The cutting edge of the Chinese New Year
Red lanterns hung on street lights, crimson-themed store windows, preserved fish and Chinese sausage dangling from wet market walls, long queues in front of traditional food shops and Spring Festival couplets posted on household doors.
Yes, the Chinese New Year is nigh, and one of the still observed old traditions is to get a haircut before the nation’s most important holiday. It’s a superstitious throwback to the belief that getting one’s hair cut in the first month of the Lunar New Year would put a curse on a maternal uncle.
So to spare uncles any possible hex, or maybe just to look good at family reunions, many residents go to barbers and hair salons in the runup to the holiday, which falls on February 5 this year. The Chinese character for “head” — tou — also means “beginning,” and therefore, getting a haircut implies making a fresh start.
For hairdressers, the week before the festival is the busiest time of the year.
I phoned three old hair salons in Shanghai and requested interviews, but staff all told me they were too busy to stop and talk.
Traditional hair salons have been gradually disappearing, replaced by chic, modern beauty parlors. According to Zhang Xueming, 94, who famously did hairstyles for celebrities like film actress Zhang Yu, badminton champion Zhang Ailing, scholars and foreign diplomats, today’s Yuyuan Road was once known as a barber street, with around 10 hairdressing salons.
In order to get a glimpse of the few remaining, almost-century-old stores, I visited them as a customer.
The first shop I entered was Hujiang. Its name harks back to one of Shanghai’s most famous salons, the Hujiang Barber Shop on Huaihai Road M. It’s said that during the late 1980s and the early 1990s, that shop often had long queues stretching to Maoming Road S.
The original salon was founded by Cai Wanjiang in 1946. It closed in 2001. Some former staff opened Hujiang later. Walking along Nanchang Road, I saw two shops named Hujiang. The one located at No. 183 is likely to be the most well-known.
The window displays seven faded photos of classic hairdos and a list of seven hairdressers with “state-level” titles. Entering the shop, I was told that the only hair cutter for women was off duty that day, so I just had my hair washed.
A middle-aged woman in a white shirt inside a red waistcoat tended to me while she talked about pensions with two elderly women sitting nearby. They seemed to have simply come in to chitchat.
From washing to drying, the whole process took only 10 minutes. Seeing two regular customers arriving, the staff were a bit careless in the drying.
I paid 25 yuan (US$3.7) for my shortest-ever shampoo. I left the shop a bit disappointed. Then again, regular customers may be attracted to the shop not by staff attitude but by staff skill in hairdressing.
After walking for 15 minutes to Yandang Road, I arrived at another hair and beauty salon called Central Plains. A doorman opened the door for me and helped me to hang my coat.
With a history of more than 80 years, the state-owned salon stands still at its original location, tucked away from bustling Huaihai Road.
“Eighty yuan for hair washing, cutting and drying,” said the male cashier, who still uses an abacus to do the accounts, “Cash only.”
He gave me a green ticket with the number 80 on it and pointed out the area for women to get shampoos.
In the old hair salons, the barbers cut only men’s hair and other hairdressers did cuts for women, which is different from the unisex approach in modern shops.
“The areas for male and female customers have to be separate because men want shaves, and the blades of straight razors are very sharp,” staff member No. 37 told me. “It’s safer have fewer people in the men’s area.”
According to the 49-year-old staffer, the shampoo used is exclusively supplied by a time-honored company called Lumei, which doesn’t do retail sales.
Before washing my hair, she applied cream on her hands.
“Before starting this job, my hand skin was white and delicate,” she said. “But look at it now. My hands are super dry.”
A native of Anhui Province, she said she had to work to help support her family — a husband and son.
Intriguingly, one of female staff had a head full of perm rollers. As the Chinese New Year approaches, staff often change hairdos.
“I will get my hair permed and colored for these days,” said staffer No.37.
These middle-aged hairdressers were like ayi, or “aunties.” They reminded me of my own relatives, who like to share a bit of gossip.
An elderly woman with a black patent leather handbag and glossy red lipstick sat next to me. One of the staff told me she was 81 years old.
“I told an elderly customer this morning that you come into this shop as octogenarian and leave as a sexagenarian,” said staffer No. 23. “Getting one’s hair permed makes women look younger.”
Walking with canes and wearing flat caps or fedora hats, several elderly male customers look like lao kele, a term applied to older Shanghai men who incorporate Western and Eastern culture into their lifestyles.
“My husband has been getting shaves in hair salons since his youth,” said a 75-year-old woman, who was waiting for her 79-year-old husband. “He doesn’t think electric shavers do a good job, so he comes here once every two or three months. It is difficult to find a hair salon offering shaves nowadays.”
Unlike women reclining in hair-washing chairs, men get their hair washed by bending over sinks. The electronic barber chairs, however, look very advanced. The brand implies that they are made in Japan.
After a neck and shoulder massage and a shampoo, I was told to go upstairs to get my hair dried. The second floor houses the women haircutting section and the beauty section.
Staffer No.1 served me. The number indicated that he is an experienced senior staff member at the hair salon.
“I have been working here for 37 years,” he said, telling me his surname is Sun. “There are few years left before I retire. The youngest staff member in the shop is in his 40s. When we all retire, I guess the hair salon will close.”
The hairdressing shop will close at 4pm on Chinese New Year’s Eve, February 4.
“Even though the business will be very busy on the day, it still won’t be comparable to the 1980s when the queue was so long that it stretched to the end of the road,” the doorman told me. “People needed to wait for two hours to enter the shop.”
Nanjing Hair & Beauty Salon is another old salon that prospered during the golden age. Established in 1933, it was considered one of the “four famous Shanghai hairdressing shops,” along with Hujiang, Hua’an and Xinxin.
I phoned the shop seeking an interview, but staff said they were too busy and instead put me in touch with Zhang Xueming, the retired 94-year-old who once worked there.
He invited me to his home.
“We often worked overnight the two days before the Chinese New Year,” said Zhang,. “My family sent the reunion dinner to my workplace every year. There were 70 to 80 people in my VIP room. My two apprentices and I worked for them.”
Zhang said knowing a little Cantonese and English was the minimum requirement for staff hired in the 1970s.
He is credited with creating many iconic hairstyles of that era. The “Zhang Yu” hairdo is one of the best-known. He designed the hairstyle for the character Xiaoyu in the film “Narrow Street,” starring Zhang Yu in the role of a tomboy. He cut Zhang’s long tresses short, and the style became a trend soon after the movie was screened.
A native of Yangzhou, Zhang settled in Shanghai at age 15 and began to work as a hairdresser for women in a Yuyuan Road salon owned by a relative.
“At the very beginning, I practiced the basic skill of raising my arms for several hours every day,” Zhang told me. “It is impossible for today’s hairdressers to do that.”
He said he learned painting, sculpture, chemistry and dermatology, invented an electric comb and waving lotion, and studied ancient hairstyles and face shapes.
His home reflected his eclectic life. On the walls hung painting and painted porcelain plates that he created.
According to Zhang, in the early stage of the hairdressing industry, every hair salon kept its hair cutting techniques secret. However, he said he was always happy to share his knowledge with his peers. He held seminars throughout the country and has published five books.
“I was very passionate about my job,” he said. “It enabled me to encounter people of all walks of life. For example, I learned about dermatology from the father of a woman who was one of my regular customers. From little girls to elderly ladies, many customers came to me for several decades.”
Though retired, he still cuts hair for one person — his wife.