In the workshop of a small courtyard behind the Shengxifu Hat Store on a historical street in downtown Beijing, 63-year-old Li Jinshan is carefully making a fur hat, as he has done many times over the past four decades.
Shengxifu, one of Beijing's time-honored brands, was established in the northern port city of Tianjin in 1911. In 1937, it opened a branch store in Beijing, which was the original Shengxifu Hat Store. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, Shengxifu hats remained popular among ordinary people and high-ranking officials alike owing to their premium quality.
Li, who started working for the store in 1974, is the third generation of Shengxifu hat makers. He was honored as an inheritor of China's intangible cultural heritage in 2008 due to his outstanding hat-making skills.
Li recalled that in the beginning, he was not particularly interested in the job and only wanted to make a living. It was not until his mentor retired and chose then 24-year-old Li as his successor that Li felt he had grasped the key to making hats.
The process is far from simple, requiring nearly 50 steps within two days to make one hat. However, the most difficult and most important part is finding appropriate materials since the furs selected should be of the highest quality. The furs are all derived from animals legally raised because wild animal furs are illegal to use and trade in China. Li's hats are priced generally between 1,000 yuan ($157) and 6,000 yuan ($943) mainly because furs are expensive.
Allergic to the furs he uses to make his hats, Li had to put up with a constantly running nose for the first two years, sneezing all the time while he worked. He was unable to wear a mask because the furs must be continuously blown on during the whole process.
Li has been trying to spread the technique through innovation and improvement. For instance, as Beijing's winter becomes warmer due to climate change, traditional thick fur hats have fallen out of favor. "Therefore we need to make thinner and better-looking hats," Li told Beijing Review.
Today, the painstaking job is attracting fewer and fewer young people, which is the biggest challenge Li faces. In fact, he had originally retired several years ago but was reemployed by the store to train apprentices.
He said that so far only one of the apprentices has the potential to take over from him.
"Hat making can be very boring, which is why young people would rather play with their phones than do this," said Li.
Li hopes his hat store can recruit more young employees in the future to bring the vitality needed to keep this traditional technique running along with the fashion.
(Photos by Wei Yao)
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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