The tradition of the Chinese street barber still survives on the margins of the country, but for how much longer?
In its less economically stimulated and traditional realms China still maintains a vibrant “in the streets,” culture. People spend a lot of time outdoors, socializing with family and friends, cooking and eating, playing with children, playing music, gambling, getting massages, singing karaoke, peaking into their neighbors homes to see what’s up, sitting on benches just watching the world move by. Still existing within this social fray are street barbers.
First documented in the 14th century, barbers began setting up shop in the streets of China. Sometimes they were travelers, moving from town to town. Their equipment consisted of a wooden box filled with razors, scissors, brushes, and tweezers, and a chair. They cut hair, shaved faces, and cleaned ears.
This tradition has changed little today. Street barbers can still be found in the old neighborhoods in cities, in villages, and in the less developed realms of China. They set up on sidewalks, down winding alleys, and in parks. The only improvement they seemed to have made to the equipment of their ancient forebears is the addition of battery powered clippers. They have reclining chairs, wear white smocks, and cover their clients in capes. They still cut hair, give shaves, trim nose hair, and dig the gunk out of ears. The price is generally 3 to 6 yuan (50 cents to $1).
The street barber tradition is virtually the same as the the one that takes place in old Chinese barbershop. It’s a regular social event for the men who partake in it, not just a way to be groomed. The sole difference seems to be location. The street barber generally has no need for four walls, a roof, a door, and rent, but this leaves them very susceptible to weather. Nobody wants to sit outside in the cold or rain getting their nose hairs plucked.
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From what I’ve seen, traditional Chinese barbers they are old men providing an old service for other old men. But they tend to stay busy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a street barber in China without a client in their chair, and there is often a line of men waiting to go next. Regularly going to the barber is a habit that has been instilled in generations of Chinese men born before the economic boom period. It is a practice that is still very much alive in the more traditional realms of this culture, but this demand will more than likely die with the people currently engaging in it. Younger Chinese men go to the hair salon and shave themselves.
Privacy is status in global culture. Getting a hair cut in a park is a barbaric practice of the poor. Like so, many of the more uppity and economically vibrant sections of big Chinese cities have cleared out the street barbers, and the neighborhoods themselves that they once worked in are being demolished, growing fewer and fewer. Like most other old Chinese traditions the street barber is being pushed out to the margins of society, hidden beneath the cloak of posh modernity with everything else that is old and poor.