City Weekend

Self-taught barber in Hong Kong has problem with his roots – the government wants to move him out of them

Mark Lau learned family trade from YouTube after death of his father but the government has declared his tin shack in Wan Chai alley an illegal structure

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 7:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 September, 2017, 7:30pm

Four months after Mark Lau Ka-shing started to learn how to cut hair from his father, the founder of Oi Kwan Barber’s, the elder Lau died of lung cancer.

That was three years ago when Lau, then 24, decided to take over the family business and carry on the tradition. The sudden death of his father forced him to learn haircutting techniques from video tutorials on YouTube.

Oi Kwan Barber’s is located in an alley in Wan Chai and the business has been running out of a tin shack since 1962. It provides free haircuts in the old neighbourhood but has been considered an illegal structure by the government since last year.

No date has been given on when the shop on Spring Garden Lane must shut, according to Lau. But the impending closure by the government prompted him to open a second store in March this year on Mallory Street, just a five-minute walk from the original one.

Lau was reluctant to comment on the government policy, only saying it was “inevitable” to develop the city at the cost of some old stores.

Both Lau and his mother, however, admitted that the second store could never replace the original , which the son described as part of his roots.

“I have a sense of belonging here,” he said while sitting on one of three vintage barber chairs at the main shop, appearing exhausted from having to deal with the uncertain future of the 55-year-old business.

Some parents walked by and would tell their kids to study hard, or they would end up working on the street like my son

A handwritten price list hanging on the wall showed the shop used to charge customers HK$100 for a haircut package.

But Lau recently decided to offer free services at his main store.

“Those who come here are usually old friends and neighbours. And I don’t feel like charging them,” he said.

His mother, sitting at the back of the shop and resting under the air conditioner, said: “I am really happy to see my son trying his best to carry on his father’s legacy.”

Lau, who earned a certificate in photography from the Vocational Training Council, said he had no interest in taking over the business until a few years ago when he helped to renovate the shop.

He said he felt a bit lost and did not know what to do next after taking over the shop.

“But there’s one thing I was sure about – if Oi Kwan Barber’s shuts down for good, the tradition will disappear,” he said.

From using various types of scissors and razors to cutting different classic hairstyles, Lau had to learn the skills from scratch, although he had picked up a few fundamental ones from his father.

Apart from watching YouTube videos, the younger Lau sometimes would visit other barber shops and observe how they would handle a certain hairstyle.

He said the hardest part of learning on his own was having no mentor to offer tips on putting techniques into practice.

“I asked different barbers for their tips on how to handle a razor ... They wouldn’t tell me. But anyhow I picked it up just by observing.”

Lau said he felt the tradition was underappreciated because, unlike at modern hair salons, his shop did not have any fancy decoration. He said most customers these days were attracted to marketing.

His mother said that some passers-by would make offensive comments about his son working on the street.

“Some parents walked by and told their kids to study hard, or they would end up working on the street like my son,” she said.

Asked how she felt about the uncertain future of the main store, she said: “I don’t know much about the law. We’ll just take each day as it comes.”