SINGAPORE: Every two months, Madam Sarlin Ahmad travels about an hour and a half by bus and MRT train from her home in Woodlands to a home salon at Tampines, just to do her hair – even though there are plenty of decent salons near her place.
The salon that she frequents, run by Winnie Lai, accepts only females. And it has found a pretty niche clientele – the more conservative Malay-Muslim women who prefer a private environment without men around.
“There is a market (for such salons) that are not open to public view. Some people are shy,” said Mdm Sarlin. “When we go to a salon outside, everyone knows what you’re doing. Here, they cannot see.”
The salon is in Mdm Lai’s home, a HDB executive maisonette that looks just like any of the other flats along the quiet corridor.
During the Hari Raya period, business gets especially brisk. Customers come seeking hair treatments, and many, like Mdm Sarlin, become such close friends that they even bring her their home-made kueh and biscuits to sample.
Mdm Sarlin, for instance, brought the chocolate chip mint cookies she’d made, on a visit a few days before Hari Raya. “As long as it is food, she likes,” she told us, then asked Mdm Lai: “That time I brought the curry puff, nice right? And chicken pie.”
But this time, the goodies came with an extra gift - a tube of slimming cream, which Mdm Sarin presented to an amused Mdm Lai. “She asks me to slim down, but keeps bringing me food,” the 42-year-old hairstylist laughed.
KNOWING WHAT THEY NEED
Mdm Lai opened her home salon 11 years ago, in her then three-room flat. When she moved house, she converted part of her current flat to provide hairdressing services.
A room near the entrance is closed off with a sliding door from the rest of the neat flat, affording both her family and her clients privacy. Inside is a small but professional setup of hairstyling chairs, steam machines and a shampoo chair.
She accepts only female clients as she’s usually alone at home. These factors work out well for her Malay-Muslim customers, who make up half her clientele. “Some allow only female hairdressers to attend to them. The older ones, especially, prefer a salon with no men around,” said Mdm Lai in Mandarin.
According to Mdm Sarlin, there are just a handful of women-only commercial salons, typically located in Geylang Serai and Kampong Glam.
Clients who wear the tudung are more comfortable removing it in the privacy of her home salon, than in a commercial salon surrounded by others. Those who try her out end up recommending her to family and friends.
Mdm Lai’s familiarity with the Malay language and culture stems from growing up in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. She left home for Singapore when she was 17, determined to learn the hairdressing trade
Her first job at a commercial salon paid just S$500 to S$600 a month. “The working hours were very long, from 9am till 8pm,” she said.
She worked for about 10 years before deciding to strike out on her own when she got pregnant. Her husband, an engineer who has to make business trips, suggested operating a salon at home so that she could be with their child.
“Working at home, I can manage my time schedule. When you have children, it’s quite difficult to work for others,” she said.
MEAGRE EARNINGS AT FIRST
Under the Home-Based Small Scale Business Scheme, homeowners like Mdm Lai do not need the housing board’s approval to operate small-scale businesses – such as baking, hairdressing and sewing – in their flat.
Conditions apply: These activities should be small-scale with no hiring of workers, and they should not cause disturbance or inconvenience to their neighbours. (HDB said it received a monthly average of three cases of “feedback” about such activities, from 2014 to 2016.)
Mdm Lai admitted that she did have some reservations about starting a home salon. “Would the type of customers be any danger to me? Would there even be any customers at all?”
Her first set-up in their old three-room flat was tough. The family had to give up one of two bedrooms for the salon, which made only S$600 to S$700 a month.
Husband Steve Choong recalled: “The four of us squeezed into one room. The main sacrifice was space…and we did lose some privacy. The customers would be waiting around in the living room.”
Not to be daunted though, he helped his wife market her business – by learning how to design flyers and personally distributing them.
“Every day he would distribute flyers after work. It was very tough, to go to every block and every storey,” Mdm Lai recalled. “Yet with every 500 pieces of flyers distributed, I received only one or two enquiries.”
Disappointed at the response, Mr Choong learned to design a website for her business. It worked. Soon, she was getting a constant flow of customers.
TRUST AND SENSITIVITY
The couple’s two children grew up accustomed to people coming and going all the time, and they liked it, Mdm Lai said. “I have very nice customers; they play with my children or buy stuff for them.”
As they grew older, though, “the small space was difficult, they were complaining. So I suggested to my husband to move to a bigger house, where I could continue my salon business and my children would be more comfortable”.
These days, the mother of two charges about S$9 for a haircut and S$60 for a highlight job, which she said is cheaper than a commercial salon’s rates. She makes about S$3,000 a month.
What she did not plan for, was for the Malay-Muslim community to be such a big part of her business.
“I did not expect this to happen. As we are Chinese, to have Malay-Muslims even visit your house is rather difficult. They have to trust you totally, and your house cannot have pet dogs and, for some, men as well,” she said.
WATCH: Winnie and friends (4:46)
Some of her clients live as far away as Sembawang and Yishun, while others are as close as, well, next door. Her Malay neighbours and their children pop by for hair cuts.
A few customers previously would travel across the Causeway to patronise female-only salons run by Muslims. “But the traffic conditions can be quite bad,” she noted.
Serving Muslim customers requires some sensitivity to their religion. “I was from Malaysia, so I can understand their ways, their thinking and their requirements.”
For example, she said, no touching a customer’s tudung even after she has removed it. A few have even asked if she uses halal-certified hair products (she doesn’t, as they are not so easily found, she says). With more conservative clients, she makes it a point to serve them exclusively, without other customers present.
“They are comfortable within my home environment,” the Singaporean said. “They are willing to pay so long as you give them the best service and they trust you.”
PLAYING AUNT AGONY
Sometimes, clients bring their children along, and Mdm Lai’s kids keep them company.
And some – like Mdm Sarlin – have become firm friends. “Here you can eat, you can laugh, you can tell stories everything. All in one,” said the customer service executive, who chanced upon Mdm Lai’s home salon online two years ago.
She now comes every two or three months to do her hair, and sometimes get the Aunt Agony treatment.
“One time I came here, and she could read me. She asked me if I was having problems. I confessed to her and she gave me some advice,” said Mdm Sarlin. “Right after that we became good friends.”
For Mdm Lai, the nature of her home business means trade-offs – such as not having a pet dog and having to give up her weekends, typically her busiest time. During festive periods such as Christmas and Chinese New Year, the house, she said, “doesn’t resemble my home”.
But the greatest satisfaction of running a home salon is the flexibility to be able to contribute financially to the household, and still spend time with her kids.
“My children can see my hardship, they understand how hard you’re working. If you were working outside, they don’t see it,” she said. “But my children understand my tiredness. At times when my husband nags at me, they stand up for me. It is touching, hearing this.”