Ode to my neighbourhood barber and all the ghosts of haircuts past

Ode to my neighbourhood barber and all the ghosts of haircuts past

CNA Lifestyle’s Circuit Breaker Diaries series features musings on Singapore life in the time of coronavirus. As barbershops open on May 12, one writer recalls his close shave with bad hair through the years.

Illustration of a man shaving his head with birds on top of it
(Art: Chern Ling)

I’m in bed. Conscious, albeit barely. The untypical darkness betrays a low-slung sky outside.

Where birdsong would unhurriedly rouse me up, a steady drizzle pitter patters against the window today.

It’s day I-don’t-know-what of the "circuit breaker", day way-too-many of WFH. And I’m at the fag end of my patience.

READ: Circuit Breaker Diaries: A week in the life of someone stuck at home with virtual yoga aunties

My 14-month-old has just waddled in and clobbered me with a rogue pair of specs. The smell of coffee leaks into my room, as do the shrill cries of another child, presumably driven round the bend by HBL.

At arm’s length, WhatsApp hums. It’s my barber.

He’s in a state of panic. The soft noose of the early circuit breaker has wound tight. He can’t breathe, can’t operate. Rent’s due, too.

READ: Circuit Breaker Diaries: Listening to the sounds of my quiet neighbourhood

He tells me he’s going to do house calls. How else was he going to earn his bread? Would I be interested?

The endless weeks have turned my hair into something of a grievous bird’s nest.

Woah, woah, woah, hold up there, fella. I haven’t seen my parents in what? Two, three weeks? And you want to turn up at my gate with your tool box?  

I break it to him.

I’m lucky. In these unreal times, I can still work from bed. He has to graft. How can I help? I think. Well, I can’t.

Oh, and let’s call our friend Barber Bob.

My hair could do with his hands. The endless weeks have turned it into something of a grievous bird’s nest. It’s the sort where the passing of time sends it upwards and outwards, like an unpretentious school motto.

I eye my shaving clipper as I brush my teeth. I’ve allowed my stubble to level up into something thicker, longer. But the unruly mop needs a seeing to; I mull shearing it, something I’ve never done before.

While I consider it, a space in my head unlocks, and oozes shapes from the past of locks being shorn.

Barber Bob aside, I can count the number of successful snips I’ve had on one hand – and I’ve lived a while.

Barber Bob always remembered who wanted what, and how.

Before him, there was the monthly traipse to Lucky Plaza, where among remittance outlets, smells wafting from nasi padang joints and bored tailors sitting on high stools, was a Filipino barbershop-cum-salon named after the greatest pool player of all time.

It was a popular, poky affair and the two hairdressers had skills. But they were inconsistent and came with memory issues.

Not Barber Bob. Barber Bob always remembered who wanted what, and how.

Then there was the lottery of the identikit Japanese- and Korean-style quick-cuts shops; depending on who you got that day, you’d end up with something ranging from “meh” to “urgh”.

Anything more than a short-back-and-sides was asking for trouble. No wonder they make you pay upfront. That said, the hair sucking hose is quite neat.

I size up my clipper options. How hard could this be? The No 6 and No 9 are all I need.

Back at home, I size up my clipper options. I mean how hard could this haircut lark be? Hitherto unused, the No 6 and No 9 are all I need ... it seems. Should I shower first and soften the tresses before its slaying?

I start lining the sink with newspaper. Outside, thunder rolls on, the rain gets heavier and a lusty gust of wind gushes through the window slats above and messes with the budding set up.

Of course, the most upsetting snip of all was the army buzz cut on enlistment day. A ham-handed stunt, it’s over in under three minutes.

The full horror of it all only sets in later after you’re marched off to your bunk. It needs work, obviously: My hair is made up of individual fiefdoms whose tufts need individualised attention – not some generic massacring that ends with an uneven crown of shame. 

The most upsetting snip of all was the army buzz cut on enlistment day.

I do what I can with the help of my locker mirror, on which I catch my buddy’s bemused eye. I hand him the disposable razor and ask him if he can clean up my neck fluff. He obliges. This was how lifelong friendships began.

Back at home, I can hear yelling. My wife is having a go at the older one who is now parkouring around the house.

Years ago, she (then girlfriend) used to cut my hair for months as we tried to save money with pay cuts and no-pay leave being de rigueur post financial crisis.

I thought I looked fine, until my dad said I was beginning to look like my (now long disappeared) cat, Coosie Pat. That sent me out the door in search of cheap cuts.

Cheap meant old school, and I went on the Malay, Chinese, Indian barber circuit. It’s a giddy cosmos redolent of Vitalis and rose water and industrial-grade talcum. 

The Sri Dewa barbers would always ask if you wanted a “slope”. The Chinese barbershops had hand-painted signs outside, obsolete Rediffusion sets inside, and the barbers would pretend to understand you.

Cheap meant old school, and I went on the Malay, Chinese, Indian barber circuit.

The Indian barbers would always be well staffed and have a man sitting in the corner holding up the newspaper like a John Le Carre spy in a hotel lobby.

In the end, I settled briefly on the Tamil barber a couple blocks away, chiefly because they had shaving and massage services.

Tamil barbers come from a long tradition of haircutting and can be found across the region. When I lived in Brunei as a child, a man would come by on his cycle and cut my hair. Over the years, he gave me some choice hairdos, including a Beatles mop.

One year, his young daughter whom he hadn’t seen in a while died from a scorpion bite and he couldn’t return to Tamil Nadu to say goodbye. Instead he carried on working, and his customers raised some money for him to send home.

I try my darndest to replicate Barber Bob's moves in front of the mirror. But it’s missing a deft, sinuous touch.

It will be weeks before I can head to Barber Bob’s – his is a single customer outfit and by appointment only. He will be booked solid for a while when curbs ease on May 12.

I try my darndest to replicate his moves in front of the mirror. But it’s missing a deft, sinuous touch.

I use the No 6 and then the No 9 and carve out a semblance of a mid-fade haircut. The clumps fall everywhere.

It’s not great, but it’ll do for now.

It’ll do.

Ramesh William is an editor at CNA Digital and is looking forward to a reunion with his barber’s hot towel.

Source: CNA/mm

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