Barber puts a smile on the faces of cancer patients

Qin Kang's customers are often depressed and tearful when they come to his shop. Later they will greet him with broad smiles and eyes full of hope.   
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Qin Kang smiles at his special hair salon and wig shop opposite the Shanghai Cancer Center of Fudan University.

“I suggest long bangs long because then your lack of eyebrows won’t be so obvious,” Qin Kang, a barber, tells a customer.

“I suggest longer hair behind your neck because your hair will grow back later,” he tells another.

Qin, 35, isn’t in the business of flattering vanities. Rather, he sells his customers dignity.

The northeastern China native operates a hair salon and wig shop opposite the Shanghai Cancer Center of Fudan University, and most of his customers are cancer patients who have suffered hair loss from chemotherapy.

While shops selling wigs are not uncommon in Shanghai, finding a wigmaker who cares about his customers as much as he knows his business is more of a rarity.

Qin started to work as a barber at age 19. He opened Pinqin Wigs four years ago.

“One of my customers back then was a cancer patient, and he suggested to me that it could be wise to open a wig shop near the cancer hospital,” Qin said.

Since then, the business has expanded from 6 square meters to 20, and on the busiest days, Qin sees up to 20 customers.

Some people stop coming to the shop once they have recovered from cancer treatment, but others are repeat customers for a long time. Many are dissatisfied with the hair they have grown back and want to keep wearing wigs. Even healthy people are clients.

Most of Qin’s customers are women. Many drop by when after hospital appointments and bring him candy or other little gifts to thank him for his compassion.

Qin witnesses dramatic changes in customers. Women who were once depressed and tearful when they came to the shop now greet him with broad smiles and eyes full of hope. Cancer is no longer considered an automatic death sentence, but the treatment can be harsh on a person's self-esteem.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Qin Kang gives a “wig cut” to a cancer patient surnamed Zeng from Jiangxi Province.

Some women ask Qin to shave their heads and fit a wig even before chemotherapy robs them of all their hair. It’s a hard moment for both Qin and his clients.

“Many burst into tears when they first see themselves bald,” he said. “It’s hard to describe my sorrow when a 60-year-old lady is crying like a baby in my shop.”

Qin quietly asks sobbing customers to step outside the shop to collect themselves and avoid unsettling other cancer patients.

“There’s not much I can say to comfort them,” said Qin. “I try to cheer them up by telling them that bald women are something of a fashion trend nowadays, and they will save a lot money on shampoo.”

Many customers regularly bring their wigs to the shop to have them washed and trimmed to complement hair growing back.

“In a normal hair salon, women talk about fashion, travel or married children, but here they discuss cancer treatments and medications.”

Qin maintains his jovial nature to ease tensions. He tries to steer conversations away from disease and despair.

“I try my best to make them forget why they’re here,” he said.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

An employee works at Pinqin Wigs shop.

Qin’s shop employs three other people, including his sister-in-law Zhang Dan.

Zhang said working there initially made her feel quite depressed and even worried about her own health.

“I had never known any cancer patient before, but suddenly everyone around me here was talking about the disease,” she said. “It was all a bit unsettling.”

A beautiful girl with a luxurious ponytail and porcelain skin, Zhang said she doesn’t wear makeup to the shop because she is not peddling glamour to customers and doesn’t want to upset them.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Wigs are displayed at Qin Kang's Pinqin Wigs shop.

The saddest part of the business are the customers whose days are obviously numbered.

Qin remembers a 15-year-old boy who came to the shop two years ago looking pale and emaciated.

Usually chemotherapy sessions last about six months, and if doctors consider the results satisfactory, no more sessions are scheduled. That was not the case with this boy.

“After a year, he looked absolutely exhausted and his eye sockets were hollow,” Qin said. “Then, he no longer came.”

Wigs at Qin’s shop costs anywhere from a few hundred yuan to a few thousand yuan. He said he tries to keep his prices reasonable because many cancer patients don’t have a lot of money.


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