Very rarely in life do two wholly compatible strangers cross paths. Though it might happen in an instant – on a plane or in line for coffee – the ripples of impact are felt for a lifetime.
For Ariana Lombardi and Anthony Rowley, it was the city of Guangzhou that connected them amid a population of 13 million.
“It was kind of like this serendipitous thing, because we started with the same company at the same time, we had the same days off, we were both artists and lived near each other,” recalls Lombardi.
The two even share the same favorite number: 22.
Back in the US, both had a history of planning creative events: Lombardi held salon-like gatherings in Santa Fe, while Rowley planned live photography events and fashion shows in New York City.
When the two met in China last October, their distinct experiences fused, making way for a new venture: The Salon.
Initially a small gathering held once a month at Tristan’s CalMex Restaurant and Bar, The Salon soon grew into bimonthly occasion packed with expats and locals from all walks of life.
But what exactly happens at a salon?
“People always say this: ‘what’s gonna happen?’ That’s our new slogan,” laughs Rowley.
“We gotta keep that air of mystery!” Lombardi jokes, adding that if people knew exactly what would happen each time, it would be an ‘event,’ not a ‘salon.’
Participants’ curiosity is not unfounded, however: earlier this year, a Reddit thread titled ‘The Salon Shut Down by Cops’ attracted widespread concern from almost everybody in the community – except those present when it happened.
On the night of the Black Lives Matter themed salon, a group of about 40 stood outside the Guangzhou Opera House steps, sharing songs, poetry and words of encouragement. A few cops approached shortly after, making their voices heard only to those on the outside of the circle.
“They were great… they never said ‘leave,’ they just suggested it,” recounts Lombardi. “They’re like: ‘you should go inside, we prefer if you weren’t here, we don’t want people to get the wrong idea…’”
The 30 or so remaining adults – many of them newly acquainted – then walked in unison down the avenue to The Strand, where they continued The Salon privately inside at the officers’ request.
“It was a success to me,” asserts Lombardi. If anything, she claims the controversial Reddit thread drew fresh attention to the group that had for so long relied solely on word of mouth for publicity.
Unlike Lombardi and Rowley, the majority of salon attendees don’t describe themselves as artists but as people looking for an outlet – a safe space to interact with others and come to grips with life abroad, or life in general.
“You can cut through all the bullsh*t and expat small talk at The Salon and have deeper conversations with people you just met,” said a Toronto native after participating in The Salon’s ‘Silent Conversation’ this past November.
Most walk away feeling like they genuinely connected with those they meet, instead of merely knowing their answers to questions like ‘how long have you been in China?’ and ‘what do you do?’
“We don’t connect in person as much as we used to because we don’t have to, but it’s important to just be in a room with other people and talk to them,” says Lombardi.
“It’s a very human thing. We think we don’t need it but we do – we crave it – and I think that’s why people like The Salon.”
Though she and Rowley will head back to the States later this year until next March, Lombardi hopes to hold a few cross-cultural salons while she’s home to connect Guangzhou with communities overseas.
“I think it would be good for people here to see that it’s happening in other places and that there is a potential to connect with other cities through this,” she says. “The Salon is a component of home – it could be wherever you are.”
Want to know ‘what’s gonna happen’ at the next salon? Check thatsmags.com for upcoming salons or contact Ari Lombardi on WeChat at: arilombardi. The Salon is free and welcomes everyone.
[Photos by Anthony Rowley]