July 15 & August 5, 2018
With the soles of my 3 month old $12 Thai shoes gone, I was in the market for some new kicks. [Side note: there exists (or existed) a Twin Peaks music cover band called “Leo Johnson and the News Shoes“]
Buying anything involves research, including shoes, so I started looking into what sort of footwear I could expect to come across in China. I was hoping for something cheap, but decent quality, hopefully a high quality knockoff.
I quickly came across two classic Chinese shoe brands that piqued my interest, Feiyue and Hui Li. Translation is Flying Forward and Warrior. The Hui Li have interesting fake wood grain rubber edging, but weren’t really my style. The Feiyue looked amazing and the translation, plus the distinct deep ridges in the rubber makes me think of PF Flyers (which I love, because, Sandlot).
The history of the Feiyue is a bit convoluted. They started out as the Chinese answer to early rubber and canvas athletic shoes (commonly called plimsolls I have learned). They turned out to be particularly popular among martial artists even today. They also went through a revival like Converse, and are now a cool kid (read: hipster) thing to rock, and there are all sorts of fashionable color lines.
But there is also this confusion with a French company (do want those Snoopy flavoured sneaks that they got on sale though) that arguably bought the rights to the Feiyue name, and produces very expensive versions of this style of shoe for Western markets. There is some bad blood between the French and Chinese companies, but they supposedly have an understanding to not intrude on each other markets. But I did read a story (can’t find it anymore) that now there are some Chinese companies making cheap knockoffs of the French version. So that’s a cheap Chinese imitation of an expensive French imitation of a common place Chinese shoe. The global economy is fun sometimes isn’t it?
Anyway, I was dead-set on getting a pair of these shoes, and put in a decent amount of research for where to find a pair. As a result, my main goal in Shanghai was to score some new kicks. And I made out like crazy.
A reddit thread pointed me to a small hole in the wall place on Anfu Road close to where we were staying with Emily and Paul (shout out to our lovely hosts!).
The store stocks the legit original Feiyue shoes. The rubber is molded all funny, and they come wrapped in paper and cost just over 5 USD. I would have bought a whole arm load of these, but there weren’t many in my size (though the originals seem to run larger than the fashion line).
And then I did some new boot goofin’…
I also picked up a cleaner, more fashionable pairs from a shoe chain called Culture Matters in Shanghai that stocks the shoes for local and foreign hipsters. It’s a chain that you can find all over the place but the store I stopped at was just around of the corner from the previous store on Anfu. It was roughly here. I was really hoping for black high tops with the color logo but the all black with the gumsole (not really gumsole, but yellow rubber) was good enough for me and really completed the PF flyer comparison. They were quite a bit more expensive, but still under $15.
Culture Matters had almost nothing in size 44, and everyone was asking for it. So I settled for a size 45. It doesn’t quite fit, but I’m thrilled with the shoes and probably it’s good that size 44 was so rare, otherwise I would have walked off with far too many shoes
I was sufficiently happy with my score, but very quickly my fresh new pair of black Feiyues had a run in with a lot of water. When they dried out, the sewn fabric insole suffered a bit for it and started bunching up. They’re actually fine, but it felt like a defeat so I took a look for stores in Beijing. In what seems to me to be a grand Beijing tradition, all of the stores and markets that I found online had been flattened and replaced with soulless malls.
Then I came across some reviews of a small store called Culture Keys Boutique. It also has recently moved to the outskirts of the city, but their website was very clear about how to find them and the reviews were up to date. Based on what I read and learned later, it’s a store run by expats to promote Chinese culture. Their main business is in cultural classes and their store sells related products.
The Feiyue shoes come in because it’s the shoe that people wear for their kung-fu classes at a Shaolin temple (yeah I totally missed out on that, guess I’ll just have to come back, shucks). Students asked about where they could find extra pairs of shoes to take back with them. So the owner got in touch with the factory in Shanghai and is now a (or the) Beijing Feiyue retailer.
I got in touch with CK through wechat and was quickly talking to the owner AJ. I described that I was only in town for one more day and he agreed to meet me downtown with every shoe he had that might fit me, so nice of him. It saved me a lot of time in transit and since he sent pictures of what he had, it let me mull over my shoe buying strategy. Obviously I would buy too many.
I got two amazing pairs that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I didn’t think I was going to go for the herringbone high tops since it was a little much to be carrying with us. But Christina, as it turns out, has a weakness for herringbone (and hounds-tooth, but that’s tangential) and she was so excited about them that we decided I should get them for her. (But I can wear them, mua ha ha. Oh the joys of a spouse with the same sized feet.) These things are so incredibly fresh and the fabric is super soft.
I also picked up a pair with orange soles that AJ call Hainans. These things are beautiful. They are definitely too small for me, but they were so cool that I’ve convinced myself that I needed to get them in the hopes that they will fit my brother. It’s interesting to note that the soles on these are a bit more rounded, not flat, on the bottom. They are definitely more precisely built than the originals, but retain much of the original character. Definitely my favorite shoes of the set and I can’t even wear them.
Finally, I also scored a pair of originals in size 44. I love these things. The rounded sole definitely takes some getting used to, but I think it gets flattened out pretty quickly or I’ve adjusted. I took some pictures of the terrible quality control on these. Honestly it’s part of the appeal. It’s a reasonably well constructed shoe (from what I’ve heard), at a cheap price, with classic style, but zero frills otherwise.
The shoes look hand made and come wrapped in paper secured by the shoe laces. They are unique and just plain functional. I think my favorite part is the crappy job that was done with the glue on the left shoe. I’ll probably clean it up with a razor eventually but for now I’m enjoying it.
So I bought one, not two, but five pairs of Feiyues in Shanghai and Beijing, which we stuffed in our backpacks, and eventually got shipped back home when Christina visited California for her conference (spoilers!).
UPDATE as of Nov, three months of solid wear on the black originals. The sole is pretty well worn flat. A small hole appear in the ball of my right shoe. I patched it with super glue. I’m not really sure how much longer the soles will last. The ridges wore down really fast but now it’s flat and there is more surface area so hopefully they have some more life. The rest of the shoe is holding up really well. But this rubber is very soft so walking everyday has taken a toll.