#TBT: The Pressures of Working as a Hairdresser in Shanghai

By That's Shanghai, June 1, 2017

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Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.

By Jessica Li 

It may not entail the agony of a visit to the dentist, but plopping into a hairdresser’s squeaky leather chair still carries a certain trepidation and dread. One wrong snip and – boom! – a bad hair day turns into a bad hair month. The self-centric worrying makes it easy to forget that the hands holding the scissors are also under a lot of pressure. 

Zhou Le knows all about the tough task of satisfying customers. The 26-year-old works at a small multi-service salon in Pudong, but attends a week-long training seminar every year to stay up to date on the latest trends. At RMB8,800 the course doesn’t come cheap. 

“You need to take them to make yourself competitive,” Zhou says. “There’s no way to learn about the newest methods without lessons, so I have to save up money to be able to do that. 

“It is an enjoyable job because you get to meet different people and I feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing that I am the one making people look good. I like cutting girls’ hair the most because it gives me the chance to talk to a lot of beautiful women. 

“You do have to be careful about how friendly you are because one of my colleagues really hit it off with a girl and then the girl’s boyfriend found out and sent this gang of seven guys to beat him up.” 

Depending on the volume of business, Zhou earns between RMB3,000-4,000 a month, but it doesn’t come easy. 

“I’m on my feet all day and there isn’t much time off,” he says. “For Chinese New Year we don’t get a break because everyone wants to get their hair done before they go home.” 

Zhou moved to Shanghai from Anhui in 2003 and started taking classes to become a barber on a tip from his sister. His youthful eagerness contrasts sharply with 35-year-old Feng Paijun, who runs his own barbershop tucked along a row of small storefronts on Aomen Lu. 

“I stayed in this field because cutting hair is all I know and now it’s too late for me to develop other specialties,” Feng says. “One day I would like to own a business, perhaps open up a store, but that’s a dream right now.” 

Feng sticks to the formula of RMB10, no nonsense haircuts. Most clients are men, stopping in for a quick trim or shampoo. 

“If we raise prices, nobody will come,” Feng says. “I depend a lot on returning customers and people who don’t want to get a RMB100 cut on Nanjing Xi Lu. Having this little storefront is simple. If I didn’t work here, I’d have to work somewhere, and it does feel good to be your own boss. It’s an easier job than other things because you work indoors and it’s not heavy labor.” 

Feng said he worries about Shanghai’s tendency to knock down the old could one day force him to shut up shop. 

“It was easy to set up a store before, but now with rent becoming more expensive and older houses harder to come by it will be difficult if I am forced to relocate,” he says. “What can I do? I just have to look for a different space. You just have to deal with the pace of change.”

This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of That's Shanghai. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.

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