Not just a haircut at the Shanghai barber

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2001, 12:00am

When you want a haircut, you probably visit a familiar salon close by, and never think of seeking out one of Hong Kong's Shanghai-style barbershops, and you might be forgiven for considering such a place 'old stuff', although Shanghai barbers were once regarded as trendsetting and fashionable.

Shanghai-style barbershops are different, however, with their own particular practice that differs markedly from modern salons. First, the barber presents customers with a newspaper rather than a glossy magazine as in your average, everday contemporary salon, followed by hot tea and cigarettes.

Next, the barber produces a hot towel to clean your face and only then does he get down to the business of cutting hair.

When the job is done, he will give you a shave (if you're a man), or offer a shampoo and styling.

Before leaving the shop, you'll be given another hot towel to freshen your face.

Shanghai-style Ngan Kwan Salon in Un Chau Street, Shamshuipo, has been established for more than 40 years. One of the barbers, Ma Man, 63, began his career as a hairdresser in 1950. Ma has experienced the ups and downs of a highly changeable industry.

He said the Asian financial turmoil of 1997 was an especially devastating time for an industry that had already shrunk by half since its heyday in the '60s and '70s.

'In that era, every industry in Hong Kong was booming as the society was developing,' Ma said. 'Everyone could earn a fortune if you worked hard.'

At the peak of the business, the salon employed as many as 36, including barbers, hair washers, cosmeticians and manicurists.

'In that period, all the chairs were occupied by customers, and all the staff was busy,' he said.

Now there are only nine barbers left.

'Most of them left because they were getting old and wanted to retire,' he said. 'Also, their children have all grown up, and they don't need to work anymore.

Even the owner of the salon had emigrated to Canada and left the business to Ma, he said.

One of the industry's main problems was that no newcomers entered the trade for the past 20 years.

'If they want to be a hairstylist, they'd rather go to those modern salons,' he said. 'You can't earn good money in this business anymore.'

It wasn't as easy to get into the business as it was in the '60s. Now, you had to be young, smart and have a bright outlook, Ma said.

'No one is willing to enter the industry,' he said, and this had hastened the industry's decline.

The owner of another Shanghai-style barbershop in the same street, Shanghai May Wah Beauty Parlour, established in 1959, said no newcomers was the industry's most crucial problem,

Taiwanese Wang Changci, 61, who took over the business from the previous owner in 1977, said most of the barbers in his shop were not as good as the ones in the past, but he had no choice but to take them on.

'The veteran barbers have all retired and there's no new blood coming into the industry,' Wang sighed. 'Even though the barbers are not up to standard, I have to hire them because I am short of staff.'

Wang learned to be a barber in a small salon in Taiwan after finishing primary school. He went to a traditional Shanghai barber in a bigger salon to learn more about hairdressing.

'In our generation, most of the people didn't have the chance to study,' he said. In order to earn a living, some learned a practical skill like haircutting,' he said. 'Most of the Shanghai-style barbers were illiterate and some even did not know how to sign their names for cheques.'

A hairstylist's training in the traditional Shanghai barbershop was totally different from the modern salon, he said. In the first two years of training, the barber did no haircutting or styling; all he did was sweep and mop the floor, collecting water from a well. He might get some practical experience by attacking some other staff member's hair.

'I was lucky,' Wang said. 'Some of the barbers had to look after children for their master when they were an apprentice.'

In the third year, he had his first opportunity to try his hand at barbering, including cutting hair, shampooing, styling and shaving. The master would not teach them directly; they just learned by observing, and the master would sometimes offer them advice.

Recalling the three years of his life as an apprentice, Ma also said it had been tough. They had to pay a few dollars to the master every month as a tutorial fee.

'We had to invite the shoe- shine boys in from the roadside, and feed them before asking them to be our models,' he recalled with a smile.

When they were practising the skills of their trade, the master would stand by the apprentices'side and watch them work.

Surprisingly perhaps, Ma said the barber's most difficult task was not cutting hair, but shaving the face.

'Shaving is always the hardest job,' said Ma. 'It's not that easy to shave the client because he may move, and the blade is sharp. We have to be very alert.'

Another veteran, Chow Tai- man, 78, said he would stay in the business until he could not do the job any longer. 'Time is hard to pass if you don't have a job to do,' said Chow.

Graphic: oldhkglo