By William Hung
Even all these years later, Wong Kang-jian still remembers the first customer he served as a master barber.
The customer asked for a pompadour cut, the hairstyle that would be immortalised decades later in the Wong Kar-wai classic In the Mood for Love. The ritual that followed was something Wong had perfected over several long years of apprenticeship – and an art nearly lost today.
It began with a warm towel placed over the customer’s face. Next, he used a small brush to apply soapy water evenly over the head. He trimmed the temples first, from bottom to top, moving on to the crown with a manual razor and a fine-toothed comb his master had given him as a gift. As he inched the razor along, white soap frothed along the edge of the blade. The most delicate job was to maintain good balance with his fingers as his scraped the froth onto the edge of a clay bowl.
The year was 1959. As the young barber finished his first haircut as a professional in his own right, more customers wandered into his shop in North Point. As was the custom, they were greeted by the staff, offered complimentary cigarettes and newspapers, and even had their shoes shined as they lounged in the wine-coloured leather chairs.
In those days, you could walk into a barbershop and walk out feeling like a big-shot. And for Shanghai-style barbershops in Hong Kong, those were the golden days.
“We are the classical Shanghai style,” Wong says proudly, sitting in his barbershop, now located in Fenwick Pier, “People from high society love our haircuts.”
The sun is setting. The rays suffuse from the mirrors, the old manual razors, the pressed white shirts and the antiquated leather chairs. The last customer of the day is leaving the barbershop. Most of Mr. Wong’s customers are getting old, and young people go to modern hair salons for more modern hairstyles. Soon, Shanghai-style barbershops will only be history.
“The translation is Charms of France,” said Mr. Wong, one of the two remaining barbers, when he was asked about the name and the history of the barbershop. “Mr. Zhou founded the barbershop 53 years ago in North point and moved it to Fenwick Pier, Wan Chai during the late 1980s.”
“Mr. Zhou was the master for everyone who worked in this barbershop,” said Mr. Wong, now 61 years old. “He started the business, and it was a good business for us. For some barbers, the salary was even better than that of a police officer.”
In the 1950s, North Point became known as “Little Shanghai”, the birthplace of Shanghai-style barber shops in Hong Kong.
During the Sino-Japanese War, Shanghainese immigrants would move to Hong Kong to avoid the war zone and unfair treatment by the Japanese invaders. They brought their capital to reestablish their lives in the new place, but more importantly they brought their skills to redevelop their businesses in the new market.
One of these was Shanghai’s unique culture of full-service male grooming.
During the early 1910s, barbershops and hairdressing skills became necessities when men were no longer required to braid queue, a hairstyle in which the front portion of the head was shaved while the back was grown long and braided. It was a form of submission towards the imperial rule of the Qing dynasty.
Many Europeans and Americans lived in the city and some of them opened western-style barbershops, which became popular as a source of new hairstyles for the Shanghainese. Soon, local businessmen saw the potential in western-style barber shops with a more local taste and ubiquitous service that fit Shanghainese values at the time.
Shanghai-style barber shops opened by the immigrants in North Point soon spread across Hong Kong, taking over as the mainstream grooming culture in Hong Kong from the 1950s.
When Mr. Zhou first started out in North Point, the predecessor of Charmes de France was called GuiPing Barbershop. it was settled on the second floor of an old Tong Lau (Hong-Kong-style tenement building).
“Next to our barbershop, there was a Shanghainese tailor shop,” said Mr. Wong.
“When I just started out as an apprentice, the big-name barber shops on the street were big and sumptuous. Ones like NanKing Barber Co. had separate men and women floors with very expansive barbers’ chairs and tall mirrors,” said Mr. Wong.
“But our barber shop was not that glamorous. It was small, with men and women sharing the same space. But we had more than 100 regular customers, from the neighbourhood or Mr. Zhou’s friends, coming each week. It was an admirable job back then.
“Now, it’s just me and Ah Feng,” said Mr. Wong, referring Mr. Feng Zheng-qi. “He is four years older than me; I don’t know if I will continue without him.”
Mr. Wong and Mr. Feng were second-generation apprentices. Mr. Wong’s father was a Shanghainese cook. He stumbled into GuiPing Barbershop one day, and decided his son would work for Mr. Zhou to become a barber. So, at the age of 16, the eldest of the three sons started his career as barber apprentice.
“It wasn’t easy at all,” said Mr. Wong. “Juniors had to bring food to the master barbers before they decided to take you in as apprentices.”
During the period of apprenticeship, Mr. Wong, like the other juniors, was not paid. And they barely had time to learn anything while doing all the unskilled work. “For 12 hours, we just repeated the chores of boiling water, cleaning the chairs and floor, and spittoons,” said Mr. Wong.
When Mr Wong was good enough to provide the cheapest and the easiest haircut for barely a dollar, he would save the 10 cents worth of tips to bribe some shoeshine boys down the street to let him practice some of the more difficult hairstyles.
“That was the poorest period of my life, I couldn’t support my family or myself,” said Mr. Wong. “But I was really happy. Hong Kong was booming, and people like myself believed that everyone could earn a fortune if you worked hard enough.”
But the Shanghai-style barbershop business was not as promising as Mr. Wong thought. In fact, not many years after Mr. Wong became a qualified barber, the whole Shanghai-style barbershop business faced a shrinking market, with customers turning to more fashionable hairdressing from Japan.
“In that period, all the chairs were empty and all the staff had nothing to do so we started to help the tailor shop next door for extra money,” said Mr. Wong with a laugh. “Turns out I was quite good at both cuttings.”
“Soon enough the master had no money to pay the rent and we closed,” said Mr. Wong. “Few left to get another job in other barber shops, but most left the industry completely.”
“You can’t earn good money in this business anymore.”
But Mr. Zhou did not give up. In 1986, after he saw thousands of American sailors strolling along the Wan Chai waterfront, he realized there were thousands of American heads and faces waiting to be groomed.
He gathered all the remaining barbers he could find, and they put together all the money that they had to rent a small corner in Fenwick Pier. It was named Charmes de France to appeal to foreign sailors, and proved to be a successful move.
“It was like the 1960s all over again. Sailors had to wait in line for hours,” Mr. Wong said proudly. “All the barbers were so tired by the end of day that we could barely move our hands.”
Today, Charmes de France retains the loyal support of its foreign customers, though most of them are no longer sailors. “They help us by telling their friends to come,” said Mr. Wong. “These customers keep me going, and it makes me firmly believe in the value of the old-generation barbershop. That is: we cut hair; but more than that, we bond with our customers.”
“The master,” says Wong, referring to Mr. Zhou “was never anything but a barber, just like me.”
“I will keep cutting hair in the way true to his spirit, until the day I no longer can.”