From China: The Future of the Wok

Writer Christopher St. Cavish travels to Guangzhou to report on the state of the wok industry, including current craft artisanship, hand-hammering vs. mass-production, and how e-commerce and technology are changing everything.

A factory worker examining a hand made wok
Serious Eats / Graeme Young

By the time I was chasing down a shirtless guy selling woks from a bag on the sidewalk, Shanghai's hand-hammered wok industry was dead. For the last decade and a half, I've been collecting handmade woks, tracking down woksmiths, following their work, and writing about it. I moved to Shanghai shortly after Grace Young's 2004 book Breath of a Wok had been published, and its cover photo of a beautiful handmade wok, made by two Shanghai woksmiths named the Cen brothers, struck me as a challenge. I tracked them down at the small yard that passed for their workshop in 2006, and went back often over the next dozen years. Grumpy, reticent, hard of hearing—if the brothers ever recognized me, looking up from hammering their iron whenever I stopped by, they never let on. 

I followed the Cen brothers and another woksmith by the name of Tao for years, but they and every other Shanghai woksmith I knew about has since disappeared. I considered it the end of an era of craftsmanship, another minor casualty of Shanghai's urban development. But then I found out about another source for handmade woks in northern China, and I saw reports of an automatic wok used at the Beijing Winter Olympics, and my interest grew again. I decided it was a good time to assess the current state of China's most recognizable cooking utensil, as well as its possible future, by traveling 800km north from my home in Shanghai, and then flying 1,500km south to the Pearl River Delta, to nerd out on woks with the people who make and sell them for a living. 

Even back in 2006, the Cen brothers were some of the very last woksmiths left in downtown Shanghai. When their father started 75 years ago, handmade woks were standard, but by the 1990s, stamped woks—shiny, cheap, and often nonstick—had become the norm. Men pounding steel bowls on anvils could not compete with mass-produced cooking equipment, and, like calculator repairmen, the need for their services hovered near zero. A few carried on, out of pride or for a lack of other options. But even the Cen brothers would eventually put away their hammers and plug up the furnace when the time came for their run-down neighborhood to be demolished and rebuilt a few years ago. The last time I visited I saw the older brother carting off what little remaining stock they had, while the younger Cen leaned his muscular right arm against the fence that ringed their yard, staring off into space. 

It was December of 2018 and the weather was grey. The black and white picture of their father still hung inside the small stockroom. The brothers had been threatening to retire for years, even as their woks ballooned in value overseas, at times ending up anonymously on Williams-Sonoma's shelves. They were indifferent to their growing reputation abroad. They hammered for the neighborhood residents, not far-off international customers they hadn't met, and still set their prices, as their father had, against the price of rice sold by the 50-pound sack. 

Few considered the pebbled surfaces of their hand-hammered woks beautiful but the neighbors appreciated that a Cen wok lasted for years. The stamped aluminum ones they could buy in supermarkets for half the price would easily get bent out of shape or their handles would fall off. 

Two image collage. Top image of a wok maker in an outside studio, bottom image of an out-of-focus wok being hit with a dog watching in the background, in focus
A woksmith hammers a wok in an outdoor area. [Image: Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy]

After 35 years of woksmithing outdoors, through the humid Shanghai summers and damp winters, with little to distract them through their earplugs, they were not sentimental. It had been hard work. When I asked the younger brother, still in his 50s, what he would do with his free time, he shrugged. "Drive a cab," he speculated.

However, the Cen brothers weren't the last woksmiths in downtown Shanghai. In one rare moment of conversation, they mentioned another woksmith who worked in the neighboring district. I had never heard them bring up their competition before, and when they did, they talked about him derisively, incredulously, for cold-hammering the woks without a furnace. I quickly set off to try to find this "new" woksmith with the meager clues the Cens had given: "He lives in Hongkou district, off one of the big roads there." And that's how I found the woksmith known as Mr. Tao. 

Tao had been born at the wrong time, he told me. His life story traced the economic reforms of modern China, as it shed state-owned jobs (including his) in the 1990s and shunted those workers into the private economy. He was supposed to get some kind of training but instead taught himself how to hammer woks.

Tao made woks on the street without a furnace, hammering slabs of iron into the wok's signature shape. Others would question his technique to me but his story was compelling and his woks were attractive, possessing that pebbled surface characteristic of hand-hammered woks. I bought several and wrote stories about him for local media. Tao had started much later than the Cen brothers and didn’t have a family line in the business; he was a “newcomer” with just a few decades of woksmithing under his belt. By the time the pandemic lockdowns arrived in Shanghai in February 2020, Tao was finished as well.

I canvassed the city for other woksmiths, based on tidbits from Mr. Tao's spotty memory. One day, on Shanghai's massive Century Avenue, I found a shirtless man, wearing just boxer shorts and shoes, selling a few hand-hammered woks out of a yellow sack. When he realized I had a camera, he shoved them back in the bag and hustled away.

What happens in China often happens in Shanghai first. It's the country's most international and developed city, and it's massive, with more than 28 million residents. Perhaps there are still woksmiths out there away from the city's center, far from the 100-story buildings of the financial district. In a country as large as China, it’s impossible to know where other small pockets of wok craftsmanship may still exist. But in downtown Shanghai, where I’ve been following woksmiths for fifteen years, the handmade wok is extinct.

Side by side photos of a top down view of a wok being made in a factory by a machine and a wok being finished by hand
At left, an automatic wok sits in a warehouse. At right, a hand-hammered wok gets some finishing touches. [Image: Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy]

***

While handmade woks were crowded out of the market by mass-produced ones, the future of wok cookery may belong to the robo-wok. Designed to remove the skilled cook from the process, these automatic woks come in a wide range of sizes and designs, depending on the manufacturer, though the basic models look like a metal bucket mounted on a frame at a 45 degree angle, with a fin slowly rotating at its base. They most famously were part of the suite of technology employed at the Beijing Olympics to reduce human contact (and show off a little, of course), leading to a flood of TikTok and Youtube videos about them and a New York Times report that praised the food they produced as “precisely cooked.”

A machine firing a wok in a factory
Some automatic woks, like this one, are built to look and move like a traditional wok. [Image: Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy]

I took a flight south to Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, then a short drive from there to Shunde, a city in the Pearl River Delta, the sprawling region that produces much of the world’s high-tech electronics. The iPhone factories of Shenzhen and skyscrapers of Hong Kong are not far away. Palm trees line the lanes of the light industrial park that's home to the warehouses of Foshan Shanyi Technology Company, the producer of the robo-woks I had come to see. Shunde is also a national eating destination, a foundational location for regional Cantonese food.

A machine tumbling food to season a surface
An automatic drum wok tumbles food in a cylindrical container over a gas flame. [Image: Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy]

A freight elevator carried me to their third-floor warehouse, the doors slowly opening on a scene that would, I imagine, make the Cen brothers, Mr. Tao, and many Chinese chefs very uncomfortable. Rows of drum woks mounted on metal tables lined the floor; in the back, a drum wok the size and shape of a jet engine, capable of stir-frying 100 kilograms of food at a time, pointed down the aisle, as if ready for takeoff. The way all of these woks work is a cook tosses ingredients and seasonings into the drum, which rotates and tumbles them together over a gas or electric heating element—it's like using a tumble dryer to "stir-fry" food. The appeal of these devices is that they eliminate the need for a single skilled cook to work a single wok for every single dish. When the food is cooked, the drum tilts forward, either automatically or manually, and the finished dish falls out onto the plate.

Shanyi didn't manufacture the woks in the Olympic Village high-tech kitchen. Instead, they're a solidly middle-of-the-pack company. But Li Yunyu, the company’s general manager, has spelled out a vision for the devices in a series of articles, including one that, if realized, has profound implications for the way Chinese food is cooked. 

Li predicts that Shanyi’s automatic woks will transform chefs into "content creators" who spend all their time developing recipes, which can then be downloaded to your wok at home. Instead of "sweating at the stove, shirtless," limited to one restaurant, chefs will compete against each other by selling pre-programmed recipes through a Netflix-style subscription service. 

Smoke comes out of an automatic wok in a factory
Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy

"The amount of salt will no longer be 'a little,'" Li writes. "Soy sauce is not 'a teaspoon.' Seasoning will be accurate to grams and milliliters. The temperature will be set in degrees Centigrade, and the cooking time fixed to the second." His vision brings to mind the high-precision immersion circulators and combi ovens common in restaurant kitchens these days, and the home versions that offer smart tech and connected apps to control pre-programmed recipes that promise success. "Mass production will be highly consistent," writes Li. "Chefs will stay at home, and from then on, the taste will become universal."

While his goal seems to be to command the consumer market, for now, it seems, his business is focused on the commercial kitchen, where rising labor costs are driving restaurants to look for ways to economize, and skilled chefs are in the crosshairs. A Shanyi manager told me that in Guangdong, an average chef earns about 7,000 CNY ($1,100 USD) per month, or about 84,000 CNY ($13,200 USD) per year, a decent salary. Shanyi’s standard model robo-woks are 8,400 CNY each (about $1,320 USD). With three of them running in a kitchen, an owner can get by with one fewer chef. The manager quickly calculated how much a restaurant owner could save: about 60,000 CNY, or almost $10,000 USD, annually.

A factory worker looks a printed schema infront of a machine
Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy

I watched an electrician busily wiring up another type of automatic wok, which uses a stamped wok instead of a drum, and an enormous number of motors, fuses, and circuit boards to achieve something like the signature rocking of a Chinese wok in motion. The touchscreen display showed the programmed shredded-potato recipe should take 210 seconds, but there were no fresh vegetables in sight. Until the electrician could calibrate the robot, rock salt coated in machine oil had to stand in. It seemed an impossibly complex task and piece of machinery for one of the most skilful and elegant kitchen techniques: stir-frying. 

Next, a small group of customers on a factory visit arrived, and an employee in street clothes fired up the gas under a drum wok. He timed the interval between the rotating fins, spinning clockwise, and tossed in a ladle of peanut oil. Next went in frozen vegetables and ho fun, the wide, flat rice noodles popular in southern China. The ingredients sizzled as their moisture hit the oil. The customers crowded closely with their phones out, recording the scene, as the cook flicked in salt, sugar, chicken bouillon powder, and a splash of soy sauce. 

A minute later, he grabbed the long handle, like a stick shift, on the side of the machine and tilted the drum. A tangle of stir-fried noodles slid down the non-stick surface onto a waiting plate for the customers to taste while the worker hosed down the drum with water, then turned his attention back to his phone.

The customers picked at the ho fun and whispered to themselves. I gathered they're going to open a chain of fast-food outlets and were looking for ways to keep their costs and prices low. But they couldn't decide if they were satisfied with the results, and whether the problem had been with the drum wok or the ingredients. Is there a restaurant or supermarket nearby, they asked?

This group of potential customers might not have been sold just yet but that’s not stopping Shanyi. So far, they say, they sell 600 semi-automatic woks each year and revenue has been growing by 30% annually. 

***

A few days later, I traveled to the city of Zhangqiu in Shandong province in Northern China to visit Zhen San Huan, a company that produces what some online reviews have called the "Rolls Royce" of handmade woks. Zhen San Huan’s owner is committed to traditional wok-making, though he too is using technology, in this case e-commerce, to revitalize the art of the hand-hammered wok.

The sound of hammering was deafening on the factory floor, with dozens of smiths beating woks smooth in an overlapping rhythm. Forty or so woksmiths sat low, in front of their anvils, pounding out an industrial rhythm track. More than a hundred others work in three other factories; the most senior have their own yards. The woksmiths all wear the orange earplugs, and many have earmuffs on over those, the better to protect their ears from the sounds of the up to 36,000 individual strikes required to hammer a single wok smooth. When they finish, the woks have mirrored insides, the faint overlapping divots on the surface the telltale mark of their handicraft.

Zhen San Huan shot to fame after its wok-making traditions were featured on the hit food documentary series A Bite of China, which aired in the country in 2018. The series traced Zhangqiu's reputation to one man, Wang Lifang, a fourth-generation woksmith who went to the provincial capital of Jinan in the 1960s as a teenager and apprenticed at that city's most well-known iron shop. He was the fourth generation of wok-makers in his family to learn how to make the type of single-handed wok favored in this part of China, the home of lu cai, Shandong cooking, one of China's traditional Four Great Cuisines. He returned to Zhangqiu and worked in anonymity and relative poverty for decades, continuing to share his knowledge and style of forging with local blackmsiths, even as most people in China switched over to stamped woks during the 1990s and 2000s. 

Unlike the Cen brothers in Shanghai, Wang Lifang got a break in the early 2010s. A Zhangqiu restaurant manager named Feng Quanyong stumbled upon his woks and started selling them on Taobao, China's massive online marketplace. Sales didn't really take off until a few years later, when Liu Zimu, who similarly appreciated the craftsmanship evident in the woks, used his experience in e-commerce to start Zhen San Huan—the "Premium Three Rings"—in earnest.

Liu has gathered an impressive collection of woksmiths in his factories. While there may be individual wokmakers still working in parts of the country, there is, to my knowledge, no other  concentrated group of traditional woksmiths like Liu's anywhere else in China. Liu says he began hiring retired woksmiths from the region, and set up a factory off the side of the highway for them to work in. More and more woksmiths, and eventually men with no woksmithing background at all, joined the company. Liu's senior smiths could teach the new men how to make a decent enough wok with a year's worth of training. Today, the average age of the Zhen San Huan smiths is about 50, though many are younger.

A factory worker polishes a hand-hammered wok under two lightbulbls
Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy

Off the cold hammering floor and back in Liu's office, he pulled what looked like a metal basin resting on a thick iron wok ring off his shelves. "This wok is more than 100 years old," he told me. "The contour has three specific angles, which we copied from this piece for some of our models." Though Zhen San Huan is less than ten years old as a brand, Liu made it a point to note that their technology dates from 1912, the year a master woksmith fled Beijing's social unrest for the relative safety of Shandong. It was in that workshop, Tong Shengyong, that a young Wang Lifang would apprentice some forty years later.

A cropped view of details in a hand-hammered wok
Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy

Next, Liu picked up a "fake" wok, one that has the divots of a hand-hammered wok, but none of its craftsmanship. "See here?" Liu asked me, pointing to the rim of the wok. "There are no hammer marks." Indeed, the divots stopped just short of the edge, revealing a rim of smooth metal. Earlier on the factory floor, he had taught me to look at the underside of a hand-hammered wok, not the shiny inside, to discern its true value. The more powerful the smith was in his strikes, the darker the bottom of the wok, he said, and the higher the quality of the wok. The bottom of the fake wok was smooth and a lighter grey, and stress lines ran perpendicular to the wok's edge due to the stamping process. 

A Bite of China was both a blessing and a curse for Zhen San Huan. Though the brand was never mentioned specifically in the documentary, the series featured Wang Lifang and his family. Within ten minutes of airing, Zhen San Huan's entire stock sold out online. Fly-by-night "fake" wok factories popped up immediately in Zhangqiu to make a quick buck from the town's sudden fame. Zhen San Huan shut down for three months, a protest against the fakes and as a way to prove there weren't any authentic Zhen San Huan woks on the market. People literally climbed over the factory gate looking for woks. Liu bought guard dogs.

Today, the market is still muddled. Stamped woks are passed off as handmade both in shops and online, even as the company is making more woks than ever—tens of thousands a year, Liu told me. And the Zhen San Huan store on Amazon, one of the easier places for someone in the States to buy one, has been repeatedly infiltrated by fakes. (They also sell on Etsy, which allows them tighter control over their inventory.)

Liu took me for lunch at a restaurant he owns in Jinan. I asked him about the high volume of sales, and whether that meant there was a renewed interest in wok craftsmanship among young Chinese consumers. He shot me down. "You, you're from America. When you grew up, everything was industrialized and standard. You didn't have so many handmade things in your life," Liu told me. "You like things that are made by hand because they are unique and non-industrialized. But in China, we have too many handmade things. Too many! We grew up with them. Now, we want shiny, industrialized equipment, Henckels knives and German pots and pans. They don't stain, they don't rust." 

Much of the renewed interest in handmade woks has less to do with their construction than the materials they're made from. "It's for health," Liu said. "Our customers don't care about handmade. They don't think these woks are beautiful. Most of them have just had their first child, and they realize that cooking in nonstick woks is not healthy for their child. For themselves? They don't care. But they spend everything on their child, and they don't want flakes of Teflon in their baby's food. So, they are looking to the past for an older, healthier way."

That doesn't mean the craftsmanship of their woks isn't important to the brand. In the US, for example,  Zhen San Huan emphasizes the traditional, handmade aspect of their woks, the fact that they can last for decades. But in China, his argument holds: the company’s marketing is mostly about health. It’s particularly apt in a country where food safety has been an ongoing concern since the 2008 milk scandal, a 2004 panic over the perceived danger of Teflon, and TV and other media reports about companies making inexpensive stamped woks from discarded chemical storage drums. 

Wang Lifang smoking a cigarette in the display shop for Zhen San Huan woks
Wang Lifang. [Image: Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy]

Late in the afternoon, we drove across Zhangqiu to a strip mall, where Wang Lifang and his family were sitting in a Zhen San Huan storefront selling the company's woks, smoking thin cigarettes and drinking tea. Now 88, Wang is more of a brand ambassador and repository of institutional knowledge than anything else. He spends his days with the family, or with friends playing poker, and he gamely allowed us to interrupt his day for a quick meet-and-greet. 

His daughter-in-law, one of the last of the husband-and-wife smithing teams, sat next to him. Across the table was his son, Wang Yuhai, a fifth-generation wokmaker with his own reputation, whose woks command several hundred US dollars each and have to be reserved six months in advance.

The sixth-generation grandson poured the tea. He runs the retail shop. His own son, a toddler, ran around the adults.

The elder Wang and his son are both hard of hearing and speak in a thick Shandong dialect. It was hard for me to understand much beyond the pleasantries, which Liu jumped in to translate, but when we got up to leave and shake the father and son's hands, it was easy to feel the decades of hard work in their stiff, rough fingers and powerful grip. Four generations of the Wang family stood next to our car as we pulled out and left, waving all the way.

The Wang family stands in the showroom of Zhen San Huan Factory Store
Wang Lifang with family members. [Image: Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy]

***

The next week a package arrived at my office from Zhen San Huan. Inside was a small wok, the one modeled on that century-old basin in Liu's office, to add to my collection of Cen and Tao woks. The hammer marks run all the way to edge and the underside is dark. 

"I really don't have anything against automatic woks," Liu had told me. "But when you standardize food to one flavor, something is lost. With handmade woks, every piece is different. The maker is the object. The object is the maker."

Meanwhile, on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, the Shanyi boss was sending me dozens of videos of automated kitchen technology, including his woks in action at restaurants across China. He says exports to North America and Europe are growing.

I wonder what Tao or the Cen brothers would make of all of this, but I can no longer find them. Tao’s wife, who screens his calls, is convinced that the small amount of media attention her husband received was his downfall, and hangs up when I try to reach him. The Cen brothers have disappeared, leaving no address or phone number. I wonder about the younger brother when I see taxis cruise by. Did he ever take his driving test? Would passengers notice his massive right forearm and hearing loss? Does he miss working outside with his brother? 

My days of wok-hunting in the city are over. The future of woks in China’s major cities is more likely to be closer to Shanyi’s vision of programmed efficiency on quiet urban countertops than Liu’s noisy craft revival. But the country is large and there are many futures for the wok, the most probable being that it continues in its current form as it has for centuries or longer: an almost perfect piece of kitchen engineering.

A wide view of a factory working working on a wok
Serious Eats / Graeme Kennedy