Chinese Haircuts

Getting a haircut in China has always been a pleasure–and often a cultural experience. I mentioned in an earlier post the crazed “Windmill-style” haircuts I used to get when I worked at SW Jiaotong University. At the time–twenty years ago–the barber there was somewhat unusual. Trendy hairstyling shops at that time employed young women almost exclusively. But that wasn’t what made getting a haircut so pleasant, the nice part was the head and shoulder massage.

At the end of your haircut, usually before the blow-dry and final styling, you would be treated to a head and shoulder massage for three to five minutes or so. People’s skill levels varied of course. Some of them were very perfunctory about the massage, but some were truly gifted. Most of the time the massage was, at any rate, worth the extremely affordable cost of the haircut: 15 RMB (less than US$2.00) was considered expensive back then.

There was a seedier side to the hair styling industry, however. I learned about it by accident while walking with a friend (now an old friend) in downtown Chengdu. I had noticed when wandering around alone that a lot of the hair styling shops downtown were open at night but had pink lights on. Puzzled, I took the opportunity to ask my friend why they used pink lights. With a pitying glance he simply replied, “Stephen, do you really think anyone can cut hair in that kind of lighting?” It took a moment for the full implications of this sentence to sink in. I would later also learn the significance of pink curtains across doors–you would have thought I could have made the link on that one, but no. Although I did not consider myself innocent at the time, in hindsight I appear rather dense even to myself.

Yesterday I went for my first haircut since we moved back to Chengdu. The hair styling industry has changed a good bit since the old days: you can pay almost as much as you want to for a haircut these days though an ordinary place is still very affordable, the average hair stylist is now a stylish young man with peculiar hair, and the head massage is now part of the shampoo process before the haircut.

Since we’re new to this neighborhood I just wandered down the street till I found somewhere that looked nice enough. I still have trouble with the Chengdu dialect, so I didn’t quite catch what the receptionist said when I walked in, but she was waving me toward the hair-washing sinks, so I smiled and let myself be led. I didn’t understand everything the shampooer said either, which may be how I ended up with a thirty-minute shampoo and head massage, but this didn’t seem like something to complain about! The comparatively brief haircut was more than adequate, and although the final charge of 35 RMB (US5.00) was slightly higher than the posted rate of 21 RMB (US$3.00), I’m simply not one to quibble :-).

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