I decided to try out a new hair place in my building this weekend. Back when I was in my glorious, long-haired hippy phase (’89 – ’99 roughly), I only had to worry about getting a haircut once every year and a half or so. Now that I’m 38 and keep my hair business-consultant short, I need to hit the barber every four or five weeks. My hair doesn’t grow out elegantly, and the transition to doofus-looking is shockingly fast. (The doofus phase lasted nearly two years when I grew my hair out. Some say it lasted the entire decade.) At this age, I’ve also reached the point in my life where advertisers and marketers have started to write me off. As I move into middle-age, I’ve developed what they call “brand loyalty”. When I find something I like, I tend to stick with it relentlessly. Unto death. The products I use today will, it seems, be the ones I take with me to the grave, decades hence. (When I am laid to rest, put a stick of “Gilette Cool Wave” deodorant on each eye so I won’t stink up the afterlife.) Thus, having found a decent hair place near my apartment in Beijing, I had some resistance to trying a switch. But in this situation, laziness trumped loyalty. The prospect of finding a good cut literally right below my apartment was too compelling to ignore.
When I first arrived in Beijing, and was living up in the Northwest, I used to get a 10 kuai cut from the barber at the BLCU gymnasium. It wasn’t elegant, but with hair as short as mine that’s not really a concern. Your worst cut grows out in about three weeks. Since moving downtown, I’ve gone to a flashier, unisex stylist at Soho/New Town, where I now pay 80 kuai a shot, recently raised from the 60 they used to charge for their entry-level, Chinese styliststs. Such is the price for moving into the fashionable area of town. Of course, all neighborhoods in Beijing have their supply of cheap’n'cheerful, local haircut parlors. But I am always a touch wary of the low-end because brothels notoriously masquerade as hair joints in many parts of Beijing. Frankly, I think blow-jobs and scissors mix badly. But maybe that’s just me; people looking for no-anaesthetic vasectomies may have a different take. Of course you can usually spot the hair brothels because they are visibly overstaffed with Rubenesque, provincial young women in far too much makeup who sit conspicuously close to the window or door and gaze at male passers-by with expressions that do not, in all honesty, suggest haircuts. Nevertheless, discretion is the better part of keeping your balls attached, so I normally select the more upmarket joints.
My long-haired phase aside, I’m a fan of simplicity when it comes to haircuts. Until moving to Beijing, it had almost always been a race to rock-bottom for me. Back when I was in college, but before I started growing my hair out, I used to get my trims for $6 from a guy called Capers who had a place down in the Seabright neighborhood of Santa Cruz. Capers had been cutting hair since being in the Navy in WWII or Korea, or one of those grand-adventure wars they used to have before the Aquarians ruined that idea for everybody with Vietnam. Apparently he’d had both ears blown off –must have been a combat barber– as he wore a pair of conspicuously prosthetic ears on a metal headband. Or perhaps he cut them off shaving, but that was too terrifying a prospect to contemplate. Capers gave one of the world’s great, power-assisted scalp massages with a device I’ve never seen anywhere else, but wouldn’t be surprised to stumble upon in a Beijing hair brothel. Twenty years later I still get tingly thinking about it. He lasted until my long-hair decade, during which I only had five or six trims, and so didn’t have any particular loyalty to hair joints, although I developed rigid tastes in conditioners and hair mousses. Those were dark times.
I was living in Singapore when heat, boredom, advancing age and the visible signs of a receding hairline made me realize the long hair had to go. I went to a place in Great World City called “Jantzen Hair Design” and told them to get rid of it all. All those years of long hair had made me surprisingly tolerant of places billing themselves as “hair design” or “stylists”. Like I said, those were dark times. Jantzen whacked the lot off and I spent the next day wandering around, feeling my scrubby scalp in delight like a dorm-rat on X. Out of inertia I took my shorn head back to Jantzen for several months until I realized the Malay barber in Holland Village, walking distance from my house, would give me the exact same haircut for one quarter the price. I stuck with those guys until I left Singapore.
The place downstairs in my apartment building is clearly “hair design”. At the low end they charge 98 kuai for a cut from a Korean stylist, 68 for a Chinese stylist. This graded pricing is a peculiarity of Beijing hair salons, where the operating assumption is that maximum style can never be achieved through the services of a Beijing native. Having walked many of Beijing’s malls, it is possible that there is a grain of truth in this assumption. But I think it’s mostly about playing to people’s infatuation with exotic imports. My previous hair place charged more for stylists from Hong Kong, while the Toni & Guy up the road at Sunshine 100 charges big bucks for the sophisticated caresses of a Canadian stylist (no doubt of Hongkie extraction).
The place had only been opened for a few days and customers were still in short supply, so I was descended upon by a well-coiffed mob the moment I entered and gently ushered upstairs into serene, white-paneled bliss. There the attendants locked my coat in a cabinet (for my protection), seated me on a luxuriously soft couch, and placed The Book on the coffee table before me. The Book was opened to reveal photograph after photograph of gorgeous, high-cheekboned, effeminate looking Asian men with spiky, frosted hair. Which gay, Korean popstar would I most like to resemble?
I have nothing against gay, Korean popstars (or straight but devastatingly androgynous ones, for that matter). But as a thirty-eight year old white man with broad shoulders, a generous nose and prominent brow line, no amount of hair engineering on earth is going to make me look like one. But they were game for a try. Everybody seemed a bit crestfallen when I said that I simply wanted my hair cut short, and a little longer on top was OK. I was seated in a spanking, new salon chair with not a strand of previously cut hair upon it, and a gorgeous, high-cheekboned, effeminate looking Chinese man (remember, I didn’t stump for a Korean) with spiky, frosted hair went to work on me. Meanwhile, two attendants hovered over the chair ready to do…anything that might be necessary. Or, almost anything. This was not, after all, a hair brothel. The only contribution that they made during the actual haircut was when one held a transparent shield over my face for thirty seconds while my bangs were being cut. If I hadn’t lowballed on the stylist, I’d have assumed they were sitting at the feet of the master. As it was, they were sitting at the feet of the discount.
At the end of the process was where we ran into communication difficulties. I have hair best described as “unruly”. As usual, there were two or three little sprigs on the top of my head that refused to lie flat. I said to the stylist, “I always have some that stand up. Use a little gel.” (Actually I used the English word for gel, I have to confess to not knowing the Chinese.) Naturally, this was perceived as “use some gel to make my hair stand up”. I had just issued an invitation to spike up my hair to a man who saw all unspiked hair as falling far short of its full, glorious potential. I realized what was happening when, after rubbing in some gel, Mr. Frosty started using his thumb and forefingers to roll tufts of my hair into spikes. I did a quick inventory of my Chinese vocabulary and realized rapidly that I did not have the words to politely say, “I’m sorry. You have misapprehended me. I do not wish to have my hair spiked. Just use gel to make it lie flat.” So, in the best Beijing fashion, I decided to roll with it. After all, it wasn’t like he was trying to give me a dye job. I’d have drawn the line at that.
Five minutes later I was looking smooth. Youthful and trendy. I went down to the counter to pay. There was an opening week 30% discount, so I only owed 47 kuai. Six bucks. Same as I paid Capers 20 years ago. And Capers worked without help (or ears). I love Beijing.
I took my stylish self back up to my apartment where my wife said, “You paid 50 kuai for bed hair?”
I went into the bathroom and brushed it flat.