Meet the Chinese Musician Who is Nuts About Festive Nutcrackers

By That's Shanghai, December 5, 2019

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Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.

By Tongfei Zhang and Hart Huguet Hagerty

Two years ago musician Phoenix Cao swapped his rock’n’roll lifestyle for a simpler one, opening nutcracker store Wood World on Julu Lu. Day after day, it’s just Cao, his guitar and an army of nutcrackers manufactured in his family’s factory. Here, he tells how the iconic toys changed his life for the better.

How did your family get into nutcrackers? 
Manufacturing nutcrackers has been a family business for 16 years. My aunt was an English teacher. She went abroad often and got to know a toy businessman who specialized in Christmas handicrafts. Finally, she gave up teaching and decided to join him. At first we manufactured all kinds of Christmas crafts, then gradually focused on nutcrackers. Initially, they were for export only, but there were leftovers from each order, so two years ago I took them and started this shop.

Why did you decide to open the store?
People ask this a lot. I didn’t start this shop for the money, but because it interests me, especially the fairytales. I’m a musician myself, and I think everything has a life of its own. It makes me very happy just looking at the nutcrackers. But the main reason I opened Wood World was because I wanted to change my living habits, to force myself to readjust my biological clock.

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What were your old habits?
I played music for about 10 years when I was young and lived a reversed lifestyle: sleeping during the day and playing music at night. As I got older I thought this unhealthy pattern needed to change. This shop is like my own private space and I just like to stay here, playing guitar and selling nutcrackers. I don’t need too many people around me as long as I don’t lose money, it’s fine. Actually this is not my only job. I’m also a freelance songwriter and the performance manager of a bar.

Who’s your typical customer?
Mostly young Chinese people. Boys buy them as gifts for girls. I sell the most before Christmas. More and more Chinese people learn about nutcrackers by watching the famous ballet, and there are performances in Shanghai every year. They especially love the classic nutcrackers. For a Chinese person, nutcrackers are exotic and new. It’s just how foreigners like buying traditional Chinese stuff.

How much are your nutcrackers? 
In Germany, this RMB300 nutcracker sells for EUR190, but it’s made a bit more delicately. It’s so expensive because, not only is it a piece of art, it also contains a 300 year history. It’s not just a toy but actually plays the role of a family guard who protects your family. Do you know the story of The Nutcracker? On Christmas Eve, a German princess who liked nutcrackers a lot was captured and taken away by the Mouse King, and one of the nutcrackers became a real prince and saved her.

Yet more proof that miracles do happen at Christmas. So where do the nutcracker designs come from?
An American or European toy company will give our factory the design and ask for 1,000 products. However, we will make 1,005 products. The other five products are back-ups in case some of the nutcrackers break during export. But if there aren’t any broken ones, I put them in my store rather than leave them in storage. 

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Do you have nutcrackers in your house?
My house is full of nutcrackers! Two whole rooms of them one for storage and one for my favorite ones.

What are your favorites?
One was a Star Wars nutcracker and the other was a Harry Potter one. I sold them both, but I really didn’t want to.

What do you think of Christmas?
Christmas in China doesn’t have the real Jesus Christ meaning; it’s just an excuse to have fun. As for me, I earn more during Christmas time.

What’s the meaning behind your Chinese name, Cao Xuefei 曹雪飞?
There was one of the biggest snow storms in Shanghai the year I was born, so I was given this name meaning ‘Snow Flying.’  

Hark the herald angels! Your name conjures up images of a white Christmas…
Yes, it is my destiny.

[Ed's note: Sadly Phoenix Cao's nutcracker emporium is no more. Pour an eggnog out for a fallen brother...]


This article first appeared in the December 2010 issue of That's Shanghai. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.

[All photos by Nicky Almasy]

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