Mingo Tang Kui-ming draws his inspiration from a six-month stint in the west of China in the 1980s.
Having grown accustomed to luxury touring with professional hairdressing shows, he was shocked when he was shown to his accommodation - a cold cave with no bed; he was to sleep on the floor. Meals were sparse, with gritty rice and he was forced to take cold showers. His classroom was no more than a patch of rocky land and when he asked for scissors, Tang was given a scythe.
“I hadn’t realised how poor these people were. They had nothing”, says Tang. Weeks earlier, a Chinese woman had approached Tang after one of his hairdressing demonstrations in Manila, asking him to hold free training in rural Sichuan. “It was an unforgettable experience. Uncomfortable, but very meaningful”, says Tang.
At times he wanted to leave, but he decided that if it he could share his hairdressing skills, he would give these people a means to make money, and would make a real impact on the quality of their lives. Returning to Hong Kong, Tang was determined to make volunteer work a regular part of his life.
Tang says he always wished he could have been more help to his elderly grandmother, who cared for him as a child, along with his six siblings. He saw his parents just three days each year, over Spring Festival, which was the only holiday they could afford. Tang’s grandmother worked tirelessly with limited resources, and died when Tang was in middle school. She remains always close to his heart, says Tang.
He began offering free haircuts to the elderly in a residential estate in Ngau Tau Kok. “The elevator only stopped at every fourth floor. For the elderly or immobile, they were stranded”, says Tang. But if someone never leaves their house, do they need stylish hair?
“Human beings build self-esteem through the recognition of others”, Tang says. People who are isolated at home often have very low self-esteem, according to Tang. “When I first see them, their heads are low, they keep their eyes down. But after I give them a haircut, they have confidence. It’s instantaneous!”, says Tang, 56.
Not long after he began offering haircuts to the elderly, poor and people with disabilities, Tang started to offer regular hairdressing classes for free, hoping to train an army of people to help him in his volunteer work. It’s been a huge success, but Tang is disappointed when volunteers don’t realise just how much their clients rely on them.
“That hurts”, says Tang, “It’s about more than just giving them a haircut. We build a relationship and they are often are waiting for us to come back. When people aren’t willing to make a commitment, it’s really upsetting”, he says.
In his small Tsim Sha Tsui salon, a chalkboard is filled with newspaper clippings about Tang and his work. The media often take an interest, which Tang appreciates - it helps him recruit more volunteers. Recently, after one article in the paper, Tang received a deluge of phone calls. “There must have been more than 300”, says Tang, “I was almost dreading hearing the phone ring!”
Tang points to a picture from several years ago, in which he is cutting the hair of an elderly woman. “That’s Ma Po Chan, I’ve been cutting her hair for 10 years”, says Tang. He pulls out a more recent picture of the two, “Look how we’ve both aged!” he says, laughing.