers tended to buy the knives he made. “And so I had no choice but to get into this profession,” he says.

Wu now has a team of eight master blacksmiths and a collection of power tools at his disposal. But for this story he’s making me a knife from scratch. He begins by knocking a piece of steel out of an artillery shell and softens the metal in an oven at a temperature that can be as high as 1,652 ° F. He shuffles quietly between tasks – polishing, grinding, melting, sharpening – until the ashy black piece of steel turns into a bright silver sword. Finally, he tests its sharpness by skillfully cutting a strip off a newspaper page with the knife, which the sharp blade achieves without tearing or crumpling the thin material.

Wu checks the edge of a handcrafted hunting knife. Wu checks the edge of a handcrafted hunting knife. Clarissa Wei

The entire process takes less than 20 minutes. “I can do it faster, but I’ve slowed down so you can take photos,” he says, embarrassed, showing the end product, a traditional hunting knife used by indigenous Taiwanese people. “It’s versatile. It can be used to cut vegetables and meat, and to hunt game. “

Its knives have a durability and strength sought by chefs as the steel in artillery bombs is denser than regular steel. But Wu keeps an encyclopedia of blades in mind, from cleavers to swords. It helped that many of the 100,000 soldiers stationed in Kinmen during the Cold War had roots in various Chinese provinces. “Every province in China has a differently shaped knife. Shanghai has Shanghai knives and Guangdong has its own knives, ”explains Wu. Soldiers often wanted bomb knives as souvenirs to bring back to Taiwan when they finished their Kinmen service. The Wu family started a lucrative business of making custom kitchen knives based on the descriptions and sketches their military customers could assemble from memory.

Bomb steel splitters are durable and sturdy.Bomb steel splitters are durable and sturdy. Clarissa Wei

Five decades after starting his blacksmithing, Wu is still able to make 80 knives in one working day. While the cost of a single case has risen to around $ 30, its supply has yet to be used up. He has now used up most of the splinters, but all over the island there are still intact artillery shells that are hidden deep underground after their explosive landings. They are often discovered during construction of a new street or house. Given that a bomb can make 10 to 60 knives, depending on its size, Wu won’t run out of steel anytime soon.

Today, Maestro Wu knives have become one of Kinmen’s most famous products. It’s noteworthy that a gun can be turned into a tool for use by chefs on both sides of the strait, but for many buyers, the point of the past is the past. “There’s a certain amount of romanticization,” says JJ Zhang, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who researched Kinmen’s tourism industry. He notes that many tourists from China and Taiwan visit Kinmen because they are curious about the island’s past as a battlefield. “Different places will use different strategies to stimulate tourists’ imaginations,” he continues. “In Kinmen, the Kinmen knife did this effectively.”

Sparks and heat don't bother Wu while he's in the forge. Sparks and heat don’t bother Wu while he’s in the forge. Alberto Buzzola / Getty Images

Wu, on the other hand, is pragmatic about the historical significance of his knives. Bombs are his medium of choice simply because they were once the cheapest and most plentiful source of steel available.

These days, traditional knife making is a fading art. But Wu has remained true to his craft for over half a century. Although he could easily retire and work passively as the brand’s spokesperson, he prefers the familiarity of his forge. “I’m not just a boss. As long as the customer likes my knife, it’s my responsibility to do it well, ”he says.

It’s fascinating to see Wu fly through his studio, his eyes fixed on his steel as sparks shoot out in all directions. He doesn’t flinch when fire hits his exposed wrists. “My skin is like leather. The sparks are like sesame seeds flying away, ”he says. “I’m used to it.” Of course, he doesn’t mind a little heat. After all, he grew up surrounded by a rain of bombs.

Gastro Obscura offers the most wonderful food and drinks in the world.

Sign up for our email, which is delivered twice a week.

Comments are closed.