Wu Labao, a Veteran Master Dedicated to Watch Repair for over 70 Years

Released on:2017-09-19




Photography by reporter: Yu Ruwen

(Text by reporter: Huang Jingjing)

With a lamp, a work table and all kinds of gadgets, the 87-year-old Mr. Wu Labao is looking down through a magnifying glass at a watch core in his left hand, holding a pair of tweezers in wright hand He is carefully taking the core apart. Some watches are beyond repair for some people, but once in his hands, they come to life again. Year in year out, the watch master has spent 70 years repairing watches, and developed lifetime affection for the trade.

Creating art out of eyebrow-thick parts

Wu looks hale and hearty, able to see and hear clearly. Though he has to pick up some small parts with tweezers, his hands remain firm. His accurate and smooth skill makes it hard to believe he is already 87 years old.

“This watch has 143 parts,” Wu said, picking up a Longines watch sent to him for repair by a customer. “It’s not because I have a good memory, but because I have taken apart this model of watch for at least hundreds of times.”

“Magic” comes from the hard work made in youth. At the age of 15, Wu started as an apprentice in Jiaxing and when he was 19, he came to work on his craftsmanship in a watch shop in Nanjing Road, Shanghai. In his free time, he took apart the watches and pieced them together again. He did this again and again for ten years. Such efforts acquainted him with the structure and working principles of the watches.

In 1958, the first watch factory of China, Shanghai Watch Factory, was founded. Wu Labao worked in the factory, being a worker first, then promoted as assistant foreman, foreman and assistant superintendent. With consummate workmanship, he won dozens of awards in the municipal and even national technical competitions and even a wall of a room is not large enough to post all his certificates of merit. Thus, he became a well-known “great master” nationwide in the horologium industry. After he retired ahead of time from the factory, he was employed as an engineer in other watch factories in Kunming, Guiyang and Chongqing.

Mr. Wu told the reporter that watch repair is like the bypass surgery. Take “planting the escapement” for example. The escapement in a watch is a set of gear wheels composed of the escapement wheel and the balance wheel, which drive the watch at an exact rate to tell time. The tip of axis of the gear wheel is usually as fine as an eyebrow. If it is accidentally broken and no replacement is available in the market, it will have to be repaired by hands.

“For such a damaged precision part, no shop keeper would take the risk to repair it. They just directly replace it. Now less and less people master certain crafts,” Wu said worriedly.

Attracted by his fame, the customer came from Beijing

In the Community Life Service Center of Caojiadu Sub-district, in a three-square-meter space lies the “base area” where Mr. Wu serves the residents, Watch Repair.

“We all know Mr. Mu is a great master of watch repair and his service is affordable”. Ms. Liu, who came here to have her watch repaired, told the reporter. She had three watches repaired by Mr. Wu. Although she moved to Yangpu District a few years ago, she still comes to him for help every time her watch goes wrong.

Mr. Wu told the reporter that most of his customers are residents nearby and some are from Chuansha, Jiuting and Qingpu, attracted by his fame. In 2009, the Swiss Mido watch of Mr. Dong from Beijing impressed Mr. Wu deeply, “That watch has been the most difficult one to repair for me over the years.”

The watch was bought by Mr. Dong 30 years ago and was repaired by a few major watch shops in Beijing. Although the parts of week calendar and date had been removed, the watch still worked on and off. Mr. Dong went to the Mido shop in Beijing for help and was told that the watch had to be sent to Switzerland for repair and it would cost him at least RMB3,000. Mr. Dong had no other choice but to leave the watch as it was for over ten years. In 2009, he paid a visit to his children in Pudong, Shanghai, and learned by chance that Mr. Wu is very proficient in repairing watches, so he came to Mr. Wu for a try.

“Only the balance wheel and the bearing went wrong in the first place, but more parts went wrong when the watch was repaired again and again.” Since the watch model is too old, Mr. Wu had to go a lot of places to find all needed parts, and returned every part back to their due places. It took him over a month to get the watch right and the watch gives very accurate time. The repair fee was only RMB300, ten percent of that of the franchise shop.

The reporter found in the interview that Mr. Wu would write down the time of repair in the inner cap of the watch. “It’s a mark that watch is repaired by me. Repair will be free of charge during the warranty period.” Mr. Wu said. On his busiest day, he had to repair 30 watches a day. If he calculates from the age of 15, he may have repaired tens of thousands of watches.

A craftsman has to rely on the hard work of his fingertips

Recalling the history of the watch industry, Mr. Wu sighed with emotion. In 1960s, the watch was one of the “three major items” for wedding and it was extremely difficult to get a ticket to buy a watch. In 1970s and 1980s, the watch become more and more common and the horologium trade was booming. From 1990s, the industry was depressed and a lot of watchmakers changed their profession. Now, it’s rare to find a veteran watchmaker like Mr. Wu.

“There are less and less watchmakers of my time.” Mr. Wu said, with the development of the times, the watch technology is advancing and it’s increasingly difficult to maintain and repair watches. As a craftsman, you have to rely on the hard work of your fingertips. “No matter how complex a watch is, the fundamentals remain unchanged. What’s being tested is your patience and carefulness.”

Fortunately for Mr. Wu, he had quite a few students when he worked in Shanghai Watch Factory and he taught them everything he knew. Now, most of his students are the backbone of major Shanghai watch shops in Shanghai. “I’ve trained a group of talents for the Chinese watch industry, so to speak. I’ve done my bit.”

In his eyes, the watch is not just a tool to keep time or a symbol of status, but also a reminder of cherishing precious time and nostalgia for time. “Actually, each watch is a piece of artwork.”

In the ticktack, the almost ninety-year master still enjoys repairing his customers’ timepieces. He hopes to spend the rest of his life with watches until one day he can no longer hold a screwdriver.