BEIJING (Reuters) – In an ornately decorated building in central Beijing, cobbler Cai Wenke painstakingly makes shoes by hand in a process that has hardly changed since the business first started in 1853.
Neiliansheng has made shoes with traditional ‘thousand-layer’ soles and hand-stitched fabric uppers since the Qing dynasty, which ruled China until 1912.
Among its satisfied customers, it counts politicians and celebrities, from Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to Jackie Chan.
The shoes, first designed for court nobility commonly carried around in sedan chairs, are made with more than 40 types of tools, in a specific sequence of more than 90 steps. Each pair usually takes about four to five days to finish.
Mr Cai, 39, learned the trade almost a decade ago, and skillfully demonstrated the craft, nailing the white cotton fabric to the sole, which is formed from 35 layers of cotton interwoven with hemp thread in a criss-cross fashion.
After the shoes are made, colorful or patterned cloth is sewn on. A pair of these classic shoes costs about 500 yuan ($73).
Neiliansheng, which has changed hands many times over the years, now makes more than 300 varieties of the shoes, all based on the same design conceived 150 years ago.
New, more fashionable styles such as open-toed sandals and prints featuring cartoon characters such as Hello Kitty and Angry Birds cater to younger customers, while shoes embellished with feathers and pearls are used by Chinese opera performers.
“To make good shoes, one needs qualities such as conscientiousness, persistence and concentration,” said Mr Cai.