A HAIRCUT IN BEIJINGBy
I have visited China several times now. I have traveled throughout the country and experienced its many landscapes, weather and rich & diverse culture.
But one thing I have never done is to have my hair cut in China!
I have a good friend and work colleague, Bill Schiller, who is our Asia foreign correspondent at the paper. He told me about “Uncle” Jing, an elderly Chinese man in his early 90’s who is a barber. He cuts hair in his tiny one-room home in a Beijing hutong. Bill wrote a charming story for the Toronto Star about this man who had never cut a westerner’s hair. Bill, always looking for a story and an experience, made an appointment to return to Uncle Jing and have his hair cut.
It was on my fourth trip to Beijing that I was going to meet up with Bill and we would both get a haircut! I met Bill and his assistant, Lilly on the street at 2 p.m. I came with Jessica, my Chinese friend and translator. On the street just outside the entrance to the hutong where Uncle Jing lives, we met a few men who, through Jessica and Lilly, told us they knew our barber and he was a man of great age, experience and spirit. I saw him round a corner, walking slowly, slightly bent-over at the shoulders, and wearing a silk jacket of deep red and luxurious embroidery.
Uncle Jing took my hand in greeting and held it for a long time with a youthful strong grip. Looking down at him, I saw his bright sparkly eyes, which did not require glasses! His face was all smiles and the wrinkles, like a road map, spoke to his 94 years of history. This small, frail man had seen everything and still he had energy, enthusiasm and dignity to spare.
Taking the lead, Uncle Jing lead us down the twisting & turning hutong lane ways. His red jacket and snow-white hair were a sharp contrast to the grey and pealing walls of this hutong. He has lived here all his life and has a few adult children in the same area. He is a man who has out-lived many others his age, the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese leaders, and is now witnessing China’s economic thrust.
Finally we all walk single-file, down a very narrow alley to his home. A small wooden door opens to a concrete room about the width of a canoe and just as deep! On the walls are hung posters, calendars, certificates acknowledging his skills of a barber, photographs of his children and the three wives he has also out-lived. He has a fourth wife now!
His bed is at the front of the room on the right against the wall, next to the door and under the window that looks out onto the narrow alley. Next to the bed is the only table. It serves as the dining table, a place where he can entertain, and also as his workspace when he cuts hair.
Being a sociable host, we all find a place to sit and he begins to entertain us with stories and answers to Bill’s questions. Uncle Jing, despite his advanced years, still chain-smokes and I can see no evidence of any damage his smoking may have caused. He never seems to be short of breath, nor does his clear voice suffer from a career-smoker’s cough! He reaches for another cigarette and nimbly lights it with his boney figures that resemble the gnarled branches of an old fruit tree. His thin fingers, and long nails reach for, strike and light his wooden match without a glance. Drawling deeply on his cigarette, he continues to talk while puffs of bluish smoke pulsate out of his mouth with every word!
He is now warmed up and ready to cut hair. Bill goes first.
Sitting on an old metal chair with a vinyl-covered cushion, Uncle Jing wraps Bill in a pale yellow sheet and carefully closes it around his neck, fastening it at the back with a plastic clip. On the table, Uncle Jing places what looks to be a doctor’s medical bag and removes a tightly rolled-up cloth. Undoing the string, he rolls out his tools. Scissors, combs, razors and other tools for snipping and cutting. The rolled-out cloth with its tools indeed resemble those of a surgeon ready to begin an operation.
The room falls silent for a while. The dog, down a few houses still barks constantly. Faint conversations can be heard from other homes, and all the while, the squeaking sound of the scissors. He does not use electric clippers. All his tool are hand tools. Peering closely, Uncle Jing delicately snips away with comb in one hand and the razor sharp scissors in another. Each cut is calculated, slow and deliberate. The look of concentration on his face is nothing at all like the smiling and laughing Uncle Jing of a few minutes ago.
Stepping back from his work, he cocks his head to the left, and evaluates. Spying a few hairs which escaped his first trimming, he goes in and carefully trims them. Rounding Bill, he moves to the back and begins to tame Bill’s thick and equally white hair! After a while, he announces that he is done! Through the cracked mirror on the wall near the bed, Bill checks out his new cut. He must move his head up and down slightly to account for the crack in the mirror creating two images. Eventually he gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up!
It is tiring work, this haircutting, so we sit and chat some more. More cigarettes are lit & enjoyed along with the exhaling of smoky conversation!
It is now my turn!
As before I sit still in the same chair, wearing the same pale yellow sheet. This time I get a close-up view of Uncle Jing’s face as he maneuvers his tools with delicate fingers. The light from the open door backlights him as he cuts. I see the edge-lit wrinkles and long eye lashes of this man who was once invited to Japan to cut a man’s hair after reading of Uncle Jing in a newspaper article. He is not a wealthy man, nor is he a man who has many needs. He is a man who simply goes about his days observing, listening, and enjoying. I can’t help thinking I would love to watch a movie of all that his life has experienced. He has lived through so much.
Now, nearing the end of his life, Uncle Jing enjoys the wisdom of the elderly, the respect of the young, and as Lilly and Jessica move about his home, he still enjoys being in the presence of attractive women!
Waving us off, we head back down the alley and make our way out of the hutong in silence, each of us smiling at the thought of Uncle Jing – the man who is a piece of living history, kindness and grace.
One final observation: Bill notices that his past haircut, and now our two haircuts today all seem to look the same…
We all now look like Uncle Jing!