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Haircut, Shanghai Style

OK girls, imagine this nightmare scenario – you are plonked into a foreign city for a year with no hairdresser who speaks your language, and it’s now 3 months since your last haircut. Aaaagh! What to do? At the point of desperation you are relieved to discover that English-speaking hairdressers do exist in Shanghai, however you have to make an appointment to see them 28 months in advance, and they will charge you the equivalent of a years’ worth of Cherry Ripes to cut your hair. And a colour? About the same price as a plasma TV, or 10 years of Chinese lessons.

So it becomes obvious – you are going to have to find a Chinese hairdresser. This is totally terrifying. Firstly, the language barrier means that nuances of cut and colour will be lost in translation. No, I do not want to look like Lady Gaga. Or Roger Federer. And what if they put hair dye suitable for asian hair on mine? What if all my hair falls out? The ways in which the whole thing could go terribly, horribly wrong are many, and my Chinese Hairdressing Words are few.

I take the plunge. I do a reccy first, on my bike, to see what the salon looks like. It looks pretty good, all-white decor, Kerastase products. Then I go in to make an appointment. They want to know do I want a haircut now? This would normally be seen as a bad sign (no waiting list, no talent) but not in Shanghai where anything is possible anytime at the drop of a hat. But I need a cooling off period in case I chicken out, so I make the appointment for the next day and cycle off.

Yesterday was D-day. The first thing I notice as I take my seat in a plush white leather chair is the total absence of female staff – every single person working at the salon is male. I bet they’re all straight too, although I find that harder to tell here as perfectly red-blooded Chinese heterosexuals are likely to be wearing pink girls’ sunglasses and Hello Kitty t-shirts. 

Then, the consultation with the senior stylist…..he speaks no English at all, but has chosen Benson (as in Hedges) for his English name. I unfold my helpful list of Chinese Hairdressing Phrases, pulled out of a tourist magazine 6 months ago and kept for just such a situation. I scan through it for “Please give me a modern bob, cover up all my grey with natural looking highlights, and while you’re at it make me look 20 years younger’

Oh…there’s nothing on the phrase list that even remotely helps. It’s got really useful ones like: ‘Please make me look like a rockstar’ and ‘Can you shave it all off?’ Even ‘Don’t make me look like that dog of yours’. I’m a dead man. I revert to miming, and indicate a kind of shape like a bob. ‘Bo-bo?’ asks Benson. ‘Bo-bo’ I reply.

Now for the colour. Trickier, because the colour book seems to consist entirely of shades of black. I whip out my ipod and show Benson a photo of my hair when I was in Paris two years ago. On reflection, the background of the Eiffel tower is what makes the colour look good. It’ll have to do. We get the only English-speaking staff member to translate. I ask him:’Is it a permanent colour?’
‘No’ he says, ‘Not permanent. Forever!’ Reassuring.

So the fun begins. I have no less than eight men doing my hair, including one whose job is just to wash it, and another who just combs after washing. Sadly, Benson rejects his combing and the comb is passed to someone with more experience. For five long hours I am sat, wrapped in a cape, while weird stuff happens to me and my head. It begins with 2 large black plastic ear covers, so I look like Goofy, and a white neck wrap around bandage thingy to keep hair dye off my skin. Along the way my head is pummelled, wrapped in plastic, and covered with 58 separate foil envelopes.I have mini panic attacks every 10 minutes or so when some new chemical is applied to my already overloaded head. The supposedly relaxing scalp massage is an opportunity for the overly-strong hair-washing guy to practice squashing skulls with his bare hands. Can a scalp massage give you a headache?

At last the torture is over. The wraps are off and the drying begins. During the finale I meet a new staff member whose job is just to dispense styling product to Benson, and another who holds up sections of hair while Benson dries underneath it, so he doesn’t have to struggle to use one of those annoying clips. Benson seems extremely pleased with his results. And you know what? I do too. It’s one of my Best Haircuts Ever. And its definitely my Best Haircut in a Foreign Language (I recall that distressing time in Thailand I came out looking like Macauley Caulkin in Home Alone).

On the way home Daughter Number One says ‘I don’t like your haircut. You look 25!’ Since when was that supposed to be an insult? What do you think?

  • The Enchanted Cook

    Beautiful and very chic!!

  • Ruby

    Fiona – I love your haircut and I love your post! Well-written, had me laughing throughout. (I was supposed to laugh, right?) And that photo of you at the top, with the odd mixture of terror and resignation on your face – priceless. 😉

  • Anonymous

    Reminds me of my first visit at a hairdresser in Shanghai. Cheap,small and busy salon down the road from my block." Keep it real" strategy while being abroad is the source of the most thrilling moments. I found pictures from the magazines to be of great help. heart warming memories:)

  • Louisa

    Your haircut looks great!

    Just a Shanghai salon tip: Vidal Sassoon recently opened up two hair schools, one in Xintiandi and one in Red Town (Hongfang). They're always in need of hair models. The teachers are all from Sassoon's European and American schools and the students are either advanced students or professionals looking for new techniques. The best part is, they do a cut and dye for FREE! I've gone and it was fantastic. The only downside is that you have to get the cut and the dye on separate days and since it's a school, you're sitting there for 3-4 hours.

  • Esme

    For a language barrier this turned out better than I was expecting. Great is the word I would use. You got a very lovely haircut and color.

    I lived across the river from Detroit and a friend sent me to a salon there. That was one bad haircut that I have never forgotten.

  • tomorrowslices

    I can so relate! I found your blog via your "Impractical Expat" interview and am really enjoying reading about your experiences and identifying with so many of them! You seem to have experienced less trauma than my first few salon adventures here in Shanghai….… but I had totally forgotten about the "2 large black plastic ear covers" – certainly a first for me!

  • Fiona

    Hi tomorrowslices! Thanks for stopping by and glad you found me! I'm looking forward to reading your experiences when I get back from my travels!

    Cheers, Fiona

  • Kay Bratt

    Oh, my…sitting her laughing my butt off because I have SO BEEN there and DONE THAT! In Shanghai, even! You brought back the feeling of quiet panic that bubbles inside while you wonder what they are doing to your hair..and hope for the best. Good post!

    Kay Bratt
    Author of Silent Tears; A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage

  • Fiona

    Thanks Kay! Really, it feels so crazy to get stressed about something as simple as a hair colour and cut, but we all know how DISASTROUS a bad one can be 🙂

    (For those interested, Kay has written a beautiful book about her amazing work in Chinese orphanages, called Silent Tears)

  • Anonymous

    Great hair cut! May I know where did you get it?

  • Fiona

    This one (and many others following) was from Charme at 47 Yongfu Lu, and the hairdresser is Benson. Charme have just opened on Anfu Lu also.

  • Anonymous

    She-she, Fiona. Thank you for the nice blog, too )) Happy, that I found it.