'Ears' a job you don't see every day

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 August, 2001, 12:00am

Thirty years ago in virtually any barber shop around Hong Kong you could see clients sitting patiently in the chair, but the barbers weren't cutting their hair or polishing their fingernails - they were scraping excess wax from the customers' ears.

The ear-cleansing business, called choi yi dried up as the specialists retired, and now there's only one ear-cleansing master in Hong Kong. His name is Ng Wah-sun - a very sprightly 80 year-old who looks no older than 60.

Master Ng said he kept himself fit because his business required that its practitioners have a healthy body.

'Your eyes have to be bright to search in the small earhole,' he said.

'Your hands have to be stable so you won't deafen your client, and you have to stand during the process, so your legs have to be strong.'

Sixty-two years ago, when Ng was 18, he escaped to Hong Kong from the Japanese troops. Illiterate and with practically no resources to his credit, Ng followed his cousin, who was an experienced barber, in order to learn the business of cutting hair and cleaning the ears of his clients.

Five months later, Master Ng had officially qualified as a barber with the additional talent of being able to undertake the tricky business of removing built-up wax from the ears. He opened his own salon at Mongkok in 1962.

The small salon is decorated simply; there are four chairs, an iron gate and a glass side wall. Several newspaper articles about Master Ng and his work are displayed on the window glass.

There are also some home-made posters on the wall to promote his unique business. They seem to accomplish their purpose; a regular clientele - especially among the middle-aged - visits periodically for the service.

In the salon, along with the mirrors and implements of the trade, Master Ng has placed some dumbbells on the floor. There is also a bottle of rice wine.

'I exercise with the dumbbells three times a week,' he said. 'Look here; I have strong biceps,' he boasts, making a muscle in what must be reported honestly as a rather spindly arm . . . wiry, granted, but still spindly.

Though he loves his wine, he says he takes a drink only after the day's business is done.

So what is this process called choi yi ? It means cleansing the excess ear wax, but it differs from how we do it at home.

According to Master Ng, ordinary cotton buds only push the ear wax deeper inside, so it is useless to clean your ears by yourself. To do the job thoroughly, specialist tools are needed, including brushes, tiny scissors, clippers and scrapers. A strong lamp is used to examine the client's ears.

The procedure has five steps. First, the tiny scissors are used to cut away excess hair. This allows a better view of the ear to examine for a build-up of wax.

Then, if excess wax is present a scraper is used to loosen it. A clipper then removes the pieces. Finally, Master Ng brushes the ears.

If the client has failed to clean their ears for a long time, he applies a medicinal liquid to soften the wax in order to avoid causing discomfort.

Yuk! Does it hurt?

One 40-year-old housewife who asked for an ear-cleansing because her right ear was blocked by cotton wool said she was very frightened at first.

After the procedure she said it had not been painful at all. Another customer, a 56-year-old man agreed.

'My ears always feel itchy so my friend recommended Master Ng,' he said. 'In the past I asked my wife to help me with my ears but she dare not do it now because her hands get too tired. But cleaning the ears does not hurt at all.'

Ng said customers enjoyed improved hearing and better balance after having their ears cleaned. The procedure also soothed allergies, he said.

With about ten customers a day, Master Ng enjoys his semi-retirement, but when he gives up his work completely will the technique vanish with the master?

All of Master Ng's apprentices were women between 24 and 25 years old, he said. They were interested because it helped their own careers in the sauna centres. But Master Ng said his students were grateful to learn a technique which helped them to improve their business.

Sally is a summer intern from the Hong Kong Baptist University.

Graphic: oldhkglo