Kinmen, a cluster of small islands off the eastern coast of China, stands in the crosshairs of an international conflict, though you wouldn’t know it visiting there.
The subtropical islands have become a popular tourist destination because of its quaint villages, quiet beaches—and a factory that makes knives out of discarded bombs.
The factory, called Chin Ho Li, has been in continuous operation since 1937, when it used artillery shells fired during World War II to make knives.
Its products are now coveted souvenirs for people who visit the islands.
A bit of historical context: Kinmen is only a mile away from mainland China, but it is controlled by Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.
And as the closest Taiwanese jurisdiction to mainland China, the islands are a frequent flashpoint between the two sides.
During a bombing mission in August 1958, the mainland Chinese army dropped over 570,000 rounds of explosives on Kinmen, according to Taiwan Today, a state-run publication.
All the raids left a considerable amount of discarded shells, which the factory has turned into specialty knives.
The pieces have become popular mementos for tourists. Taiwanese officials have presented the knives as gifts to foreign dignitaries during visits. (In one famous exchange, a mainland Chinese official received a Kinmen knife as a symbol of the two sides “burying the hatchet” during a visit in 2015.)
Part of the knives’ novelty is their connection to the islands’ wartime history.
“People were merely making the best use of shells for domestic and agricultural purposes,” says Huang Hsin-yin, an assistant professor of architecture at National Quemoy University in Kinmen, who has studied the knives.
Wu Tseng-dong, the factory’s current director, learned how to forge knives from his father, who had passed down the tradition from his father.
“The steel knives made from these shells are sharp and durable,” Wu says. “But while the quality of steel is important, so is the process.”
Half of that process is still done by hand, while the other half is done by machine.
Wu first uses oxyacetylene gas to cut off a small piece of steel from the shell, a foundry method known as gas welding.
That piece is then heated before it’s forged into the shape of a knife.
Wu then finishes it off by trimming the piece, sharpening it, and polishing it with a bench grinder.
The factory produces about 100 knives a day, and one artillery shell can yield 40 to 60 knives, according to a factory spokesperson.
A dying art
Kinmen has not experienced a bombing since 1979, when the United States established diplomatic relations with mainland China.
And under successive Taiwanese administrations, relations between the mainland and Taiwan have cooled, with many nongovernmental and business exchanges.
All that means there is a limited number of artillery shells left in Kinmen, though an exact figure is difficult to ascertain. The factory simply says it has “a lot” of shells left without giving a precise number.
Huang believes the remaining shells are reserved for steel knives for “special guests,” such as foreign dignitaries and high-ranking government officials.
The tourist souvenirs, Huang says, are probably made with shells sourced from elsewhere, such as the Taiwanese military or imported from Vietnam.
For Wu, finding an heir to his craft has been the main struggle.
(Watch: We got a knife massage in Taiwan)
Many younger people aren’t willing to invest in learning such a labor-intensive and complicated process like forging knives by hand.
“Nowadays, young people rarely regard this profession as a lifelong career,” he says. “It is indeed a big problem in recruiting knife makers.”
Huang believes the Kinmen knives will continue to sell for at least five to eight more years, thanks in part to sustained tourism and their promotion by the current administration in Kinmen.
Every day, busloads of tourists from mainland China and Taiwan stop by the factory as part of an itinerary focused on Kinmen’s wartime history.
“As long as the tourism pattern remains the same here, the formula will work as it has been,” Huang says.