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We Made Our Intern Get a Haircut from a Street Barber

Exploiting free labor to reach content quotas...and to amuse ourselves


Shanghai has a glut of mid-range to expensive salons. And then there is the street barber.



You've seen him. He is likely to have a beach chair or rickety stool, a mirror attached to a telephone pole, and, in his white smock, taking a buzzer or straight razor of questionable sanitary standards to the neck, side burns and scalp.



We put our courage to the test (actually, our intern's courage), tracking one grizzled, clipper-clad Shanghainese man on the corner of Jiashan Lu and Yongjia Lu. An internal debate raged on as to whether we would contract lice from sitting in his chair.


But interns, as we all know, are expendable. Our powers are limited only by what they are unwilling to do for free. After weeks of contemplation we rolled the dice and finally rolled up to visit Mr. Hu, the 83-year-old man in the white smock who has been cutting hair there longer than most interns have been alive.



His customers are long-term and loyal, many have been coming to him for over ten years. Of course, regulars pay eight kuai. And whether it was the shoulder-flowing locks threatening to gum up his stone-age electric razor, or our lack of Shanghainese skills, we won’t say just how much we paid for this experiment. Suffice it to say, the markup was well over 1000 percent. 


Convincing Mr. Hu was a process in itself. He shook his head and waved his hand. He wouldn't even make eye contact with us. The twenty-minute negotiation saw nine different customers with nine different opinions on the matter. And as hair collected on the sidewalk Hu began to crack a smile at our persistence, the inevitable came into focus. “What is he, French?” Hu asked. Better not to answer. And, as our turn approached, and the last man rubbed his head and examined his side burns in the cracked mirror, zero-hour had arrived.



But what style of cut do you ask your Shanghai street barber for, the "Party Chairman"? The "Pete Rose"? The "Justin Bieber"? We flashed a photo of JFK at Mr. Hu. He studied it intently before nodding with confidence and then reached for his scissors.  



More customers arrived, then gawkers, and it became difficult to differentiate the two. A man pulled up on an Ofo his mouth twisting into an “O” of horror or perhaps commiseration, and only possibly disgust as he tracked Hu’s progress. Children had already begun to giggle, point, and whisper to one another. Mr. Hu, however, was all business, working quickly with the shears to eliminate the extra length and focus upon the issue of style, chipping slowly away, like Michelangelo, at the stone that was not David.



A barber box is a cabinet of curiosities, the weather-beaten lifespan of the tools therein seeming to mirror that of the barber. From his box, a buzzer, its handle and edges coated with a faint and almost beautiful sprinkling of former customers’ small slivers of salt-and-pepper hair.



Hu worked the neck, the sideburns, quickly and carefully, by the tips of his fingers one hand holding our head, positioning it at will, not roughly, but like a man who has seen it all, and for whom more customers await after a laowai’s flight of fancy.



The pile of hair on the street grew and became its own subject of discussion for the gathered onlookers. Then the straight razor came out. 



The razor's sunlit edge seeming to signify the inevitable end of all things. Whether this particular end would be of our own short life, or rather, culminate in a stylistic renaissance of blood and hair (it turned out to be the latter) we waited with bated breath. Was it skin on the blade’s edge? The slow accretion of men’s epidermal excess from haircuts long forgotten? Or, perhaps only bits of leather from the belt-turned-razor-strop that Mr. Hu had hanging nearby. Questions fluttered by like hair in the wind. If the usual pre-stylist monologue has one convincing themselves that they are “worth it,” the question “is this worth the non-existent paycheck I’m receiving” seemed to supersede any decision on whether to “treat yo self.”



Suddenly it was over and we were all smiles. Hu kindly provided a bit of tissue paper to dry the tiny beads of blood (just a flesh wound). The pile of hair, had since blown away, or mixed with the hair of regulars come and gone. Hair blew gently in the breeze, collecting in gutters, in sidewalk cracks, sticking to pieces of discarded chewing gum. Where will the hair be in a week? Does all of it ever truly disappear? Where will we be with our fresh-shorn hair? We know where to find Hu, but will he remember the laowai with the long locks, or is it back to business, and the business of forgetting? Memory can seem like so much hair in a windblown gutter.


Photos by Rachel Gouk

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sunsetlover's picture


Interesting article, and great writing, Paul Green. Are you from NYC by the way? Sarcasm abounds here. I have to say though, the end result was not too bad. But you paid over 80 rmb for this?! I can recommend a salon Chinese hair stylist who is almost as good as my stylist in NYC. "Almost", because no haircut in Asia (let alone China) can match the haircut you get back home. They seem to have a problem here with any style that doesn't involve straight black hair and a clipper.
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