Chronicles of an Old-school Barber

No. 11

Hi there:

I hope this email finds you and loved ones in sound physical and mental health. I also hope everyone is still coping the best they can with pandemic protocols.

Before I get to our fresh story, two unrelated messages first. Remember Zhang Qingyi’s mouthwatering essay about her mother-in-law’s sticky rice dumplings, which ran back in April? Well, apparently it resonated so widely with readers that The Livings (WeChat ID: thelivings) decided to create a short animated version. Check it out here.

Also, a heads up I’ll be publishing at a slower pace in coming months as I tackle at least one, possibly two, relocations. Appreciate your bearing with me during this period of uncertainty and transition.

Onto the new translation. As hard as it may be to imagine in the age of TikTok and Huawei, mere decades ago China was a centrally planned economy made up of state-run businesses and factories that had little in the way of a global footprint.

The protagonist of this issue’s selection, which The Livings first ran on July 19, worked as a barber at one such enterprise. Expecting a stable cradle-to-grave existence, instead Master Liu was thrust into the raging waters of free markets as capitalist reforms went full throttle in the 1980s and 1990s. This is her survival story.

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ML


Factory Barber Carries On, Thanks to Old-school Skills, Sentimental Customers

By Qi Wenyuan

Edited by Shen Yanni

Credit: Cheng Feng.

1.

The first time I visited this tiny barbershop was 10 years ago.

I lent a hand to my mother, who was in her 60s, as we approached an obscure alley. After crossing a large sheet of black ice that marked the beginning of the alley, a crude red brick shack came into view. Next to it sat a wood sign that said “Tiny Barbershop.” That is its literal name.

When we entered the shop, a woman wearing a white gown in her 50s smiled at us and gestured to a wooden bench. A middle-aged man was being attended to.

The shop wasn’t big, taking up about 17 or 18 square meters. Setting foot on the premises felt like traveling back in time to the late 80s. Smack in the middle of the room rested two old-style cast iron barber chairs with adjustable backs. The upholstery was patchy from the passage of time. A stove was situated to the right of the entrance. It was burning brightly, holding a large aluminum kettle that was bursting in song. A makeshift sink was welded to the southeastern corner, under which was placed a stool. A long wooden bench rested in the northwestern corner. On it were scattered various newspapers and magazines. A large piece of paper was plastered to the wall across from the bench. It read:

Crew Cuts and Dyes for Male Comrades.

Trims, Dyes and Perms for Female Comrades.

Even though the furnishings were quite old, they were kept extremely clean and tidy. After the female barber finished up, she swept the shards of hair on the ground to a corner before greeting my mother to the chair with a warm smile. After taking care of my mother, she welcomed me to the chair. Noticing that I wore glasses, she made a point of massaging my temples with just the right amount of force while washing my hair. When I resumed my spot after drying my hair, she took in the shape of my head briefly before getting to work, proceeding silently and meticulously.

On the way home, my mother asked me in a triumphant tone: “The old lady didn’t bullshit you, did she?” I nodded with a grin.

Over the next two years, I made a habit of visiting Tiny Barbershop with my parents come the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Then I started going every month with my son.

Before I knew it a decade had passed. Over time, I became friends with the barber, Master Liu.

2.

When Master Liu turned 18, she took over her mother’s spot at a state-run factory and was assigned to the barbershop. Back then the factory was home to some 1,000 employees, plus family, for a total of about 4,000 people. The factory barbershop had four staffers on payroll. After Master Liu joined, she apprenticed under Master Chen for three years. Blade sharpening alone took up an entire year. Back then hairdressing was a full-course treatment. Apart from the haircut, services included a facial scrub, a wet shave and ear wax removal. The ear wax removal kit alone comprised five tools: a pick, pincers, tweezers and a miniature rake-like implement that came in two sizes.

In 1981, 21-year-old Xiao (Little) Liu successfully completed her apprenticeship and was proudly crowned Master Liu. The factory was booming at the time, with the factory’s union handing out freebies left and right. Rice, noodles, oil and eggs were regular fare. During summertime it was cold watermelon drinks while in-season food items and fruit were dispatched over major holidays and festivals. In midsummer of 1985, the union even organized a trip to the northern beach resort town of Beidaihe.

In 1988, Master Liu started dating and eventually married a factory cook. Master Liu’s parents were delighted with the marriage. “You’re both glorious members of the ‘eight major professions’ at the factory. You must make the factory your home from now on and strive for personal improvement in tandem!” they said.

(Editor’s note: The “eight major professions” was a common refrain used to refer to the working masses during early communist rule. The eight posts are salesperson, driver, mailman, child-care worker, barber, waiter, ticket vendor and cook.)

But in just a few years, with the parental pep talk still ringing in Master Liu’s ears, the once flourishing factory gradually began its decline. Annual evaluations for top worker, top unit and outstanding female worker were canceled. The regular benefits stopped and family members were no longer entitled to free haircuts and baths. Every employee was a picture of gloom.

Master Liu became a captive audience for everyone’s complaints. Some said the factory was becoming less profitable because product quality suffered due to outdated machinery, which led to fewer clients. Others said these were symptoms, not the root of the problem, and that the real issue lied with the new factory manager, who was incompetent. A career climber, the mid-level managers he brought in were also brown-nosers. The talk unsettled Master Liu. Master Chen often consoled: “Don’t think too much. We’re barbers. Everyone needs to get their haircut no matter what. Just focus on your job.”

But the pace of change exceeded their wildest imagination.

In 1992, the factory started paying 90 percent of salaries, a proportion that gradually dropped to 80 percent and then 60 percent. The number of layoffs spiked. By early 1997, Master Liu and her colleagues were only getting paid less than half their salary.

At that point factory managers announced that the barbershop could keep its earnings from charging family members and start serving the general public. Since the factory began falling behind on pension payments, several retired barbers resumed their trade from their apartments at dirt cheap pricing, which meant family members rarely visited the factory barbershop. As for outsiders, despite Master Liu and her colleagues’ best touting efforts, few patrons emerged.

Soon Master Liu and her fellow barbers struggled to make ends meet. Against that backdrop, what would have been a trivial matter instantly turned into a major flashing point.

Of the barbershop’s four employees, Master Chen was the most senior and near retirement. A considerate manager, he was the head of the barbershop. Everyone respected him, so he handled the store’s finances. Next was Master Sui. A recreational drinker, he was in his early 50s and indulged in a minor rant from time to time. Apart from Master Liu, there was also Master Wen. He was a quiet man in his 40s.

At the end of each workday, Master Chen split the day’s take from outside customers into four equal shares and handed them out. Yet during a six-month stretch, he never once gave his colleagues their share of their so-called “hair money.” A southerner collected the hair shed by the barbershop’s clients every day and paid Master Chen by weight on a monthly basis. It wasn’t much, amounting to only about 20 yuan (US$3). Still, these were challenging times. In Master Sui’s words, “I wish I could split a single cent eight ways!”

Because they suspected that Master Chen had pocketed all the hair money, Masters Sui and Wen began looking at him askance. Whenever Master Chen took a bathroom break, Master Sui would grumble, “Ai, how times have changed. Even Old Chen is different.” When curious customers probed, Master Liu would always give Master Sui a gentle shove. In her heart, her master was an honorable person. There must have been a reason he stayed mum.

In late fall of 1997, Xiao Li from the factory’s general office walked into the barbershop and asked to have her ponytail snipped. Xiao Li grew up in the staff quarters. She and neighbor Xiao Wei were childhood sweethearts and studied at a vocational high school together. After graduation, they both worked in the general office. They had planned on getting married after Chinese New Year, but by then Xiao Wei was going hot and heavy with the daughter of the head of a local government department.

Xiao Li had a giant ponytail she had grown out for several years that hung below waist level. Master Liu fondled the ponytail and asked Xiao Li if she was sure.

“Absolutely!” Still, Xiao Li cried when the ponytail hit the floor.

The southerner hair collector showed up before the end of the day as usual. But Master Chen still didn’t give everyone their share of the hair money at the end of the lunar year.

Custom had it that the barbershop crew would meet for a dinner-cum-drinking session before Chinese New Year every year. Masters Sui and Wen skipped the gathering that year. When Master Liu asked them why in confidence after the fact, Master Sui fumed: “I don’t want to drink with Old Chen anymore. He’s changed. I despise him now.” Standing nearby, Master Wen sighed and blurted: “Ai, he lost his integrity at old age!”

In the summer of 1998, Master Chen retired. Master Liu and her husband prepared a table full of dishes for his farewell dinner and made a point of buying a bottle of expensive liquor Master Sui had long yearned for. Masters Sui and Wen never showed up. Master Chen was quite hurt. They had been colleagues for nearly 30 years. How many 30 years were there in a lifetime?

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3.

After Master Chen retired, Master Liu became the head of the barbershop.

The situation at the factory became even more precarious. In late fall of 1998, factory management gave word that the barbershop was to become financially independent. The general office would no longer handle payroll.

The announcement left the three remaining barbers in stunned silence. They were on their own from then on. Luckily, the state-run business situated across from the factory—already bankrupt for two years—had leased its offices to a leading cram school for the university entrance exam. Its teachers and students got haircuts on a monthly basis, which helped the barbershop survive its darkest moment.

But the good times didn’t last. A single mishap almost sank the three barbers, barely eking out a duckweed-like existence.

One weekend in early 1999, the barbershop was crammed with customers looking for a trim ahead of Chinese New Year. Around noon, the factory manager’s wife showed up and made a beeline for the private waiting room. If Master Chen had been around for a scenario like this, he would have flashed an instant smile while serving a cup of tea and worked on her himself immediately. On that day, Master Liu wanted to duck in to say hello first, but about a dozen students suddenly charged into the barbershop demanding haircuts loudly. Lo and behold, she forgot about the factory manager’s wife.

About 15 minutes later, ashen-faced, the factory manager’s wife stormed out of the barbershop, slamming the front door in the process. Only then did Master Liu realize she screwed up big-time and scrambled in pursuit. Before his retirement, Master Chen made a point of reminding Master Liu: “Piss off whoever you may in this factory, but the one person you can’t afford to offend is the factory manager’s wife.” Yet in spite of Master Liu’s elaborate explanations, the factory manager’s wife wouldn’t even look her in the eye. When Master Liu visited the factory manager’s flat that evening to apologize, no one answered the door.

Indeed, just a few days later Master Liu was summoned by the deputy director of the factory’s general office, who told her that the factory had decided to outsource the barbershop after Chinese New Year. Master Liu felt she had just taken a heavy blow to the head. It took her a moment to recover from the shock, then she was overwhelmed by intense self-blame and guilt. She felt she had put her colleagues in jeopardy. Master Sui’s son and daughter-in-law were let go last year. The entire family depended on his paycheck. Meanwhile, Old Wen had sick parents back in his home village who counted on his monthly wire payments to cover their medical expenses. Master Liu herself wasn’t faring much better. Her husband was about to be laid off and her mother-in-law had fallen ill from distress. Every household was struggling to put food on the table.

She stumbled her way back home. When she saw her husband and in-laws, she finally broke down in tears.

But a few days later, for some reason factory management reversed its decision, even sending word to Master Liu and her colleagues to rest easy and carry on. Eventually, Master Liu’s husband told her the back story. After she broke down in tears that day, Master Liu’s father-in-law asked her husband to make a trip with him. When they arrived at their destination, an old man around 80 years old answered the door. When Master Liu’s father-in-law saw the old man, he began dropping to his knees. Terrified, the old man helped him to his feet, asking, “What’s this all about, Xiao He?”

The old man was the father of the factory manager. He and Master Liu’s father-in-law went back some 40-odd years. Back in the 1950s, the factory manager’s father led a workshop at a major state-owned factory in Tianjin. When he put out a call among his top technicians for volunteers to transfer to a factory in the hinterland, Master Liu’s father-in-law, who was in his early 20s, was the first to sign up. He ended up following the factory manager’s father and a few other colleagues on the long trek to a primitive factory in the fringes of the country. Master Liu’s father-in-law was a model worker in his heyday but had to take early retirement because of an industrial accident. The old man was a quiet person who rarely spoke of his past, nor had he ever asked his old boss for a favor.

Master Liu’s father-in-law’s plunge temporarily saved the barbershop, but it couldn’t salvage the entire factory. In late spring, the state-run shop that was a source of pride for two generations went bankrupt.

That day, when Master Liu and her two colleagues stumbled out of the factory gates, Master Chen had long been waiting. He greeted the trio and led them to his apartment. Master Chen’s wife had prepared a few homemade dishes and a bottle of liquor. First, Master Chen encouraged his three former colleagues to get their act together, warning that the battle for survival had just begun. Then he finally revealed what became of the “hair money” years ago.

Ever since a new deputy director of the factory’s general office—who had oversight over the barbershop—took up his post, he started falling behind on salary payments to the barbershop. Sometimes the delay was 10 days, sometimes half a month. When Master Chen visited the general office to investigate, the deputy director said the factory had cash flow problems. He then told Master Chen that he had received complaints of poor hygiene at the barbershop and demanded improvements, warning that otherwise, “I’ll have to start docking your pay next month for real.”

In response, Master Chen launched a major cleanup of the barbershop. He also treated the deputy director to a meal using the “hair money.” Later on, Master Chen made a habit of briefing the deputy director in person monthly before payday and leaving two packs of cigarettes after each meeting. The routine lasted for nearly a year, until the deputy director was transferred to a different department and replaced by a distant relative of Master Chen. Only then did the paycheck delays end.

Late that year, Master Chen was summoned to the factory’s conference room. When he arrived, the entire senior management was there. The deputy factory manager said they were considering reducing the head count of the barbershop to one or two employees due to its reduced workload from the increasing number of layoffs and the fact that family members of employees were no longer entitled to free haircuts. The factory leadership wanted his input. “You’ve dedicated your entire life to the factory. Every single factory manager has been happy with your performance. If you and your colleagues are struggling, you can air your concerns here.” First, Master Chen took the deputy factory manager down memory lane, reminiscing about its glory days “when women from the city were proud of marrying into the factory.” Then he listed the financial pressures of every single barber. Not long after the meeting, Master Chen treated senior management to a dinner banquet to thank them for their concern for the veteran employees of the barbershop. He funded the meal with “hair money.”

“I never told you where the money went because I was worried you wouldn’t be able to keep it to yourselves, especially Old Sui, who likes to complain. If one of our customers happened to be eavesdropping, word would spread all over the factory, which wouldn’t be a good thing.” At that, Master Chen pulled out a small notebook that recorded all the earnings from selling hair and his subsequent expenses. He then split the remaining 20 or 30-odd yuan among everyone down to the exact cent.

That night, everyone got drunk.

4.

Shortly after being laid off, Masters Sui and Wen launched their own small barbershops just south and north of the factory’s staff quarters respectively. Not wanting to compete against her former colleagues, Master Liu and her husband started a series of small businesses. In the next two or three years, they worked as hawkers, sold fruit and opened a snack store and a restaurant. For various reasons, all the ventures failed.

In winter of 2002, Master Sui passed away from illness. The next year, Master Wen returned to his home village for personal reasons. Master Chen moved in with his youngest son in Shenzhen.

In early spring of 2004, Master Liu decided to rent a small storefront on the street in front of the factory’s staff quarters. After light renovations, she installed two barber chairs—one a gift from Master Chen and the other an old cast-iron chair she bought from the factory barbershop—and resumed her trade. Previously, she had served customers in the old barber chair for 25 years.

Business was brutal in the first two years. Beauty parlors and hair salons had already popped up all over the place like bamboo shoots after the spring rain since God knows when. Meanwhile, Master Liu still stuck to her factory rules—only crew cuts for men and perms for women, fashioned by first inserting old-fashioned plastic clips all over the customer’s hair. The only color option for hair dyes was black. Thus few patrons took advantage, even though Master Liu charged a bargain. Illegal street barbers were also on the rise back then. They also offered low pricing, asking 2 yuan or less for a crew cut, undoubtedly siphoning off a significant number of middle-aged and elderly unemployed and retired clients. To make things worse, the cram school that set up shop across from the factory had relocated.

Some suggested Master Liu join the street barbers as well. She considered the option for some time but held out in the end. She felt it would be dishonoring her three-year apprenticeship under Master Chen.

Eventually, the local economy took off and the city saw a surge in young migrant workers from the countryside. Master Liu’s small shop began to thrive. Then in fall of 2009, the barbershop had to make way for construction of a second ring road.

Not long after that, one of Master Liu’s relatives noticed that the vegetable and fruit vendor by the entrance to her residential compound was shutting down and the owner of the building was looking for a new tenant. The relative gave Master Liu a heads up. After scouting the location, Master Liu was skeptical. The shop was located in a 30-year-old illegal structure that didn’t have heating or drainage pipes, plus it was quite far from home. The move might also turn off the old neighbors and former colleagues who made up her customer base. But rent at the new location was cheap, just 5,000 yuan a year. And it was in a neighborhood filled with old residential complexes with many elderly inhabitants. The most important thing was that there wasn’t a single barbershop in the 300-meter or so alley on which the shop sat.

After discussing the matter all night, Master Liu and her husband decided to lease the space the next day.

Few customers showed up in the first two months, but with word of mouth, the number of clients grew quickly. Later on, three more barbershops appeared in the same alley, but to this day Master Liu’s shop is still the only one that draws a queue on weekends. Soon someone suggested that Master Liu take on an apprentice, if only to serve as an assistant. The advice made sense, so she posted an ad on her shop window.

A month went by. On occasion a young man or woman would notice the ad and drop in, but a single glance would scare them off. Only a few bespectacled men and women in middle age—about Master Liu’s age—ended up applying. After taking stock of their learning curves, Master Liu gave up on the idea of hiring help. The good thing was that as time went by, Master Liu became friends with many of her old customers. Whenever the small shop starts filling up, there’s always someone willing to sweep the hair on the floor, add coal to the stove, boil water and so on.

Master Liu’s daily routine has been the same throughout the years. Every morning she downs two large pieces of baked bread and drinks half a kettle of water, which sustains her until dinner. She’s able to pace herself on a regular day, but if it’s the end of the lunar year or the second day of the second month of the lunar calendar—which signifies the beginning of spring—Master Liu is as busy as a spinning top, unable to pause for even a quick sip of water. By the time she gets home late in the evening, her body feels on the verge of collapse. She’s typically in too much pain to sleep and has to take two tablets of Valium. When she wakes up in a daze the next morning, it takes another painkiller after breakfast for her to feel strong enough to start yet another busy day.

Besides the first few days of Chinese New Year, Master Liu doesn’t take time off. From time to time, a middle-aged woman who’s a regular is bound to tell her to take it easy. “You only have a daughter and you own your own home. Why are you still working so hard?” they ask. She says she and her husband haven’t been able to keep up social security payments since they were let go. “It’s OK if I wear myself out a bit now. I can still manage, after all. We’ll need cash for retirement and medical expenses when we get old. We don’t want to be a burden to our only daughter.”

5.

At the height of summer in 2015, a red BMW pulled up in front of the barbershop. A fashionably dressed woman in her 20s got out of the driver seat, followed by an elderly lady in her 60s, who emerged from a back seat gingerly. The old lady sported a thin patch of grey hair that was meticulously combed.

The moment the pair set foot in the shop, the young woman covered her mouth and started grumbling. “Look! Look! You have to get your hair washed seated! In this day and age! Why put yourself through such torture? I’m going to go wait in the car. If my friends spot me here, I’m going to become a laughingstock.”

The old lady’s face turned ashen. Master Liu quickly helped her settle into on a barber chair. As the old lady regained her composure, Master Liu told the queue: “Old Song has family waiting in a car. Why don’t we let her go first?”

The other customers didn’t mind.

It turns out Old Lady Song was a longtime customer. She was hired by the factory at 18 and married a factory driver at 20. The couple soon had a son and enjoyed a happy family life. But Old Song’s husband died in a car accident the year their son turned 10. Raising her son alone sent her topsy-turvy. Only during her monthly visit to the barbershop, when she rested on that same cast-iron chair and gazed at the familiar face of Master Liu, could she find true peace.

She’d use her time on the chair to sort out all her troubles from the past month and come up with solutions, then silently relay everything to her husband and ask him to watch over her and her son. If there were no other customers, sometimes she’d confide in Master Liu.

As the years passed, her son became a grown man as her lush black hair turned grey. For several years now, she’d have her son drive her to Master Liu’s tiny shop every month for a trim. She’d sit on that already streaky barber chair and take in Master Liu, who was aging at the same pace. Sometimes they’d reminisce about the old days. Sometimes she’d shut her eyes and not utter a single syllable.

In early 2015, Old Song’s son divorced his first wife and married an attractive woman who was much younger. He had deliberately asked his new wife to drive his mother to the barbershop as a way of building a bond between the two, but the move backfired.

Just like Old Lady Song, many of Master Liu’s former colleagues—most of whom she can’t name anymore—often brave the hassle and bike long distances to the barbershop. All of the old colleagues say they’re not sure why setting foot in the shack just puts them in a good mood.

Shortly after noon on a winter day that same year, Master Liu appeared a bit absentminded, casting the occasional glance at the clock on the wall and the front door during haircuts.

About an hour later, the front door burst open and cold air gushed into the shop. An old man in his 70s walked in, wearing a large padded cap and cradling a primitive pump in his arms. After carefully examining the newcomer, Master Liu shouted: “Master!” The old man responded with a chuckle.

“Master, why did you come to my shop with a pump?”

“Before I set off, the missus tried to talk me into hailing a cab, but I’m too used to my old bike. This buddy is just like me—old. The tires are always leaking slowly. The two of us are going to have a long chat today, so I brought a pump just in case.” The old man then exploded into laughter.

The old man was Master Chen. He and his wife had relocated back to their hometown from Shenzhen in late fall that year. When Master Liu heard that her master was back, she invited him to her shop for a reunion and a haircut.

The two recalled funny anecdotes from their days in the factory barbershop. There was the time when Master Liu was still an apprentice and had to serve the deputy factory manager at the time, who was a woman. Master Liu was so nervous she cut one of her ears by mistake, resulting in a small wound. The squeamish deputy factory manager passed out on her chair. Or the time in the early 1970s when Master Chen, behind his wife’s back, spent half his monthly paycheck on a pair of sharpening stones for ear wax removal instruments, thinking he could pass them on as family heirloom. That never panned out and the stones were set aside.

Master Liu welcomed her master to one of the barber chairs, treating him to a haircut. He also reclined the chair to give him a face scrub and a shave. The only part of the program she skipped was ear wax removal—not because Master Liu was out of practice, but because her vision had deteriorated.

Postscript

In January 2020, Master Liu’s Tiny Barbershop was forced to take a break during the COVID-19 outbreak. In early February, with daughter Yanzi’s help, Master Liu started posting short instructional videos on WeChat on topics like how to identify affordable yet quality clippers and how to give a family member a basic haircut. Master Liu even answered follow-up questions online.

An old customer joked: “At this rate, aren’t you worried that everyone will start cutting their own hair after the outbreak instead of visiting your small shop?”

After a brief pause, Master Liu responded: “If you think about it, I turn 60 this year. I can only do this for another few years.”

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