WHILE walking along the quiet Upper China Street, one will surely notice a quaint barber shop with a pair of “dui lian” (couplets) hanging on its wooden front door, two glass louvre windows that characterise Nanyang colonial architecture and a blue sign announcing the name of the shop – Nam Hua Hair Barber Centre.
The shop, which is less than 100 sq ft, has two large barber chairs, a row of wall mirrors, an old television set and a metal bucket with an attached faucet. Laid out in front of the mottled mirrors are the traditional tools of the trade: hair clippers, straight razors, brushes and talcum powder. The room seems suffused with a bygone air.
According to Kuching Old Bazaar, Chai Ko Yin, 80, the owner of the barber shop said apart from his regulars – mostly the elderly – he also has customers from the younger generation and foreign tourists, who want to experience a traditional haircut and shaving services, which cost between RM13 and RM19.
“Services such as shaving, ear cleaning … the new barber shops don’t do it anymore.” he said, while nimbly brushing talc onto a customer’s cheek before starting to shave with a razor. He later took out a long cotton bud to clean the customer’s ears.
He also shared that his black hair is his own dye job, a service he occasionally performs for regulars – his only concession to changing times.
“Who dyed their hair 60 years ago?” he said.
In six decades of practice he has neither pursued nor shied from popular trends.
“The shears are in your hands, you have to be flexible. Taking the customer’s existing hairstyle as the basis, I can produce a stylish cut for any face shape,” he said, adding the current trend is long on top, shaved in the back.
Chai’s lifelong vocation began with a single decision.
At 17, he was an apprentice at a restaurant. Taken by his boss to get a haircut one day, he was struck by the skill of the barbers. “How neat are their cuts!”
He asked his father to let him study hair cutting and enrolled in the then-renowned Pek Lim Barber Saloon at No 41 Main Bazaar, where he received his certificate and began his 63-year-journey.
“Back then, instructors at Pek Lim Barber Saloon came from Hong Kong and Shanghai where men learned male hairstyles while women learned to perm hair,” he recalled.
After graduation, he was sent to the salon’s Miri branch where he worked for a few months before homesickness drew him back to Kuching.
Back in Kuching, he was employed in various barbershops until he decided it was time to start his own business, in the early 1990s.
Now in his golden years, the old Hakka barber has remained dedicated to his craft. Arriving early in the morning from Matang, he would get the shop ready for business, make some coffee and wait for his regulars to drop in.
He seems unfazed by competition from the nearby Indian barbershops with their cheap, quick cuts; his barbershop, after all, has stood the test of time while others flourished and faded. The customer’s satisfaction is most important – which remains his golden rule.
Like many other businesses, Chai said, his barber shop was also affected by the Covid-19 pandemic as there are no tourists. Hence, he hoped the pandemic will end soon, allowing people to move around and travel safely.