A cut above the rest: Local hairdresser specializes in expat coiffures
A welcome mat has been rolled out to make Shanghai one of the best entry points for expats into China. In this series, we explore how local small business owners help expats integrate better into local communities.
Briton Molly Donegan worries that if she leaves Shanghai, she will never find another hairdresser as good as Li Menghua anywhere in the world.
Known to his patrons simply as Martin, Li and his partner run the Martin & Jin Hair Salon on Laowaijie in the Hongqiao area of Minhang District. More than 90 percent of the patrons are expats.
Donegan visits the salon once every five or six weeks. Sometimes she gets her hair fully dyed in eye-catching orange; other times, it's just a cut and conditioning.
"He does such a good job that every time I leave, my hair is so shiny, soft and healthy," said Donegan. "I've been dying my hair at Martin's for over four years, and it's still in quite good condition."
Laowaijie, or "Expat Street," is home to restaurants, bars, bakeries and other businesses run by people from all over the world. Li has more than 4,000 foreign contacts in his WeChat list, and more than 800 have been to his salon, sometimes from far-flung places in China.
"It could be said that I have handled hair from all over the world," said Li, who speaks fluent English.
For expats living in China, finding a hairdresser who understands the structure of non-Asian hair can be problematical. And yes, hair from different ethnic groups has its own characteristics.
Li often travels to Hong Kong to buy imported hair products, especially hair dyes of light colors that aren't available on the mainland. He even has a special room for clients who want privacy, like Muslim women who don't want their hair to be seen by others.
"People from other backgrounds have very different hair quality from we Chinese," he said. "One major difference is that our hair is much stiffer, so if we use the same products on them as we do on Chinese customers, their hair may become damaged."
His clients attest to that. Many have a story or two to tell about "bad hair days" at the hands of Shanghai hairdressers.
Megan Andrew from South Africa, who has lived in Shanghai for three years and been a regular at the salon for more than a year, said she needed particular care for very curly hair.
"I tried one hairdresser and it turned out to be a disaster," she told Shanghai Daily. "One treatment for my hair took way all the curls, which was not what I wanted. I had to go home and undo the damage."
Li, however, has demonstrated his facility with different hair types. He's also willing to listen to what patrons want.
"When you move abroad, you worry about finding things that you had at home – things that are familiar and comfortable," said Donegan. "And hairdressing is obviously one of them."
Born in Zhoukou in Henan Province, Li started to learn hairdressing when he was 14. He came to Shanghai when he was 16, believing that a large city would afford him more opportunities.
He worked at many jobs but didn't settle into his niche until a trip to Thailand changed his life.
"When I was in Thailand, I couldn't understand a word," he said. "So I thought I should study English to be able to communicate with foreigners."
He wanted to go to a language school but couldn't afford the fees, so he used Hollywood movies and English-language TV series to learn English.
The opportunity to work in hair salons run by expats – one an Italian; the other Russian – gave him the opportunity to hone both his language and hairdressing skills.
"Every morning before I go to work, I read English texts for an hour or so," he said. "I have compiled a hairdressing-related English vocabulary and give lessons to my employees."
In 2019, Li and his partner opened Martin & Jin in Huaihaifang, a century-old community in downtown Shanghai. Although the salon was small, simply decorated and hard to find in a back lane, the site attracted an increasing volume of expats, thriving on word-of-mouth.
"I always admired the close relationship that hairdressers forge with clients in some countries," he said. "I've heard of hairdressers who have life-long customers. That's one reason why I wanted my own signature shop."
Indeed, relationships with clients sometimes extend beyond hairstyles. He often lends a hand when a patron is looking for a new real estate agent or having problems navigating e-commerce.
Many of customers regard him as a friend. He'll be attending Donegan's birthday party next month and will be participating in a festival party with some his customers. In fact, one of his clients, Marilyn Budde from the United States, has become his girlfriend.
"Outside work, Martin is very funny and adventurous," Budde said. "He surprises me a lot. One day he took me strawberry picking; another day he took me wind surfing."
It hasn't always been easy for Martin & Jin. The salon was once on the brink of bankruptcy, and it actually had to close for about six months during the Covid pandemic.
"At that time, I was under severe pressure," Li said. "The salon couldn't open for months, but I still had to pay rent and my staff."
Martin & Jin's loyal clients were shocked and saddened by the closure. They formed a group on WeChat to discuss how to save the salon. Eventually more than 70 foreign clients collected around 70,000 yuan (US$9,651).
Li cried when the money was handed over to him.
Although the donation was actually too little, too late to save the salon, the story of the expats' campaign to save a small local business went viral online, which piqued the interest of Zhang Wucai, general manager of Laowaijie.
"I contacted Martin and asked him if he might be willing to settle down here," said Zhang. "I told him not to worry about capital or anything else. We would fully support him as long as he made Laowaijie his home."
When the pandemic ebbed and restrictions on movement were lifted, Laowaijie came back to life, busier than ever. Martin & Li rode the tide.
The new salon site is a bit farther from downtown than the previous shop, but Li clients don't seem deterred.
For the first time, the salon is offering discounts to clients for three months to express Li's gratitude to his loyal customers.
"Working with foreign clients broadened my mind. I became more culturally inclusive and more tolerant," Li said. "I can easily accept new things and have new dreams."