'Life is indeed like a dream': A cultural historian returns to the barbershop of his childhood

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai visits his hometown in Taiwan, going for a haircut on a whim. He and the barber are lost in their own thoughts as the shaver buzzes on. 40 years have whizzed by since they last met; their memories hang in the silence, like a time capsule frozen in time.
A barber in a barbershop.
A barber in a barbershop.

(Photos: WeChat/玉茗堂前)

I always wait until my hair gets too long before I get a haircut. When it can no longer be smoothed down and when my sideburns start to curl up — like Chinese deity Zhong Kui’s unkempt facial hair which frightens dandy demons away — I start thinking about getting a haircut. But I am often too busy to schedule an appointment at the hair salon so my haircut always gets delayed. After all, having long and messy hair makes me seem “carefree and bohemian” and doesn’t affect my daily life. 

As I get myself ready in the mornings, I am sometimes reminded of Tang dynasty poet Li Bai’s Song of Qiupu (《秋浦歌》): “My white hair is three thousand zhang (丈, a Chinese unit of measurement) long, because that is how much sorrow I feel. I look in the mirror in front of me; alas, how did my hair get this white?” Poetry academics say this is a hyperbolic poem of frustration, speaking of Li’s angst at his ideals not yet being fulfilled though he was already getting old. I too see a shock of white hair when I look at myself in the mirror. A frivolous thought comes to mind — modern people need to visit the hair salon frequently unlike the ancient people who could simply put their hair up in a bun with a hairpin.

The facade of a barbershop tucked away in the alley.

As a proverb goes, “time and tide wait for no man”. While I do sometimes feel melancholic as my hair slowly turns white, I do not feel angry about it. I’m thinking, surely Li does not feel angry about being old? He did not sound particularly angry when he was comparing his sorrow to the length of his hair as well? Li was simply looking at himself in the mirror and combing his long, white hair. He was feeling melancholic and letting his imagination run wild like a poet, complaining about the white hair that came out of nowhere. If we could travel through time and bring Li to a hair salon to be properly groomed, would his melancholy be shaved off as well?     

Growing old gracefully

Once, I went to Taipei for a study trip, taking the chance to return to the place I called home forty years ago. I visited my siblings who were still staying there. It seemed that my younger brother became more well-groomed with age. His hair was pulled back into a man bun; the few straggly strands that remained fell casually on his shoulders. Looking like a Taoist priest, he didn’t need to cut his hair anymore. His silhouette was like that of a poised young lady from the waist up, but he looked like a hippopotamus from the waist down. I teased him for a good while.

Thinking about my head of overgrown weeds, I asked if there were any hair salons nearby. My brother said that the barbershop that our father used to visit when he was still alive was still around. Father visited that same barbershop for 30 years and never went elsewhere or stepped into a posh hair salon. By then, Father had passed away for over a decade. The owner of the small barbershop was still Ah Qiu. That small shop had kept a family alive and helped Ah Qiu bring up his three children, who have since grown up and started their own families.     

taipei streets
Taipei 101 stands in the background in this Taipei street scene.

The barbershop was situated on the ground floor of a row of residential apartments in an alley. It looked extremely plain with only a small sign that read “Barber”. I pushed the door open and saw no one — just two barber chairs. Hearing the door open, a half-bald elderly man came in from the back of the shop. With a quizzical look, he asked, “Here for a haircut?” I nodded and he gestured to me to have a seat. He grabbed a towel and put it around my neck, wrapping the plastic barber gown around me fairly nimbly. “Just cut it short, the simpler the better,” I said. He made a hand gesture and asked if I wanted to shave off my weed-like messy sideburns. I nodded.

He began to cut my hair and did not say a word. He remained silent like a pine tree and I too kept mum, staying quiet like a mountain rock. There was no one else in the shop and it felt like we were acting in a pantomime. Only the sound of the shaver moving across my scalp was audible. I suddenly said, “My dad used to cut his hair here.” He paused for a moment and asked, “Who is your father?” A Mr Cheng who lived in the alley behind the shop and passed away ten years ago, I said. The elderly barber eagerly asked, “I have been cutting people’s hair over here for 40 years. I know each and every member of the Cheng family. You are?”      

After Ah Qiu finished cutting my hair, he sighed, “We have turned old in a flash. Life is indeed like a dream!”

Some things change, and some things stay the same     

I suddenly thought of a line in Tang dynasty poet He Zhizhang’s poem about his hometown, “I left my hometown when I was young and only returned when I was old. I still speak with my local accent, but my hair has already turned white.” The person who asked me a question is also an old man — half bald and in a singlet that can barely cover his protruding belly. I just could not tell that this man was the Ah Qiu in my memory — that suave young man with a thin and rugged face who had just returned from military service and opened a barbershop here. I replied, “When you just opened a barbershop — the one right across the street — I went there before. But I later went overseas. My father continued coming over here though and has been doing so for 30 years. He never went to another barber.”

A broad grin spread across Ah Qiu’s chubby face, “Ah, you’re the eldest brother! Wow, 40 years have passed! Your younger brother also comes here to have his hair cut but he recently became very fashionable and pulls his hair back in a ponytail. He doesn’t come here anymore but we do bump into each other quite a lot on the streets. I know everyone in your family, but why haven’t I seen you for such a long time?”

I told him that for the past four decades, I have been overseas and am based in Hong Kong now and rarely came back. Ah Qiu laughed, “When you walked in just now, I thought you lost your way and didn’t dare speak to you. All of my customers are old customers from this neighbourhood. No stranger would walk through these doors to have a haircut.” 

barber cutting hair
Barbers working at a barbershop.

I returned to my old home. Forty years have passed in the blink of an eye. I did not know anyone in the neighbourhood anymore. After Ah Qiu finished cutting my hair, he sighed, “We have turned old in a flash. Life is indeed like a dream!” I thanked him and asked how much the haircut cost. “NT$250,” he said. I gave him NT$300 and told him to keep the change. He bowed and thanked me, seeing me right to the door.

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