Mr. Wei stands in his small store in a large shopping complex in the center of Tianjin. He wears a well-fitted but slightly fraying suit, and lounges against the counter as a young couple looks over the small collection of kites adorning the walls. The kites are of the typical varieties one would expect from from a Tianjin-style kite shop – sparrow kites, goldfish kites, but mostly the eagle kite, Tianjin’s specialty.
He is an older man, in his early sixties, and something about his demeanor is slightly intimidating. He holds himself with the air of one who knows, deep-down, that he is one-of-a-kind. And he arguably is. He is the fourth generation of the Wei family of kite makers, rock stars in the Chinese kiting world. For over one hundred years the Wei family has made kites, beginning in the late 1890s. Wei Yongtai was the personal kite maker for the final emperor of China, Puyi. During the Japanese occupation of Tianjin, Wei Yongtai’s grandson, Wei Yongchang, was famous for creating kite banners used to oppose the Japanese puppet government.
Now, Wei Guoqiu, the great-grandson of Wei Yongtai, owns “Wei’s Kites” in Tianjin. In addition to the running of his boutique, he participates in kite making competitions, teaches apprentices the art of kite making, and upholds his family’s tradition of artisan kite making.
Or, at least, sort of.