Since 1962 Oi Kwan Barber’s has been running out of a tin shack in an alley between two old Wan Chai tenement buildings. Over five decades the little shop on Spring Garden Lane has taken care of the neighbourhood’s barbering, serving men from all walks of life who reclined, gossiped, debated and joked while the barber, Master Lau, lathered and shaved, clipped and faded under the gentle breeze of a revolving fan.
Today the shop is under the stewardship of Lau’s 26 year-old son, Mark, who learned the trade from his father shortly before the elder barber died in 2014. ‘My favourite memory is when someone told me that they’d seen my business card at a Navy base in Honolulu’ Mark tells me as he velcros a nylon cape around my neck. Today he is not so happy. ‘The government is suing me, they say the shop is an illegal structure’. The usually jovial barber barely fights back tears and momentarily turns away, removing his thick rimmed glasses to wipe his eyes on a crisp white sleeve. ‘I just don’t understand it. We’ve been here for over 50 years, the government’s given us all these permits to operate and commendations for culture, they even connected us to electricity and now they’re turning around and suing me. It’s so sad. It might have been a jealous neighbour complaining because they see all sorts of people – professionals, young men, tourists, guys from the navy ships – visiting my shop. How could anybody be so blackhearted and petty?’
Films and Fathers
Mark first learned about barbering as a child playing at his father’s feet on the shop floor. ‘I watched my Dad work and I thought it was very interesting how he cut the ‘fur’ on people’s heads. He really made it an art, putting in details that normal people wouldn’t notice. Nobody could cut hair like my Dad.” It was only a few years ago, while studying design, filmmaking and photography at VTC that Mark realised the cultural import of his family’s modest shop – he was watching a movie, Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels, when a familiar sight appeared. “That’s my dad’s shop!’’ It was at that moment that Mark’s passion was reawakened. ‘I thought that if a director could see something beautiful in that shop I should give it a try and when I did I found that I was ok at it.’
Carrying on a tradition
Many of Hong Kong’s craftspeople and artisans view their work as just that – a way to make a living. Not Mark. He sees it as his responsibility to carry on and preserve what he calls ‘the Guangdong barbering tradition’. According to Mark, this style which is based on Western barbering, came down from Shanghai some time between the 1940s and 60s then diverged into a distinct branch. Says Mark, ‘The Guangdong Style heavily emphasises getting you what you want’. ‘It will always be one barber who greets, washes hair, cuts, shaves and sends the client off. We’re not the same as Shanghainese barbers that have nice shops and cut fast for quick turnaround.’ Aside from a great deal of multitasking and a lean operation, Hong Kong’s traditional barbers place huge emphasis on understanding the customer. Of course, client expectations are also tactfully balanced against professional opinion and expertise. ‘Clearly it’s best to hear about the customer’s preferences and then I’ll tell them a little about my opinion based on experience. For instance, if a Chinese person brings in a photo of a Westerner and says they want that haircut then I might have to say that we’ll adapt it for his head because Western and Asian skull shapes are quite different. It’s my professional responsibility to let them know, but if they insist then I’ll still do it.’ It’s not the fastest way to get your hair cut but the results speak for themselves.
Though he picked up the fundamentals from his father, Mark has taken on other influences. Before running the traditional shop he worked in a hair salon, picking up skills and techniques, in order to combine them, absorbing what was useful, discarding what was useless and adding elements of his own. ‘The difference [between a salon and a barber shop] is that a hairdresser asks lots of questions but once a barber knows a customer’s requirements then he gets on with it – you can place your faith in the barber. A barber won’t do lots and lots of services only 6 basic men’s haircuts (7 if you include skinhead), straight razor shaves and beard trims. Barbers traditionally serve only men while salons cater to women, offering dyeing, perms and other treatments.’ Another key difference is the use of the razor. ‘We use a straight razor to clean up the back of the neck because this is the only way to make it look good. To do a skinhead we don’t use clippers, we insist on using a razor to do about 70% of the job. It’s a real skill.’
A man’s world?
Now well experienced with a loyal customer following, Mark is self deprecating and still considers himself a novice. ‘I feel there is no such thing as becoming “the best” you can only become “better” – you just improve bit by bit.’ Though the 6 haircuts offered are standard, Mark believes that every Barber ‘has his own way’. ‘Experience and personal style all affect the outcome’ he explains. When asked whether women can work in this man’s world, Mark laughs. ‘In the States and other parts they do have women barbers but I’ve never seen one in Hong Kong. I’d want to see barbering become a profession that women take up. I don’t want it to be “men are barbers and women are salon stylists.” Why can’t women do shaves? Women have a warm temperament and are caring and attentive to the needs of customers so the feeling would be different. In a world where men and women are equal there shouldn’t be this kind of arbitrary distinction.’
Making the old new again
These days Oi Kwan’s clientele is changing. Starting with his father’s old client base of predominantly Chinese locals who are now, on average, over 80 years old, Mark’s following has widened and includes many young men both foreign and native. To Mark the reason for this is simple, ‘clients try lots of barbers and when they find one that clicks and knows how to work with them they keep coming back and start spreading the word amongst their friends.’ While traditional and ‘vintage’ ways have come back into vogue not all traditional barbers have been able to win back the young crowd. ‘It’s funny’, Mark chuckles, ‘in the last couple years the classic styles have been very popular in the West so as a result they’re now also popular in Hong Kong. Young guys want really tight skin fades which is not necessarily what barbers want to do. This stuff isn’t new at all, it’s old stuff combined with new to meet the needs of today’s young people. Actually this classic hairstyle which we call ‘油頭‘ (‘oil head’) is exactly the same as a haircut which was popular in 1992 except that back then the fade wasn’t so tight. In Guangdong we have a saying , ‘古老當時興’ (the ancient becomes the trend). Very interesting.’ Mark’s knack for traditional modernity has brought him success with the kids but it’s also proven popular with the old guard. ‘Some of my dad’s regulars have been getting the same haircuts for over 50 years but they’re seeing these new classic styles on young men and they’re saying, “hey, let’s give that a try!” even though they’re about 60 or 80. I do it for them and they like it because they look a bit like the haircuts they used to get when they were young – short at the sides with the top combed into a 蛋撻（dan tat/egg tart）style.
So if the clientele is getting younger what about the barbers? According to Mark some old barber shops are still around but unable to attract young people to the trade while young people are opening barbershops but not the traditional kind. In other cases the young are setting up shops in imitation of traditional barbers. ‘Lots of them are hairdressers who worked in salons and switched over. They want to do it because it’s trendy to be traditional. As someone taking over a family business I don’t want to see this profession as something from the past or ‘retro’. I want to see it as alive and continuing naturally, not just preserved and held back by its history.’
Looking to the future
What does the future hold for Oi Kwan and the barbers of Hong Kong? Mark dares not speculate. ‘All I can do is carry on, serve customers and be happy. My greatest hope is to continue the tradition.’ To this end Mark persists in improving his skills to bring traditional barbering into the modern age: ‘Lots of people think, this is just an old timey way of doing things, for old guys. They ask if razors are hygienic and if they could catch AIDS from them. Ever since I took over from my Dad I’ve been modernizing the shop, using barbicide and bioclean so that my customers have peace of mind. It’s worth it. Only when the customer has faith will they be happy to be shaved or have their hair cut by you. I love it when I go out and about in Wanchai and customers greet me on the street. They yell ‘Master! How are you?’ It pleases me when they send photos with their haircuts – it makes me happier than making money! It’s a kind of happiness that can’t be described. Cutting hair is a kind of art and it makes me very satisfied. You can’t just churn out haircuts from a mould like some copycat; I don’t like that. Yes, cutting hair is art.’ To the practical youth of Hong Kong, Mark has this to say: ‘I hope that young people will join the profession. This culture is Hong Kong’s and it’s worth preserving. You may never be rich as a barber but I guarantee that you will be happy and able to raise a family.’ By looking at him you know he speaks from experience.
Oi Kwan Barber’s can be found (for now) at the Side door of 20, Spring Garden Lane, Wan Chai. Call (852)2573 3508 for an appointment. Closed Wednesdays.