Elderly Hong Kong hairdresser brings happiness to those in need, one free haircut at a time
Long-time volunteer fondly recalls serving dying hospital patients
Tam Kuen-fai has been cutting hair since 1955. He started by taking a job for HK$15 a month at a hairdresser’s in Ap Lei Chau. Twice a week, he would go there to learn on the job. After a few years, he left and opened his own shop.
In 1993, Tam was visiting his wife at Haven of Hope Hospital. She had had a stroke.
He noticed that “people who lived in hospital for months on end had all these knots in their hair”. That’s when he decided it was time for him to do what he did best. “I’ve always wanted to help people, even though I don’t like it when people help me,” he said.
The next day, he packed his box of hairdressing tools and started giving free haircuts to hospital patients. “They were so happy after I cut their hair. I just kept doing it. At one point, I was cutting 60 people’s hair a day.”
“I even cut the hair of people in palliative care,” he recalled. “They’d say: ‘Thank you for helping me. I will leave this world happier because of your haircut.’”
Tam, 81, said cutting hair in hospital was nothing like being a regular hairdresser. Instead of helping clients who sit still, he had to wait for a nurse to lift patients’ heads up off the pillows and move quickly.
Although the work was difficult, he did not mind. Tam believes this is because he has seen it all in life, having grown up poor on a farm in Kaiping in Guangdong province. Once he was almost hit by lightning when a tree he was standing next to during a rainstorm was struck. Despite all these experiences, he noted there was one type of client he found difficult to help.
“I could deal with anything, even if patients were very dirty and unkempt,” he said. “The only thing I couldn’t handle was bleeding. The moment I see blood, I feel faint. At first, I didn’t know any better. There was a patient with a hole in his throat. Once he moved, blood came gushing out. So the second time, I used some tissues to cover the area and then cut his hair.”
Tam soon started offering haircuts to dementia patients at Tung Wah Hospital’s Wong Cho Tong Care and Attention Home. There, he encountered new challenges.
“I’d be midway through cutting patients’ hair, then all of a sudden they’d say they didn’t need a haircut any more, and they’d get up and leave. I had to learn not to take it to heart or else I couldn’t have continued doing this.”
In 2015, the hospitals asked Tam to stop doing social work after he had a stroke. With even hospital staff worried about his health, he decided to stay home to take care of his wife. Even then, he refused to be idle. Tam now offers free haircuts to anyone he sees around his housing estate and sometimes even to strangers on the street. Many of them are elderly and have difficulty moving about, while others simply cannot afford to get a haircut.
For his work in caring for those in need, Tam has been nominated for the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Compassion Ambassador category. He hopes this honour will help bring publicity to the importance of his work and encourage someone younger to take on his role.
Although a professional hairdresser, Tam prefers to keep things simple on his own head.
“I’ve gone bald on the top, but not on the sides. It’s not a good look,” he said with a chuckle. “So I cut it all off. My eyebrows are really long though. I used to cut them, but I noticed them getting even longer after I cut them, so I stopped doing that after a while.”