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Song Jian Hua, the Spinning top Master

Since I met the spinning top players from Yanjiang Park in Wuhan, I spend an average of one week every two months to train with players who all have at least ten years of practice and to improve my technique. As a matter of time, I had just dropped my research on local spinning top manufacturers, thinking that if I needed a new spinning top I just had to ask a friend of mine.

But recently, on a whim, I started a new search on Baidu, the Chinese search engine, and I came across a recent article that was portraying one of the last artisans spinning top maker in Wuhan. An information that I had searched for in vain for many weeks.

This is how I discovered the existence of Song Jian Hua and his shop Song De Le Tuoluo. The article gave the shop adress that I hurried to locate with Google Maps. It was not the far Wuhan suburbs but 4 km from the hotel in which I usually stay. An accessible place, even by feet when you know a little about the city.

So I decided to take the opportunity of my next trip to visit this artisan; provided of course that the address mentioned in the article is correct and that the artisan has not moved since. As the article only dated a few months, I left confident; especially since Google Maps even indicated the name of the shop!

The Three Eyes Bridge street

The day after I arrived in Wuhan, I hail a taxi and tell the driver; “San Yan Qiao Lu” (Three Eyes Bridge street). I spotted the path on the plane and I make sure that the driver does not go in the opposite direction. Chinese taxi drivers are generally honest but as I speak bad Chinese I always fear that they misunderstand the address, as it happened to me once or twice.

This time the driver understood perfectly; he still makes a big detour (say it is to avoid the work …) but drove me to destination. I recognize the storefront of the shop that was pictured in the article. I have not prepared any questions or verified the translation of the words that might be useful to me, today I go to the feeling.

Song De Le Tuoluo, la boutique de toupies de Song Jian Hua, à Wuhan
Song De Le Tuoluo, Song Jian Hua spinning tops shop in Wuhan.

In fact of shop, it is a box, like all the shops that surround it. An old folding chair, a few tops on a shelf … I will have time later to detail the scene. For now, I’m looking for the owner that I find at the rear of his workshop in front of his wood lathe. I babble: “I Come to watch” (Wo qu Kan-kan, in Chinese). And then I get out of my bag my ipad and show my host the article that brought me here. I said, “I saw the article in the newspaper.”

The ice is broken; I explain to Song Jian Hua that I live in Zhanjiang with my Chinese wife and that I have been practicing spinning top for two years. I tell him I want to buy a new spinning top. About 4 kgs. He shows me a top that he just finished; 3 kgs. Too small, I tell him.

He tells me that he’s going to make a new spinning top for me. As I am not sure I understood correctly, I ask: “Now you are going to make my spinning top ?” He nods. I have no idea how long the operation can take and incidentally the price of the spinning top. He reassures me about the price by announcing me 200 yuan (26 euros). It takes a piece of tree trunk that strews its workshop and cuts it to the chainsaw. “It doesn’t matter if the spinning top is more than 5 kgs?” It is true that trunk he has debited is a good section. I’m not answering his question.

Song is about cutting a piece of wood to prepare the new spinning top.

Twenty minutes for a spinning top

Song wedges the trunk section on its wood lathe and the show begins: I barely have time to realize it has already blown the bark. He then tackles the head of the top using wood scissors. The shape is gradually sketchy. He did not take any measure, no marks, he does not need it. He has twenty years of experience and is a spinning top Master. Under his tools, wood seems as maleable as clay on the turn of a potter but, as I know, it is a wood harder than stone.

Song shaping the spinning top on his wood lathe.

For about fifteen minutes, I watch the magician shaping my spinning top; I see the tip and then the head and the body curved. A shot of sandpaper and the master stops the turn; he examines the spinning top and, satisfied, installs it on another lathe that will allow it to pierce the housing intended for the head and ball bearing. This is a high-precision operation because if the head is placed crooked, the spinning top will be wobbly. But song goes to trial; It just uses a foot-to-slide to check the depth of the housing for the ball bearing.

The spinning top is completed. Song check it before installing the head bearing ball.

Another five minutes of work and it’s over. Song removes the top of the lathe and tends to me; It’s more than 5 kilos, probably 6 or 7! The spinning top fabrication will have last about twenty minutes and I took a lot of eyes. We test my new spinning top on the sidewalk in front of the shop; it looks perfectly balanced.