Hong Kong’s Shanghai-style barbers face the cut
Shops that used to be common and fashionable in Hong Kong now among the last of a dying breed
At 7pm, just as 71-year-old barber Ko Tak-tin was about to close shop, an old lady stepped in and, almost curtly, demanded he trim her sideburns.
Not missing a beat, Ko left the counter where he was clearing accounts and pulled out a chair for the woman in front of the mirrors, picked up a pair of scissors made specially for cutting sideburns, and started clipping.
Such is daily life at the 36-year-old Kiu Kwun Barber Shop, North Point, one of the city’s last Shanghainese barbershops, where barbers and customers banter like family, sparing the pleasantries.
Most things are as they were three decades ago, from the red-blue-white barber’s pole, massage chairs, hooded hairdryers and perm rollers, to the barber’s strong Shanghai accent.
And unlike today’s beauty salons, the two-storey traditional barbershop serves men and women on separate floors.
Ko, who works in a crimson cotton suit, takes pride in owning one of the city’s classic Shanghainese barbershops, which were in vogue from the 50s to 80s, when countless Shanghai immigrants flooded in the city.
Ko moved to Hong Kong from Yuangzhou, Jiangsu in 1959.
He said: “Before modern beauty salons took over, Shanghai barbershops were everywhere in Hong Kong in the 60s. Shanghai, for a long time, represented the most modern and cosmopolitan fashion.
“In a classic barbershop like mine, customers can get their hair cut and washed in the old-fashioned way. Instead of using electric clippers, we mostly use scissors.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Ko started cutting hair at the age of 16. Today he says modern barbers have become less skilled with their hands and too dependent on electric clippers.
“They might not even know how to properly thin someone’s hair,” he said. “They don’t even have the right scissors for it.”
He said Shanghainese barbershops used to be considered high-end establishments, but became less lucrative when modern beauty salons arrived.
“In modern beauty salons, they no longer provide shaving services,” he said. “Including shaving in my package means that it takes me twice as long to attend to one customer.”
But Ko’s first-rate skills have won him a large base of regulars over the years, the sole reason he has managed to stay afloat.
“I have regulars who have been coming to me for over five decades,” he said. “There is one customer who is 106 years old.”
But he said cutting hair with scissors would soon become a lost art, as no youngster is interested in learning the craft.
“The last year that I took an apprentice was 1987,” he said. “Today’s barbers simply go to hairdressing school for around six months. Back then we served as apprentice for two to three years.”
He said the next few years could see the end of his journey with the barbershop, as the 15 other barbers he works with age.
“My barbers are in their 60s,” he said. “As this last generation of Shanghai-style barbers starts meeting its maker, this industry will soon be gone for good.”