Before leaving for my recent trip to Shanghai, a fellow baguazhang practitioner advised me to investigate a weapons factory there. He described it as “the motherlode for weapons of all sorts”, and said that they would custom make any weapon desired if provided with a design. They also were known for makingt Beijing opera weapons.
According to the map my friend provided me, the factory was on Zhao Zhou Road in the old Chinese sector of Shanghai. I was fortunate to have a Chinese friend who could understand the Shanghai dialect. This proved very useful as Zhao Zhou Road meandered in strange and unpredictable ways, and we had to ask for directions on numerous occasions. We finally found the small sign that read, in Chinese, "Shanghai Drama Handicraft Article Co., Ltd.". As the map indicated, there was still a complex labyrinth of small alleys, houses, and other work units to navigate before we finally reached our destination.
After bumping into people washing vegetables, stumbling over weapons in various states of manufacture, and generally attracting too much attention, we finally found our way into the office of Fan Hong Cai. He turned out to be one of the managers of the factory. My main objective was to have them custom-make Baguazhang Deer Horn Knives per Sifu Fong's suggestion. No one had yet found the weapons made up to Beijing Baguazhang standards despite scouring the known world for the coveted Deer Horn Knives. Sifu Fong had tried in vain to order them from other factories in China only to have them come back to long, too small, or too symmetrical.
Mr. Fan was open to any orders as long as we could give him a specific design, and he first took us to the main weapon storage room to inspect what they referred to as Yuan Yang Yue (Deer Horn Knives) or Mandarin Duck Battleaxe. The room was packed to the ceiling with all sorts of weapons including broadswords, spears, staffs, straight swords, Beijing Opera weapons, chain whips, Guan Dao, and countless components of unidentifiable weapons. Of particular note was thirty huge, steel Guan Dao that had been ordered by a martial arts group in Italy.
Two versions of the Yuan Yang Yue were available, one of which was quite familiar to our group in San Francisco. This knife was notoriously too long on both ends, posing a threat to both a would-be opponent and the practitioner's own wrists. There was also a modified version with shorter ends with slight indentations to make more room for the wrist. Still, the blades were in dangerously close proximity to the arteries when performing flexing-wrist techniques.
Since I was only in Shanghai for a week, Mr. Fan said that making the battleaxe from scratch would be impractical. They could not finish them in time and the factory cannot directly export to the U.S. This meant that they could follow most of the modifications including the shortening and rounding the inner battleaxe and outer lower blade but the distance between the blade and the grip could not be increased to fit my fist. I decided to have two sets of weapons made. The drafting table was the next stage, where I consulted with one of the craftsmen on exact measurements. After we agreed on the measurements, the workers snipped off the excess metal and then performed some rough sanding on the tools. Then the weapons were packaged for shipment to another factory in the countryside, where they would be finely polished and chromed.
Mr. Fan took us on a tour of the small factory which consisted of many small rooms each dedicated to a specific weapon or stage in the weapon production process. Due to the chaotic appearance of each room with assorted weapons and spare parts scattered about, it was difficult to understand what was going on in a specific locale. It was evident the workers were quite busy making a wide variety of weapons mainly for modern Wushu and Beijing Opera. Having visited a number of state-owned factories, I was surprised at the responsiveness of the managers and general activity of this factory. I believe that the disorder in this private factory was due to their services being in demand rather than simple neglect. Many state-owned factories are frequently idle and the workers can often be caught playing checkers or cards.
I returned a week later and found that my Yuan Yang Yue were made exactly to my specifications. The only problem was that the workers had made them slightly more rounded than I had expected. This turned out to be an added bonus as sharp tips are dangerous during practice, and can be very damaging to a silk uniform during a performance. Another plus was that I did not have to bargain much for the price. This being China, it was already quite reasonable.
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