In Tianjin today, 3 kuài ($0.42) can get you haircut, a shave, and plenty of fun conversation. If the weather’s good, you’ll also get a view. Visiting friendly neighbourhood sidewalk barbers like Mr. Cháng (常) is one fun way to meet some neighbours and get up-close and personal with the kind of daily local scene too often missed by Tianjin’s foreigners.
Mr. Cháng first greets me with a wave, a big smile, and a “Hello! Wel-come to China!” It’s a beautiful spring afternoon, and he’s set up on the corner outside the stairwell to his apartment. A chicken pecks around in the grass across the lane, while a light breeze ripples the pink-flowered bed sheet hanging over its head. A family’s laundry line, strung between a tree and a first floor window, streaks colour across the red brick apartment blocks that tower over the neighbourhood streets. A bicycle leans against the building beside Mr. Cháng’s small metal barber stand, his spray bottle, scissors, straight razor, and sharpening strap in easy reach. The bicycle’s owner, an older gentleman, sits on a folding chair, his head poking up through the middle of a blue poncho. The electric buzz of Mr. Cháng’s trimmer testifies to the integrity of a long sequence of electrical cords that snake around the yellow, insulated above-ground heating pipes before disappearing up into a third-story window. I sit on a stool and wait my turn. Mr. Cháng corners the older man’s ears with his trimmer and starts making conversation, displaying a surprising English vocabulary that he says he learned from the radio. A few neighbours stop by to chat; they all seem to know him. It turns out that this is how he’s provided for his wife and son for over 20 years.
Mr. Cháng, whose given name could be translated “Prosperous China” (xìng huá – 兴华), started his life as a barber in 1989. Like millions of other Mainlanders, sweeping economic reforms in the 1980’s shattered his “iron rice bowl” (tiě fàn wǎn – 铁饭碗), the government-guaranteed job security that provided the necessities of life. The state-owned enterprise where he watched over construction machinery closed down, leaving him suddenly out of work and with no marketable job training. He still lives in the apartment provided by his work unit (dān wèi – 单位), and that means rent is only 70 yuán ($9.72) per month. Comparable apartments might normally rent for over 600元 ($83) per month, but aside from this benefit he’s on his own.
However, Mr. Cháng is not one to complain about lack of government support or pine for the old days. He doesn’t want or need government welfare, he says. He’s taken advantage of his skills and opportunities to provide for his family, and that translates into what he accomplishes with his scissors, clippers, and conversation. How does he feel his current situation compares with before? His response is a mix of fatalism, acceptance, and determination: “It’s my life” (mìng yùn suǒ pò – 命运所迫; more literally: “forced by fate”).
The beautification of Mr. Cháng’s neighbours usually starts around 9am, going until 5pm in the winter and as late as 8pm in summertime. He’ll cut 25 heads of hair a day in the summer, but in the winter this can drop down to ten, causing his monthly take-home pay to fluctuate from 1500 to 900 yuán per month ($207-$125). And it’s not always blue skies and sunshine, either; in the winter he trades his sidewalk corner in the sun for a chilly 3rd floor stairwell landing under a single bare light bulb. Chinese New Year is the lowest point in a Chinese barber’s calendar. Not only are potential customers preoccupied with the festivities, it’s traditionally considered bad luck to cut your hair during Spring Festival. Mr. Cháng stays in good spirits, though. During his break times, when he’s not napping or watching T.V., he likes to dance, by himself if his wife’s not around. He and his wife place much hope in their 22-year-old son, who is in his 4th year of university studying banking and finance. Their biggest concern is their son’s future job. Although he sometimes jokes about becoming a big, powerful government official, he admits that his real wish is to become a grandpa.
Mr. Cháng, whose English name seems to alternate between Michael Jackson and Michael Tyson, has this advice for foreigners: speak more with Chinese people, and become familiar with Chinese customs, habits, and culture.
If you’d like to meet Mr. Cháng for haircut, I’d be happy to put you in touch!