Winnie Chui Makes Calligraphy Brushes from Infant Hair
As one of Hong Kong’s few remaining practitioners of this rare craft, she says she’s proud to be the creator of these unique totems.
Why make brushes with babies’ hair? The tradition of making baby hair brushes originated in Northern China, and each brush symbolizes the everlasting bond between parents and their children. They also represent parents’ wishes for their children to become wise, level-headed and studious individuals, as well as their expectations of filial piety. The brushes are made from the hair of infants aged 3 years and under. Only the first growth of hair is used, because that’s the only time when human hair tapers naturally at the tip.
How’d you get into the business? My husband’s family made Chinese calligraphy brushes in Beijing—both the regular kind and those made from infant hair. After my husband came to Hong Kong, he became a shoemaker because the practice of gifting baby hair brushes wasn’t common in Hong Kong. I stayed at home to look after our three daughters. When my husband neared retirement, he wanted to do something that involved less travelling. So about 20 years ago, we decided to set up shop. It took some time for me to adjust to my new role as a business owner. But when I was a housewife my husband taught me a few tricks of the trade, which made the transition easier.
Your business is pretty unusual. Are you worried about it dying out? My eldest daughter is very helpful around the store. She is usually the one who makes home visits to collect the babies’ hair. Most of our clients ask for home visits, you see. She was also the one who set up our Facebook page. Nowadays, that’s how people find out about us—through the internet. My second daughter will soon be joining the business. But in this business, we have to work weekends because that’s when the parents are free. You know how it is—young people love their weekends. It definitely is a big responsibility and requires sacrifice, so if my other daughters aren’t willing to take over our family business there really is nothing I can do. Plus, it also depends on whether they have the ability to do it. We engrave couplets on the brushes based on the infants’ names. My daughters have yet to acquire a knack for writing those couplets.
You must have had some interesting encounters. One time, I went to a little boy’s home to collect hair from his baby sibling. Just as I turned on the hair clipper, the brother bowed his head as if to say, “Here, take my hair instead!’” It was moving to see such a young boy care so deeply for the baby. Of course, I’ve also met many annoying parents. Many young parents nowadays are very self-centered. Some have asked to have their babies’ hair cut on the first day of the Lunar New Year, which is silly because nobody works that day. Some parents insist on cutting less than the required length, so we have no choice but to end up making brushes that don’t look very good.
What do baby hair brushes mean to you? I see them as my way of contributing to society by helping parents encourage their children to grow up to be virtuous and diligent individuals. It’s a contribution that lasts a lifetime. When I present parents with the baby hair brushes, I also give them five locks of hair collected from different points of their infants’ heads, so they can come back to us for free maintenance in case the brush hairs fall out. We also offer traditional rituals for our customers. For example, when their children turn three, we carry out a ritual that involves brushing their personal brushes over their sensory organs to “awaken” their five senses. We offer these rituals for free. In our business, we don’t make big bucks. We just want the best for our future generations.