Slam dunk success: Meet the Shanghai barber who’s a huge hit with the basketball stars of the NBA

A passion for men’s grooming and a generous brother helped this former construction worker become an award-winning stylist

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 11:24pm

Wu Yalong realised a dream when he opened his basketball-themed barbershop in Shanghai, but it was only after a former NBA All-Star dropped in for a beard trim that he knew he had a slam dunk success.

And after two years of honing his skills, the 22-year-old earlier this year cut a fine figure as he saw off the challenge of several hundred of his fellow Chinese barbers to win a prestigious contest organised by Wahl, the American manufacturer of men’s grooming products.

Wu’s story began in 2015 when he was working as a construction contractor in his hometown of Quanzhou, in southeast China’s Fujian province. Almost everyone in the city worked in the building trade, he said, so after studying construction engineering and management at vocational school it was inevitable that he followed suit.

“[But] After two years of work in that industry I knew it was not what I wanted,” Wu said.

What he did want to do was cut hair, much to the disappointment of his parents, who both made their living in construction.

“They wanted me to be a boss, not someone who cuts other people’s hair,” he said. “But now they love talking about me and my brother to their friends and relatives. They are so proud of us.”

Wu is quick to acknowledge the role his brother, Wu Yaqiang, has played in his success as without his elder sibling’s financial support he might never have got started.

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The wannabe stylist had heard about a training course organised by the All Star Barber Shop in his hometown that offered an introduction to the art of African-American barbering, a style of men’s grooming that was becoming increasingly popular in China.

The course was being promoted by barber and Chinese hip-hop enthusiast Lin Li, better known as “Ollie” in grooming circles, and included coaching from industry legend and award-winning American stylist Darrin Lyons, also known as DL Master Barber.

It was everything Wu wanted, but at 10,000 yuan (US$1,450) for a week’s tuition, it was also well out of his price range. Thankfully for the teenager, his big brother was there to help and came up with the necessary funds.

“My parents thought I was crazy spending 10,000 yuan for just a week of classes,” Wu said. “They thought cutting hair was an inferior job, but my elder brother supported me.”

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It turned out to be money well spent. After completing the training programme, Wu spent months practising the techniques he had learned – like how to do fades, shave lines and make intricate patterns with razors – on anyone who was willing to model for him.

“I invited all my relatives and friends to come for a free haircut. They were happy to. After all they always needed a haircut and they didn’t care much about the style,” he said.

“I became a haircutting monster.”

As well as giving him the skills he needed to shape and style hair, Ollie’s training course also gave Wu the confidence and inspiration to set up his own African-American barbershop-style business, which he did the following year after moving to Shanghai.

With his love of basketball – his brother is also a keen streetballer – Wu, who by this time had adopted the moniker “Allen”, had no difficulty deciding on a basketball and hip-hop theme for his new shop. And while its scale was, and remains, small – it is run from his flat on the top floor of a high-rise on Dapu Road – his ambition was boundless.

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While there are no signs outside the building advertising its presence, thanks to social media – where it is known as the All-day Barbershop – and, once again, Wu Yaqiang, who directed his streetballer friends to the shop, Wu’s soon became the place to go for Shanghai’s trendy young things keen to mirror the hair- and beard styles of their sporting and musical heroes.

Wu’s big break came just a month after he opened, when the agent of retired seven-time NBA All-Star Tracy McGrady contacted him on WeChat, China’s most popular instant messaging platform.

“It came all of a sudden,” he said.

Although the person introduced himself as a representative of McGrady – who once played alongside Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming at the Houston Rockets – Wu was sceptical.

“The moment I saw it, I thought it must be a trick,” he said. “But after talking with the guy for a few moments, I was convinced it was true. McGrady was coming to China for a promotion and he wanted me to cut his hair.”

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When the NBA all-star arrived a few days later, Wu said he was nervous but excited.

As requested, he gave McGrady a low taper fade, a popular style for men which looks “masculine yet clean”.

“McGrady kept looking at himself in the mirror in fear I might ruin his hair. But after I finished he was full of praise. He asked me to trim his beard too,” Wu said.

McGrady was so impressed, in fact, that he introduced his cousin Vince Carter, another NBA player, currently with the Atlanta Hawks, who visited the young stylist on a visit to Shanghai.

As Wu’s reputation grew, so too did the number of visiting basketball stars. In the past two years, Wu has put his skills to the test on the heads and chins of about 10 NBA players and countless Chinese celebrities.

Basketball is hugely popular in China and players from the NBA frequently make visits to the country for promotional purposes.

Wu’s roll-call includes James Harden, from the Houston Rockets and the NBA’s most valuable player (MVP) in 2018; Derrick Rose, of the Minnesota Timberwolves and NBA MVP in 2011; Joel Haywood, who plays for the Halifax Hurricanes in the National Basketball League of Canada; and China’s rising star Ding Yanyuhang, who joined NBA team the Dallas Mavericks in July this year.

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“They [foreign players] often visit a number of cities, so their stays are not short when they come to China, and they need to get their hair cut,” Wu said. “I usually go to their hotels to do it.”

Wu said he was especially pleased when Harden let him trim his trademark beard.

Now firmly established as a pioneer in the market for men’s grooming in China – about 70 graduates of Ollie’s “All Star” training course have gone on to open American-style barbershops in the country – Wu took another giant leap forward in April by winning the Wahl China Barber Battle 2018.

Despite the success providing clear evidence that he is still very much at the top of the grooming game, Wu is already thinking about the future.

While his current priority is maintaining a good work-life balance – he never accepts more than six appointments a day as he prefers to spend the rest of his time playing basketball with his friends – he one day hopes to he can use his talents for the greater good.

He said he hoped in the future to leave the day-to-day running of the shop to his apprentices – though he has yet to employ any – and work with poor communities in rural China.

“I will go to places where people can’t afford a barber and serve them for free, especially children in the remote areas of China’s mountain regions,” he said.

“I want to tell them that you can learn new things … don’t let the mountains trap your horizons, and one day you may be able to take your local culture to the world.”