Published: 14:29, May 24, 2023 | Updated: 18:45, May 24, 2023
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Yongnian's tiger-head shoes maintain their popularity
By Zhang Yu in Shijiazhuang

Famous children's footwear now being made using very modern machinery

Customers look at tiger-head shoes in the Xianghuan Handicraft Tiger-head Shoes Factory shop in Yongnian district, Handan, Hebei province. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Wu Xianghuan believes the tiger-head shoes — a traditional Chinese style of children's footwear — that she makes will always find favor with some buyers, as long as she keeps making them.

Named for the tiger head pattern on the front, the shoes are traditionally handmade for babies. The folk belief is that they protect a child's health, which makes them popular, especially with elderly buyers in rural areas.

Wu, a 58-year-old villager from Yongnian district in Handan, Hebei province has been making the shoes since she was a girl.

Over the decades, Wu has grown from an enthusiast, who has enjoyed sewing since she was a child and has a talent for drawing, into a factory manager overseeing the mass production of tiger-head shoes.

Born in 1965 in Nanqiji village, Wu grew up surrounded by women and girls making shoes by hand.

"My mother was particularly known for her skill, and neighbors sought her help in making shoes," she said.

Under her mother's influence, the young Wu fell in love with the craft, and when she was 10, followed in her mother's footsteps and started learning how to make shoes, a process that involves skills such as embroidery and sewing.

In 1978, after graduating from middle school, she began to make shoes for a living. "Whenever I got into difficulty and couldn't continue, I would go to my mother or other experienced craftswomen in the village, who would show me what I needed to do," Wu said.

Among the shoes she made, her tiger-head shoes were especially popular. "Residents from nearby villages would come to buy them from me," she said. At the time, a pair of tiger-head shoes cost barely 1 cent.

Wu Xianghuan (left) introduces her products to a customer in the shop. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Stitching the heads is the most challenging part and takes a dozen cotton threads of different colors. "You also use different kinds of stitches for the tiger's mouth, nose, eyes and eyebrows," she said.

It was Wu's dedication to quality that made her tiger-head shoes popular. Wholesalers from neighboring counties such as Feixiang, Quzhou and Jize in Handan, and even from other provinces such as Henan, came to buy them.

As orders increased, Wu bought a dozen sewing machines and hired village women to work for her. She became the well-known head of a family workshop, the Xianghuan Handicraft Tiger-head Shoes Factory.

With her employees helping her, Wu was able to make time to design more tiger-head patterns, like making the tiger's eyes in the shape of a pomegranate or its eyebrows in the shape of a rooster, which she said made her patterns more vivid.

At the beginning, she would draw her designs on paper for the other women to follow. Then, in 2006, she bought her first computerized sewing machine, which increased production greatly.

"A senior worker can make 10 pairs of shoes per year at most by hand. With an ordinary sewing machine, they can make about 240 pairs, but with a computerized machine they can make over 700," Wu said.

Since the machines were introduced, the factory's output value amounts to around 3 million yuan ($430,000) a year.

Villagers generally buy tiger head shoes in the winter, as they are easier for children to walk in with the thick cotton pants and stockings they wear in the winter, Wu said.

But Wu's shoes are also popular in overseas markets, including Russia, the United States, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, where buyers are attracted by their cute look.

Over the years, she has been able to help 600 women, many of them elderly, earn stable incomes of around 3,000 yuan a month.

"As long as people like the shoes, I will keep making them in the hopes of spreading this tradition and also to help more people in my hometown make a better living," Wu said.