There are three ways of having your hair cut in Hong Kong.
You can make an appointment with Mr Larry in his glass and chrome hair studio on the thirty- fifth floor overlooking Victoria harbour. He comes highly recommended by several of the British wives you’ve met, who just love him.
Here, at the first appointment you can get which will be two or three weeks later, you’re admitted to this sanctum and welcomed by his petite, immaculate assistants who all look as if they moonlight as TV presenters. You’re wrapped in a gown of pure cotton, offered filter coffee, cappuccino or your choice of teas and a warm muffin. Gentle classical music plays through the speakers hidden behind the lush pot plants. Mr Larry himself might be French, American or your genuine Londoner with an accent like Jamie Oliver but he’s dressed in a white cotton Chairman Mao top or a red silk vest from Shanghai Tang, the boutique of the very rich.
When you leave, washed, cut, blow-dried and pleasantly pampered, you’re presented with the bill, folded on a saucer with an imported chocolate on top. The chocolate contains sugar which is good for shock, and you need it when you open the bill. It is for HK$1000 and, if Mr Larry is often featured on the social pages of the South China Morning Post, it could be over HK$1500.
OK, so you won’t find many middle-incomes going to Mr Larry’s salon, but if you are seconded to Hong Kong for longer than three months, you have to go somewhere.
The remaining options are to have your hair cut at one of the local hairdressers up the lanes behind the markets, or sit out on the pavement and give yourself up to the scissors of the Filipina hairdressers. They work as domestics during the week and cut their compatriots’ hair on Sundays, maids day off all over the world.
I discreetly observe this option, which costs HK$40. Having washed your hair at home before joining the cheerful crowd who sit on the edge of the built-up flower beds in Chater Gardens near the Star Ferry terminal, you await your turn.
The hairdresser supplies the sharp scissors and a wooden apple crate for a stool. A large plastic bowl, with the bottom and part of the side cut away is placed around the client’s neck to catch the hair as it falls. As all Filipina girls have gloriously thick, straight black hair, it’s hard not to make a good job of the cut. When they leave, they empty their hair into a plastic bag and take it away with them.
My pride keeps me from joining this queue. The whole madam/maid thing is pretty strong even in post-colonial Hong Kong and if any of my ex-pat friends saw me sitting on a wall with a plastic bowl around my neck..!
So I go for the third option and try local Chinese.
Up a side lane in Wan Chai I walk in and sit down, and it only takes a minute and two snips of my hair for me to know that Miss Woo Long hasn’t a clue She also has very little English, and I can only count to five in Cantonese.
“How long have to you been cutting hair?” I ask nervously.
“Yes very long. I make short, okay baby?”
“Where did you learn to cut hair? College?”
“NO!” Miss Woo Long convulses at the thought, her hand prettily cupped over her mouth. “I learn on the job!”
Half way through, she cannot resist the temptation and pops out into Spring Garden Lane to tell a few friends that she has something really interesting in her salon. A foreigner.
Three market vendors in black pedal pushers and blue plastic slip-slops tiptoe in and sit in the empty chairs, their eyes fixed on me.
This is so unnerving that I start chattering away like an idiot. The conversation is pretty one-sided as Miss Woo Long has exhausted her English and is attacking my hair with short sharp thrusts, her lips gripped tight in concentration. Her friends work their way closer and closer until they are practically breathing down my neck, making amused comments, which mercifully are in Cantonese.
Finally Miss Woo Long is satisfied and removes the towel with a flourish.
“Good, hey? I cut good. You tell friends.”
Yeah, well, maybe I’ll pass on her name to my worst enemies. I part with HK$ 90 and look in the mirror as I leave. I seem to have had an electric shock. Pieces of hair stick out at wild angles and there are chunks missing. Where can I buy a cheap wig?
That evening my husband makes comforting noises but I don’t want to leave the flat for days in case I meet someone I know.
A couple of months later, my hair is once again long enough to be cut and shaped, and I hear about one of Hong Kong’s best bargains: a training school for hair stylists.
Fifteen students from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Mainland China study the theory of hair design during the morning, and in the afternoon, they get a customer. You are hers, for as long as it takes to give you the perfect hair wash, cut and blow dry, tint or perm.
I am warned: don’t make a date for anything else that afternoon.
Good advice. I am chair bound in that teaching salon for five hours.
I am the only Gweilo in the room (Gweilo means long nosed foreign devil but the Brits turned this into a joke and refer to themselves as Gweilos, taking the sting out of the ancient insult.)
I am assigned to Julia, a miniature beauty from Kuala Lumpur who is staying with her aunt while she learns the trade and goes home to open her own business.
“The others are very jealous,” she beams proudly. “I’ve got you. Gweilo hair. Good experience for me.”
Mmm. I’m not sure I want to be good experience for anyone but it’s too late to back out.
First, the shampoo. This is wonderful. My scalp is massaged with oil for what feels like hours and I almost fall asleep under the hypnotic rhythm of her firm little fingers. Then the shampoo. Masses of rich lather and more massaging. Then the rinse. Then the conditioner. Then another rinse. Then the final rinse and a blast of cold water to finish off. I can see why this process takes so long and by now I’m totally into the swing of it, helped along by gentle Chinese flute music filtering through the room.
Her supervisor, Miss Vivienne, comes along and inspects for any stray soapsuds. Then I am allowed to proceed to the next stage.
Miss Vivienne instructs Julia on her first move.
“Pick up hair. Feel it.” She demands. “Rub with your fingers. See? Very thin. No body. No life. A good test for you today.”
I don’t know who is more nervous, me or Julia and I can feel her trembling slightly as she picks up my thin lifeless hair. I want to tell her: hey, my hair’s not like this at home! But it doesn’t like the heat and humidity and the air pollution here!
“Um, Julia, so how long have you been here?”
“Only two weeks.” She notices my frozen expression and adds, ”Don’t worry, I take very good care.”
Miss Vivienne scoots rapidly between the students, propelling herself along on a wheeled office chair. Every move they make is watched and criticised and their scissors are not left unobserved for longer than a minute. She pays particular attention to Julia because they don’t have many Gweilos coming here and I am a sort of exotic feather in their cap. Julia is so afraid of making a mistake that she only takes off a fraction at a time and checks back with Miss Vivienne to make sure this is right.
Snip, snip, snip. Gentle little pecks that never stop.
On my right, Joe Cool in a Calvin Klein T-shirt, Doc Martens and bright purple astronaut shades has asked for a colour tint to his jet black hair. He keeps his head down the whole time, engrossed in a Spiderwoman comic. When he departs, without a change of expression as befits his chosen image, his raven locks are streaked with vivid orange.
“Punk man! Stripy hair!” Julia shrieks at her own joke.
Vivienne has been dying to ask but up to now has been too polite. Finally on one of her whiz-by inspections she holds up my fringe and asks politely,
”Who cut your hair before now? Foreign person?”
I tell her about my trip to the Wan Chai market salon.
“A Chinese hairstylist? Oh, the pity! The pity!”
None of this ‘Omigod, where did you go for this?’ favoured by hairstylists in hair salons back home. She has genuine concern for my dreadful haircut and seems deeply ashamed that it should be one of her own that did this to me. She asks if she might bring a few students across to show them how not to do it. I am professionally examined by eight pairs of intent black eyes and the students nod and shake their heads as Miss Vivienne emits a stream of critical Cantonese.
“Never mind, all OK now,” she consoles me in English.
Back to the haircut. Julia is nearly finished but can’t bear to stop until she considers it done. I’m getting tired of sitting so tell her it’s really, really nice. Terrific.
Finally she stands back and clasps the palms of her hands together, giving a little bow of pleasure.
But no! Miss Vivienne comes whizzing up and takes a long, slow look from all angles. Julia and I watch her anxiously.
NOT PERFECT. Miss Vivienne imperiously demands the scissors and takes a few considered snips, determined that nothing but a masterpiece should walk out of the door.
Miss Vivienne hesitantly summons the principal of the design school.
He circles my head intently and then gives his nod of approval. Everyone claps. Julia beams modestly and bows repeatedly.
It’s taken five hours, but I am a HK$50 masterpiece.
Another Hong Kong bargain.