HONG KONG DIARY: LIKE WATER FOR HAIRCUTS
'Good morning mister snip snip snip
With your hair cut just as short as mine
Good morning mister snip snip snip
With your hair cut just as short as mine'
Tom Waits, from Barber Shop, 1977
Professor Say: Even the longest journey begins with the first small step. Okay, so maybe I never said that, but whoever did was surely some old soul kindred to yours truly and veteran travelers everywhere.
Journeys both long and short also begin with a slew of mundane travel preparations. There are flights and hotels to book, meetings to arrange, pickups and drop-offs to confirm before hitting the ground. And those all-important travel tools and talismans must be squared away to ensure we get off on the good foot; there are files to update, map dots to connect, laundry to marshal, and the like. And yes, sometimes a haircut is a good idea, especially when traveling to climes with hair couture as strange and mysterious as the cuisine.
Alas, even the best laid plans of the pluckiest travelers oft go awry, including your Professor’s. What to do, how to choose, with time expiring and you haven’t even ironed those unmentionables or sorted those socks? You skip the haircut, that’s what you do, however much needed it may be.
So it was, during the run-up to a recent trip to Hong Kong, that I found myself in just such an indelicate position, and chose...underwear. That is, I opted to spend my precious last hours at home in pursuit of the perfect packing strategy rather than getting a little taken off the top – oh, and trim up the sides, please?
The next day, I boarded my flight with that most sheepish of looks – the unshorn kind. Oh sure, today’s dot-com millionaires gallivant the globe with three-day scruff and carefully crafted bed-heads that only $100 haircuts can buy, but travelers of a certain age can ill afford such affectation. So I hunkered down in my seat, avoided eye contact with fellow passengers and crew alike, and spent the next 15-hours cursing my disheveled state.
Fortunately, I had planned the trip with an open day at the outset. My clients were not due in for another day, so I was free on arrival to sooth my lagging jets, get my wits about me and, with any luck, get a haircut too.
One of the small pleasures of multiple trips to the same locale is the familiarity one can develop with the environs, no matter how essentially exotic the setting. And once I’d established a well-worn path to Hong Kong I settled on – and settled into - the quirky neighborhood Tsim Sha Tsui (East) on the Kowloon side, and made it my home base.
TST-East sits on an unassuming spot of landfill east of the bustling insanity of Nathan Road, Kowloon’s nerve center that runs from Boundary Street (the original dividing line between British Kowloon and China) south to the venerable Star Ferry terminal. While Nathan Road is chock-a-block with copy-watch hawkers, no-name electronics stores and tourist-trap gift shops, TST-East can seem tranquil by contrast. There is access to the harbor promenade (the neighborhood’s eastern and southern boundaries) and shaded pocket parks; the Museums of Science and History are both a short walk up Gun Club Hill.
And while the neighborhood certainly has its share of mobile phone stores, massage parlors, ‘Hong Kong’ tailors (Pakistani craftsmen these days) and traditional medicine shops that are ubiquitous citywide, there are also tea houses, bakeries, book stores, laundries – and yes, even hair salons.
And so it was, on that fine Saturday morning. I set off from my hotel via shank’s mare, South China Morning Post under one arm, in search of a barber shop that could cut a guilo’s western hair. Hong Kong is officially bilingual and effectively tri-literate, with English, Cantonese and Mandarin in the mix. I would judge the establishment’s appetite and aptitude for same by the store signage: No English, no Professor.
Oh sure, I could easily have pecked “hk-tst guilo haircut” into my Web browser, or, for that matter, ferried across the harbor to the Hong Kong side where all the Brit swells get their locks lopped. But I was determined to find that neighborhood gem out there, to keep it real and keep it local. Ah, the thrill of discovery!
One hour and two pork buns later, I remained unshorn, if fortified. There were plenty of salons, but none with any shred of advertising services in English. And with the preponderance of second-floor retail locations, I soon grew weary of alighting rickety lifts or bounding up concrete stairs to pop my shaggy pate into upper-level shops, just to be sure.
A tad lightheaded from pork bun nitrites, I dared to venture out from the friendly confines of TST-East and crossed Chatham Road, pinning my fading hopes on a rabbit-warren of streets off Knutsford Terrace with an improbable cluster of bridal shops (don’t ask) that I had stumbled upon a few trips ago. And there, amid clutches of brides-to-be with their entourages, was a string of salons.
And there, just above a second-floor shop’s Cantonese menu of services, was the word ‘UNISEX’ spelled out in flashing frosted vanity bulbs – a nice touch, I thought. Like a beacon, it was, and it called to me, as did the handwritten ‘SPECIAL TODAY HK $75’ sign taped on the open stairwell door. About US $10: my price point, and perhaps my lucky day. As I entered the stairwell the sweet aromas of styling gel and conditioner flooded my senses and rendered me, well, senseless. Haircut, here I come!
At the top of the stairs was a micro-skirted young woman perched on a barstool by an appointment desk. So startled was she by my presence that she nearly dropped the fashion magazine she was leafing through, but made a nice recovery and hopped off the stool with a cheery ‘Nei Hou!’, which, depending on intonation, means either ‘Welcome!’ or ‘What in blazes are you doing here?’ in Cantonese.
I pointed to the miserable disarray above my pasty face with the universal Bullet-to-the-Brain sign. ‘Haircut?’ I timorously appealed.
‘Oh! Please! Take a seat!’ she ordered more than offered. There was a long, low-slung couch along the window, its pleather surface slick from years of errant aerosol blasts. I remained standing, and picked up the nearest Canto-Pop fan mag to fit in. The shop was humming, with techno on the sound system and besmocked young stylists chatting with customers as they snipped away. But busy as it was, there were also plenty of open salon chairs available.
Meanwhile, my hostess whipped out her mobile phone, punched a few buttons and barked what sounded like ‘Walter! Walter!’ while averting her eyes and shielding her mouth from me with a cupped hand. But she could not hide the shiny metal nameplate pinned to her smock. It caught the afternoon sun that streamed through the full-length second-story windows: Sky.
Sky implored me to sit on the couch with a shoo! away from her and the universal index-finger-to-pursed-lips sign of Sit-Down-and-Shut-Up. When I didn’t, she looked up and caught the confusion on my face. She put down the phone and asked ‘Like some drinks? Coffee? Bottle water? Some beers?’ Before I could answer she silenced me with an upraised index finger (or, as you may know it, the Shush-I-Am-On-The Phone-Here, Moron sign), nodded vigorously and snapped her phone shut.
‘Please! Just take a seat!’ she repeated with false cheer that bordered on sinister. ‘Walter will cut your hair for you! Be here five minutes! Okay?’
Dear Reader, it doesn’t take a veteran traveler to know that, in Asia, an estimate of five minutes can stretch through eternity, but what was a shaggy profiteer to do? I had made a pact of sorts with my hostess, the imperious Sky, and so I consigned myself to a long wait. I hovered by the couch, its pleather throw pillows arranged in a contemptuous moue’.
Nor does it take a veteran traveler to these pages to know that we are not here today to discuss matters tonsorial, pressing as they were. No, as I stood sentry-still, waiting for Walter, my thoughts set to wandering again like some wild geese in the west.
The international trades I ply, the paths I tread, invariably lead me to a point akin to the post I took by the leering pleather couch. That is, there is always a juncture in international commerce that requires translation – whether literal, figurative or cultural. And, at that point in my dealings, some goods and services are destined to be rendered – outsourced, if you will – by the Eastern party to the Western counterpart, for a price.
So there I was, in the eternality of my own personal interstitial couch. Pleather, no less.
Was Sky a faithful translator? Was I a worthy partner? Would Walter, if he ever appeared, deliver a quality product? And would I then do justice to the process in the marketplace? And how had we all arrived at this critical juncture? In short, I was trying my best, as ever, to fully engage in this chain of events with eyes and filters open; to make it a conscious party and invite Sky, and Walter, and, and…
Okay, maybe it was the CFC’s in the unregulated aerosols talking. But, to throw even the slightest semblance of a conscious party and still be successful, such a calculus must be undertaken by buyer, seller, profiteer and consumer alike. Yes, a cynic might say that a ‘conscious consumer’ is oxymoronic in our heedless culture, like military intelligence. But your humble Professor is no cynic, though I do portray one on the Internet. In point of actual fact, I am a True Believer that the rising tide is capable of lifting all boats, crew, cargo and passengers included.
But only with all eyes wide open.
My reverie was disturbed by the pitter-patter of little feet bounding up concrete stairs. A breathless Walter – stylist to the guilo stars - appeared seconds later, nattily dressed in jeans, sandals and a ‘Wilco World Tour’ tee, a picket line of crewcut hair across his forehead. He took my measure with a sniff and glared at Sky, as if to say: You dragged me away from dim sum for this?
Disdaining a smock, he took me by the elbow directly to an open chair, where he administered the obligatory shampoo himself, and then set upon my head with hammer and tong without so much as a request for input.
‘Soo…what are you thinking?’ I beseeched.
‘New Hong Kong style, everybody have it today’, he huffed as he snipped away.
‘Well, I do like to keep it long in the back, Okay?’
‘Okay, I try. Momentai, momentai’. Or as we say, no problem. More Asian code, as axiomatic as the aforementioned five minutes, meaning: Brace for impact.
Walter then proceeded to break the land-speed record for hair cuts at sea level. In minutes he had cut, dried, gelled, arranged, re-cut and re-arranged me. He released my drape with a mini-matador flourish, handed me a mirror and proclaimed me ‘Finish!’
And what a masterful job: Walter had managed to make me look like roughly six million Hong Kong people and one billion mainland Chinese, with a bowl cut that would make master barber Floyd of Mayberry green with envy.
‘You pay me, not Sky. So, you come to Hong Kong lots?’
I stared at the mirror in disbelief. ‘Not so much’, I managed, choking back tears.
‘Anyway, you take my card, come back next time.’ We performed the obligatory name card exchange, proffered with both hands and a tiny dip of the shoulders. To complete the ritual, I studied the card in my hands as is the custom. And there, in a sea of Cantonese characters, floated his Western name: Water.
Water and Sky. Sky and Water.
I staggered back down the stairs into the teeming streets.
Good morning mister snip snip snip
Tom Waits, Barbershop, 1977