In the three decades after China’s civil war ended in 1949, the residents of Kinmen lived under constant fear.
The sounds of shelling were omnipresent across this group of islands that are controlled by Taiwan but located just a few miles off the southeastern coast of mainland China.
After the civil war ended, the triumphant Communist – who founded the People’s Republic on the mainland and expelled the defeated Nationalists to Taiwan – launched a series of artillery bombardments in an attempt to seize the islands, though the government in Taipei retained control. Kinmen authorities estimated that up to a million shells landed on the islands during the Cold War.
For Kinmenese blacksmith Wu Tseng-dong, the mountains of old shells provided him with the perfect raw materials for creating kitchen knives.
“In the old days, steel was scarce in Kinmen,” says Wu, a third-generation owner of knife-making company Maestro Wu. “We felt we could recycle the shells and turn them into something useful.”
His company specializes in cutting and modeling the shells into different types of knives. Because of the shells’ high-quality steel, the cutlery is known for sharpness and durability.
Wu’s knives have grown to become one of the most sought-after souvenirs in Kinmen among tourists from both Taiwan and mainland China.
Becoming a master
Wu, who is now in his 60s, began learning knife-making skills from his father at a young age, when he regularly helped out the family business after finishing classes. His grandfather first started selling knives in 1937.
In the early days, Maestro Wu relied on ready-made steel. But after World War II broke out, the family began using bombshells dropped by the Allies during the war as raw materials.
“Kinmen used to be an agricultural society,” he says. “(Knife-making) was simply a business that allowed us to feed the family.”
In 1949, after the Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious following a civil war, the Nationalist forces were forced to retreat to Taiwan and a few outlying islands, including Kinmen.
Kinmen county – comprised of Greater Kinmen, Lesser Kinmen and a few smaller islands – is one of the two counties still controlled by the Taiwanese authorities not far off the coast of mainland China.
The Communist forces attempted to capture Kinmen by launching an amphibious landing in October 1949, but they were defeated within days. Since then, Kinmen became a frequent military flashpoint, with the Chinese army firing hundreds of thousands of artillery shells at the islands, sometimes carrying propaganda leaflets instead of bombs.
The shelling stopped after the United States switched formal diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
Due to a lack of transportation, Wu’s family used to sell the knives by visiting different towns on the island while carrying a burden on their back. Wu took the helm in the mid-1970s.
His business began taking off after Taiwanese soldiers stationed on the island saw the knives and agreed that cutlery made from artillery shells were ideal souvenirs.
“After the soldiers saw that we turned shell cases into knives, they started buying from us,” he says. “We didn’t initially think that people would be interested in having knives as souvenirs, but it grew in popularity across Taiwan after soldiers took them home following their deployment here.”
Transforming war into art
To make the knives, Wu begins by cutting the shell depending on the type and size of knives to be made.
Afterwards, he smelts the steel in a furnace to forge a rough model, before grinding and trimming it to shape.
The refining process is repeated until the shape of the knife is formed, after which he polishes it to sharpen the blade.
Wu says the company used to only make kitchen knives for family use. But since they became a popular travel gift, he has worked to diversify their design to cater to different needs. To date, more than 100 types of knives are sold, each with varying sizes and designs.
“The Taiwanese soldiers gave us a lot of ideas to turn the knives into souvenirs,” he says. “We worked to raise their commemorative value, and slowly the knives became more artistic and pleasing to the eye.”
For example, foldable knives are now available, and the handles now come with different shapes and colors.
While artillery shelling from mainland China stopped in the late 1970s, Wu says there has not been a shortage of artillery shells because of the vast amount dropped during the conflicts.
“Not all the shells have been collected yet,” he says. “Many of those shells contained propaganda leaflets, and they did not explode. So many are still buried underground, and shells can still be dug up by construction workers today.”
A Kinmen tradition
Kinmen was opened for tourism to the Taiwanese public in the 1990s, after a four-decade period of martial law was lifted. And as relations between Taiwan and mainland China improved at that time, a ferry service connecting Kinmen and the Chinese province of Fujian was opened in 2001, bringing new visitors to the island.
Wu’s store quickly became a popular tourist attraction among Chinese tourists, and many carried them back to mainland China as commemorative gifts.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Wu could sell up to 10,000 knives per month during the peak season.
The knives have even been used to warm relations across the Taiwan strait. In 2015, a senior mainland Chinese official overseeing Taiwan affairs visited Kinmen, during which Wu presented him with a knife popular among Taiwan’s aboriginal groups.
As the Kinmen knives grew to become one of the island’s most recognizable souvenirs, Wu says his dream has been to ensure the tradition lives on.
“My main goal right now is to train the next generation, so we can keep this traditional craftsmanship alive,” Wu says. “And because the knives are made using shells fired during war, they can serve as a symbol of peace.”