Living heritage of Hong Kong

Old-fashioned Hong Kong barber shop sees new interest as eviction looms

Establishment wedged in alleyway for 55 years in deadlocked negotiation with its landlord and the government

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 7:07am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 10:09am

An old-fashioned barber shop emerges from a narrow alleyway of Spring Garden Lane in Wan Chai.

The shop is part of the alleyway, comprising a roof, a long mirror and three chairs. While the barber does his trimming and cutting, pedestrians nonchalantly walk past.

Day in and day out, Oi Kwan Barber’s has remained unchanged since it first opened in 1962, although in recent years the number of customers had been slowly dwindling amid the emergence of countless “five-minute cut” shops.

But as the new year arrived, a number of unfamiliar faces suddenly started to peek in at the unassuming premises.

“Many people come to ask if we’re closing soon and some take photos,” said Mark Lau Ka-shing, the shop’s second-generation owner. “Many look somewhat relieved when I tell them we’re not moving yet.”

An unauthorised makeshift structure, the shop is facing eviction under a government order. The deadline to move out was in September 2016, but today the shop remains in a deadlocked negotiation with its landlord and the government about its future.

“We’ve been here for 55 years, and now the government tells us it’s an illegal structure and we need to move,” he said.

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Although Lau opened a new shop last year in the historic Green House on Mallory Street in Wan Chai, it is aimed at middle-class customers. A haircut typically costs HK$400.

The old shop, with three elderly yet well-trained barbers, charges HK$100 for a haircut and has been popular among neighbourhood residents.

To Lau, the shop summons memories of his late father, his family legacy and a connection with the old days and loyal customers whom Lau calls uncles.

“I still remember when I was little, my brothers and I often came to the shop to play,” he recalled. “There would be three men sitting on the chairs to have their hair cut, and a line of men standing behind them along the alleyway waiting, and they would all be smoking.

“All the smoke even tainted the white roof and walls, so my father had to repaint the shop every year.”

Those were the good old days for Lau, now 27, and for the shop.

The establishment appeared in the award-winning 1995 film Fallen Angels, directed by renowned Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. In the story, a main character played by Taiwanese-Japanese star Takeshi Kaneshiro washes the hair of another character in the shop.

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Lau was unaware of this cinematic moment until about 2010, when one of his teachers at Hong Kong Christian Service Kwun Tong Vocational Training Centre told him about the scene. The discovery inspired Lau to return to the shop and help his father.

The shop was my father’s life and what he left to my mother
Mark Lau, Oi Kwan Barber’s

Lau said his father was a well-respected barber and was even chauffeured to the residence of late Macau gambling tycoon Yip Hon to cut his hair.

His father died in October 2014, and on the day he collapsed, Lau said, he was still working in the shop.

“The shop was my father’s life and what he left to my mother,” he added. “I just hope we can keep this place for my mother.”

A spokesman for the Buildings Department said the department last July issued the landlord an order to demolish the shop and the Appeal Tribunal rejected the landlord’s appeal last September.

The spokesman said the landlord and the shop had informed the department they would make arrangements for clearance.

If the landlord did not obey the order, he added, the department would consider prosecution.