Does the art of face threading have a future in Hong Kong?

Face threading involves removing hair, dead skin cells and blackheads by rolling a twisted piece of cotton across the face. It was very popular in Hong Kong in the past, but few people still earn a living from it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 11:09am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 June, 2017, 10:45am

Facials are a hugely popular beauty treatment, but they can be expensive. There is an alternative and traditional procedure available in Hong Kong. Chinese face threading claims the same results but costs a fraction of the price.

The concept of this ancient Chinese beauty treatment is simple. Directly translated as “threading face” (xian mian), it is a process to remove facial hair.

In most of the world, threading is usually focused on eyebrow shaping and upper lip hair removal, whereas the Chinese practice involves the use of powder, and is done on the entire face and neck. Beauticians claim that it can get rid of unwanted patches of colour and blackheads as well.

Although it sounds painful, face threading feels like being pinched gently. It can feel like a face massage.

There are a few dozen face threading practitioners in Hong Kong. Ms Li’s 50 sq ft shop is inside a shopping arcade in Sham Shui Po that mainly sells electronic gadgets and video games. A neon light outside says “Ancient Face Threading”.

The process can take from 20 to 40 minutes. Li starts by applying face threading powder – a mixture of perfume, calcium carbonate and lime powder – to the client’s face. This powder makes hair more visible and is said to prevent hypersensitivity. Some regular clients keep their own personal powder at the shop with Li.

The dilemma facing Hong Kong’s expectant mums: follow traditional Chinese beliefs or ways of the West?

Then she pulls out a cotton thread, deftly twists one end of it around her bandaged fingers and holds the other end with her teeth. Facial hairs are caught up and removed as she carefully rolls the threads down her client’s face.

“Every woman back in my hometown Shunde can do it. I learned it from my mother,’ says Li, 65. Her parents never named her as a child, so she goes by the name of ‘Ms Li’. She moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s.

Like many stay-at-home mothers at the time, Li took small sewing projects home for extra cash. When her children grew up, she got a job in a textile factory in Tsuen Wan.

She lost her job during the decline of the manufacturing industry in Hong Kong. Knowing how popular her face threading was, she opened a tiny shop in Lai Chi Kok.

Traditional Chinese medicine is China’s latest ‘soft power’ weapon

Li says there used to be many places offering threading in the city, but these days they’re few and far between.

“I don’t think face threading is dying out. My clients are mostly in their 20s and 30s,” says Li, however. “I also have about a dozen protégés. Some of them are learning face threading so they can use it on their family and friends, some learn it so they can use it in their beauty business.”

However, another face threading beautician, Moona Kwok Hei-yu, 24, believes it’s a dying art. She doesn’t know any other young people in the city who are taking it on as a full-time profession.

Kwok’s family has been doing face threading for three generations, and she believes that unless more people her age start learning this ancient beauty hack, it will soon disappear.

“I learned how to thread when I was a few years old, just by watching my grandmother and my mother do it,” says Kwok, recalling how clients used to visit their home. As the business grew, Kwok’s grandmother decided to open a shop.

“Face threading used to be very popular because it was believed to be a blessing,” says Kwok, saying that it was part of the pre-wedding ritual for brides. “People used to send their daughters here before they got married because face threading ‘opens up your face’ for the groom,” she says.

Many women opened up shops in the ’50s and ’60s on Reclamation Street in Kowloon. Competing with big beauty houses after she took over her mother’s shop in Mong Kok, Kwok says she is lucky to have maintained a steady clientele, which was established by her mother.

The traditional Chinese wedding ceremony is bowing out

She knows, however, that she needs to modernise her face threading shop in order to attract younger clients if she’s to survive. As well as setting up a website and a Facebook page to promote her business, Kwok got a beauty qualification and started to include modern facial machines and products in her face threading shop.

“It is the human connection that made me stay in this diminishing industry,” says Kwok. One of her clients, Tai Yee-wah, 63, says she used to visit Kwok’s mother for face threading. She is a loyal client and still visits Kwok every few months. Tai’s daughter, now in her 30s, also visits the shop on a regular basis.

It’s clear that Kwok knows her clients well. Tai asks about Kwok’s mother and they chat about their lives.

Li and Kwok both hope that face threading will continue to be a part of Hong Kong life and that more people will appreciate the craft.

“I want face threading to be like a hair salon,” says Li, adding that she will not retire until her teeth fall out and she can no longer hold the threads in her mouth. Even with bandages all over her fingers and pains in her neck and upper arms from the work, she is adamant about keeping her shop open.

Chinese face threading was included in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Hong Kong in 2014. With more people noticing the benefits of natural beauty treatments, and with the help of young practitioners like Kwok, perhaps the craft won’t disappear.