Posted in Announcements, Barbershop at 10:34 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s been some time since I’ve updated this blog.

To see what I’m up to, check out my TEDx talk on Chinese Hairstylists. (Use this link if you’re behind the Great Firewall).

You can also listen the Sinica Podcast where I talk about my dissertation research on the Chinese Hairstyling Industry.



Quitting school early: It’s Like Tanking in the NBA.

Posted in Barbershop at 7:02 pm by Benjamin Ross

Yesterday I visited a barbershop in the TuanJieHu neighborhood of Beijing. I had been told about the place from a stylist I know from Fujian. In his early 20’s, he had migrated to Beijing, and worked in the TuanJieHu barbershop for several years, before returning home. When I was in Nanping, he had given me the WeChat of his friend A Bo, who was still working in TuanJieHu.

While waiting for A Bo, I struck up conversation with a 27-year-old stylist from a village outside of Harbin. When he was 13, his parents migrated to Beijing, bringing him along. Back then, he told me, it was easier for migrants to attend Beijing schools (attending Beijing schools typically requires Beijing hukou). His parents had to pay a fine in order for him to attend, but the fines weren’t as prohibitively expensive as they are today. Beijing has some of the best schools in China, and attending one (as opposed village schools) could have been a jumping off point of opportunity. So how did it work out?

“I quit school. Didn’t even finish 初二 (8th grade),“ he told me. “I have no regrets whatsoever (一点后悔都没有). My older brother and sister, they both have college degrees. But you know what, they can’t make as much money with their jobs as I can as a hairstylist. And for Chinese people, making money is the most important thing.”

From the top down, China appears to be a society in which education is the paramount vehicle to success. The higher you score within the educational machine, the better your career will be. While this is plausibly the case at the top, encouraging immense individual educational investments in terms of time and effort, the system looks different from below.

Think of it like the NBA. The goal of an NBA franchise is to win enough games in the regular season to make the post-season, then advance in the postseason, and hopefully win a championship. But not every team can make the playoffs. For some teams, the window closes at the end of the season. For others it’s apparent almost from the start. Rather than strive to win as much as they can to close out the regular season, the lowest ranking teams may opt to drop out, or “tank.” They stop expending resources into the current season, and instead focus on the next. This is because at this point, any additional success is moral only, and doesn’t provide any tangible benefit to the goal of making the playoffs and winning a championship. However, by cutting ones losses (figuratively, not literally), a team will improve its draft position. This can put them in a better position than had they continued to ride out the rest of the season.

Such is the case with hairstylists, who operate under the same calculus. It’s rare that I meet a hairstylist who has attended attended any senior high (高中), and it’s almost unheard of to meet one who has graduated. On the median, most Chinese hairstylists probably leave school during either the second or third year of junior high (初中). By that point in their education, they are literate and as institutionally competent as will ever be required in the service industry. They recognize that even if they continue to push through the educational machine, they won’t reach high enough to make much tangible gain. It would be like striving to go .500 and get swept in the first round of the playoffs, and in the process missing out on the chance to build your team with high draft picks.

Hairstyling is a craft (手艺) which takes time to develop, often 2-3 years before a stylist can earn an income much higher than subsistence level. Beginning the process at age 15 as the stylist quoted above did will lead to quicker success than investing further in education, when it is apparent a higher degree is not a possibility. And sometimes it even beats out a higher degree as well, at least according to this stylist who is seeing more returns on his training than his college educated older siblings. Do you wanna persevere in order to still miss the playoffs? Or would you rather cut out early for the chance at the next LeBron…or Darko Milicic?



China has more illiteracy than you may think

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:18 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past winter, I spent 3 months in Fujian researching hairstylists as part of my dissertation fieldwork.  Since my research was being partly supported by a small research grant, I had to keep track of basic living expenses such as food, hotels, and transportation.  In order to get reimbursed for an expense, I would need a receipt.  Since my grant was from the US, and not China, there was no need to obtain the official “fa piao” receipts, which are required by most Chinese firms and organizations for reimbursement.  Instead, all I needed was a written record, either a print out from a cash register, a hand written “shou ju” receipt, or in most basic circumstances, a written note with date, price, and what I had ordered.  

Since my default meal is usually at a cheap, mom-and-pop restaurant in which the cash register consists of a drawer full of cash, many of the receipts I obtained were of the hand-written variety.  This daily act of receipt gathering led to an inadvertent experiment with an unexpected result:  There is a lot more illiteracy in China than I had previously thought.  This was revealed in the uncomfortable situation in which I would ask for a written receipt, and receive an embarrassed reply indicating that the restaurant proprietor  could not write Chinese characters.  While nowhere near the majority, this situation occurred enough times during my three months in Fujian that I started to take notice. It was always from a female proprietor of a family-run restaurant, usually between the ages of 30-60.  The solution was for me to wait until her husband or child returned, or to have me write my own receipt.  

Before going further, it should be mentioned that illiteracy in China is low. This was not always the case. For much of China’s Imperial history, literacy was reserved for government officials, as was the case for the clergy in many Western societies. One of the most important accomplishments of the Chinese Communist Party was lowering illiteracy, particularly by making primary education available to girls.  

Literacy is difficult to quantify, but the CIA World Factbook estimates China’s literacy rate at 95.1% for individuals over 15 as of 2010 (97.5% for boys and 92.5% for girls).  Of that small percentage who are illiterate, presumably most would be elderly women in remote areas, who came of age before girls were commonly educated.  (Previously, the only people in China who I had encountered who couldn’t read and write fit this description).  This is why I found it surprising to encounter so much illiteracy among restaurant owners, who were well below this age threshold. Also, in reflection to another group who come from one of the least educated strata of Chinese society:  hairstylists.

Of the several hundred hairstylists and other service industry workers I have befriended, interviewed, and observed over the years, never once have I encountered one who couldn’t read a Chinese newspaper and fill out forms with written Chinese characters.  (I have incidentally met a few who could not read pinyin, the Chinese Romanization system, taught in primary grades).  The median education level of a hairstylist in China is probably around 8th or 9th grade.  When I broach the topic of schooling, responses I receive are usually to the tune of “I hate school, so I quit.” or “I suck at studying.  It’s meaningless to me.”  Yet, it would not be a stretch to say literacy is universal among this population.  Which is all the more reason I was surprised to find it, inadvertently, among restauranteurs.    



Sinica Podcast: Talkin’ about Chinese Stylists

Posted in Announcements, Barbershop at 8:49 pm by Benjamin Ross

In case you missed it, I was interviewed on a recent version of the Sinica Podcast, a weekly show put on by Jeremy Goldkorn, David Moser, and Kaiser Kuo.  We discuss the state of the hairstyling industry, that “other” hairstyling industry, and the service industry as a whole, among other issues pertaining to barbershops.  You can listen to the show here.  Also, check out Sinica’s archives for a wide variety of fascinating China-related content.      



Barbershop Owners to Government: Please Regulate our Industry!

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:43 pm by Benjamin Ross

IMG_5325The Chinese hairstyling industry as we know it today is the product of market capitalism. Before the 1980’s, most Chinese haircuts happened in state-run barbershops. But as China experimented with a market economy, the hairstyling industry blossomed. The 1990’s was the golden era for hairstyling. Anybody who knew the trade could make a good living, by the day’s standards. A 45 year old stylist recently told me that in the early 1990’s, he was able to make 500 RMB/month (a high salary for the time), whereas previously he had worked a danwei job and was only making 100 RMB/month.

But these days, the outlook on the industry is not rosy. Incomes have stagnated while living costs have increased. There are several reasons for this, but the most commonly sited one by insiders is that there are simply too many hair salons. There are several reasons for this, the most obvious being that the golden age attracted an entire generation to learn the trade. Now this generation is at the age when they expect to open up their own salon and be the boss, the natural progression within the industry.

One solution, which I am hearing more and more salon owners suggest is government regulation. “This industry is 乱 (in disarray). Anybody can open a salon. You can study the trade for 3 months, then open up a salon and be a boss. There is no government regulation whatsoever,” one informant tells me. The example of Japan is often suggested as a model to follow. In Japan, stylists must attend a formal training school for 3 years before they begin working. “Because of this, not only is the industry more 珍贵 (legitimate), but stylists have a higher standing in society, since they are cultured and educated,” another informant tells me. But most importantly, Japan’s system provides a “们康” (gatekeeping mechanism) which levels the number of stylists entering the industry at any given point. “The government, they don’t care about us (不管我们). We want to be regulated by the government. It is the only way to save this industry,” another boss tells me. Even pure market capitalists want government regulation sometimes.



A Fake Chinese Hair Salon?

Posted in Barbershop at 9:52 pm by Benjamin Ross

When word came out about fake Chinese Apple Stores, few who follow China were too surprised. For better or worse, almost anything can be faked in China. Apple is the world’s most valuable company, and it was only a matter of time before their storefront would begin making unlicensed appearances in the Middle Kingdom. However, I was a bit surprised the other day when I ran into this, in Changle, a county-level city just outside of Fuzhou.

It’s the Red Sun Salon, which incidentally bares the same name as the salon which Li Wenzhong used to run in Fuzhou, as well as his Hairstyling Academy. To be fair, the name The Red Sun (红太阳) is not exactly original. However, the logo and font were so similar to The Red Sun in Fuzhou (pictured below) that I WeChatted Li to ask if this salon had any relationship with his school. “Nope, not related” was his only reply, without any curiosity about where I had bumped into it.

Several days later I was back at the Red Sun Academy, and I brought up the issue with Li in person. Marketing and branding are important aspects of Li’s business strategy. Changle is less than half hour away from Fuzhou, and I figured he would at least be curious about who was ripping off his brand. “I don’t mind. That’s common in China” he replied. And that was that.



The Penalties of Quitting a Hairstyling Job in China, and Restrictions on the Free Movement of Labor

Posted in Barbershop at 3:10 pm by Benjamin Ross

IMG_5360Several days ago I received a WeChat voice message from Li Wen Zhong. “Ben, you’re going to have a new roommate. I hope that’s ok.” I have been living in Li Wen Zhong’s salon’s dormitory since I arrived in Fuzhou this past December. Li gave me my own room, but told me after Chinese New Year, I may have to share my space with another stylist. Li (like most salon owners in Fuzhou) has been trying to increase his labor force, and my first assumption was that he had found a new stylist with whom I would share my room. Instead, my new roommate is a stylist named Shengxi, who has been working in a salon in Jingfeng, a small town near the Fuzhou airport. He had arrived in Fuzhou at the conclusion of Spring Festival for some job training at the Red Sun Academy (Li’s school). Since the Red Sun’s student dormitory is currently rented to a third party (this is low season for students), Li allowed Sheng Xi to stay in his dormitory.

While we were getting acquainted in our shared dorm room, Sheng Xi told me his plan was to remain in Fuzhou until April, studying at the Red Sun. He also was going to consider looking into job opportunities in Fuzhou. When I asked how his job search had progressed thus far, he had this reply:

Looking for a job here in China isn’t as easy as it is in the US.  In the US, you can just work for a few days, and if you don’t like it, you can quit.  You still get paid for two days work.  But in China, as a hairstylist, you usually don’t get paid until a month and a half after you start.  Say you start working on March 1.  Your first payment will be on April 15, and that will be for all the work from the month of March.  If you quit before April 15, you won’t get paid at all. So you have to be very careful in choosing where you work. If you chose a bad job and need to quit, you may end up working for free.  The thing is, none of this is based on a contract.  So if the boss doesn’t want to pay you, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Later in our conversation, Shengxi mentioned returning to his salon in Jingfeng. This had me puzzled about his actual job status. Was he still employed by the salon in Jingfeng? Or not? I asked him if he had quit, and he told me:

Well, I wouldn’t say I quit.  I told my boss I want to go study in Fuzhou, and I won’t be back until April.  He agreed, but he put a hold on my salary:  My pay from 2/1 to 2/15, I won’t get paid until I get back, and if I don’t come back, he’ll keep that money.  There’s also the deposit.  At my job, it was 1,500 RMB.  Each of the first three months I worked, my boss would take 500 RMB out of my pay.  Then once I work for a year, the money is returned to me.  It’s an incentive to stick around.  This is pretty common practice in most salons.

Shengxi’s predicament is as such: There’s a good chance he will find a more appealing job in Fuzhou than his current employment in Jingfeng. However, the job would have to be appealing enough to counterbalance the sacrifice of the 1,500 RMB deposit, plus the earnings from 2/1 to 2/15. It’s important to note that this time period, the weeks leading up to Spring Festival, is THE busiest time of the year for stylists, and thus the time when incomes (which are based on commission) are highest.

The hairstyling industry in Fuzhou is currently experiencing a glut of salons and a shortage of stylists to work in them. In theory, this should provide power to the workers, (the stylists), relative to the salon owners. One clear benefit to the workforce is that the unemployment level of hairstylists in Fujian is effectively 0%. Due to the labor shortage, it’s virtually impossible for a stylist to be jobless, unless it’s out of his own volition. In theory, this should make bouncing from job to job in search of an optimal employment situation more appealing, since there is little fear of unemployment. A stylist I spoke with yesterday told me that he had started his own salon (and failed) multiple times, and after each attempt he returned to the salon at which he’d previously been employed, no questions asked.

However, as Sheng Xi’s situation reveals, salons counteract the potential for movement via strict financial penalties which dis-incentivize their labor from freely moving from salon to salon in search of optimal employment.

This brings up an interesting question, and something I plan to probe deeper into in my meetings with salon owners: the terms of employment. In the world of hairstyling, there exists a delicate balance of power between the boss and his labor force. Back in the 90’s and 00’s when labor was abundant, power rested almost entirely in the hands of the boss. It was in this environment that assistants (apprentices) would often pay the boss of a salon (in both money and labor) in exchange for their training. These days the tables are turned. It is now the bosses who pay their assistants, in addition to offering them free training. As the supply of labor evaporates, so does the power of the boss, relative to his employees. These terms of employment and restrictions on quitting may represent one of the final throngs of power that boss still has over worker in the rapidly changing hairstyling industry.

Hopefully Shengxi will find an opportunity in Fuzhou which will allow him to quit his job in Jingfeng, and compensate for his financial penalty incurred. From our latest conversations, he does not sound optimistic. But at least he won’t be unemployed.



The Faces of Hairstyling

Posted in Barbershop at 3:42 pm by Benjamin Ross

Last week, Li Wen Zhong, the headmaster of the Red Sun Hairstyling Academy (and key informant of my dissertation research), asked me to take the job of school photographer for his end of-the-term headshots. Halfway through, I realized that this collection of images was a valuable cross-sectional database of the fashions and styles of hairstylists in rural Fujian (most of these stylists work in small towns in Northern Fujian, and travel to Fuzhou intermittently to study at the Red Sun Academy).  With his permission, I’ve reproduced the collection here, unedited.


For another look at the styles of migrant hairstylists, be sure to check out .



A Tour of The Barbershop Dorm

Posted in Barbershop at 8:35 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’m nearing the end of my current 3 month stay in Fuzhou (I’ll be back in fall for more fieldwork), and as usual I’ve fallen behind in my blogging. But one thing I did want do blog about was my living situation. Since the Red Sun Hairstyling Academy has a dearth of students in the winter months, they rent out their dormitory (where I stayed last year) to a third party. So instead, Li Wen Zhong and Sister Xie put me up in their salon’s dormitory, where their employees live.

Generally speaking, free housing is a fringe benefit expected by hairstylists. Housing prices have grown astronomically in recent years in Fuzhou, and eliminating the cost of rent is a crucial way to increase their real wages. The accommodations are never fancy, as the aim is mutual cost cutting (both for employer and employee). Usually they consist of bare apartment without 装修 (interior finishings), and with employees crowded together in rooms sleeping on bunk beds. The housing is optional, but usually the only employees who forego it are those involved in long-term sexual relationships (both married and unmarried). Since stylists typically work 10-11 hours a day, with much of that consisting of dead time, the salon functions as their primary social and living space. The dorm on the other hand is where they sleep, shower, and do laundry.

Li Wen Zhong’s salon (and his dorm) is a special case. It’s a “simple business model” as he describes it. He employs only 4 stylists, and no assistants or clerical staff. One of his stylists recently got married, and the other has a girlfriend, so they both rent their other housing. Two of his stylists are single, and thus are the only ones who take advantage of the free housing benefit. Because of this, Li’s dormitory is especially roomy by industry standards.  It is not uncommon to have 6 or 7 stylists sharing a room together in a dormitory.

Li’s “dormitory” is a typical 1990’s apartment in central Fuzhou, just across the street and around the corner from his salon. There are three bedrooms, a living room, a balcony, and a bathroom. When I arrived in Fuzhou, one of the bedrooms housed the two stylists, one was rented out, and the other was storage. Li converted the storage room into my temporary bedroom. “You can have your own room until Spring Festival. After Spring Festival, I’m not sure. You can definitely stay, but you may get a roommate,” he told me.

So this is where I have been living for the past 2 months. Let’s take a tour…


IMG_5323 copy

Our living room, which has been converted to the de facto storage room since I moved in


There really isn’t much “living” done in the dormitory living room anyway, so nobody seems to mind that it’s now essentially an oversized closet of random goods. Mattresses, cleaning supplies, weights…I’m not even sure who some of this stuff belongs to.


The balcony where we wash and dry clothes. That’s a washing machine on the bottom right.


My roommates’ (the 2 stylists) bedroom. It’s actually quite large. One of them sleeps on this bottom bunk


The other sleeps on this side of the room.


One of our 2 communal sinks. It isn’t fancy, but does the job. Since hairstylists spend 10-11 hours a day in a salon, very little grooming activity takes place at home. In fact, when I moved in, I noticed there wasn’t a single mirror in the entire apartment. The only activity the sink ever gets used for is brushing teeth.


The essentials: shoes, sandals, and washing basins


Here’s my solo bedroom. By dormitory standards, I’m living in Caesar’s Palace.


My makeshift workspace. We don’t have wifi in the apartment (plus I can hear the echoing sound of my neighbors yelling at each other in Fuzhou hua most hours of the day) so I end up doing most of my work at a nearby coffeehouse. There is wifi in the salon, so the lack of wifi in the dormitory isn’t a major issue for the stylists.


Tools of the trade, belonging to one of my temporary roommates.





Kids these days…Are they “interested” in their work?

Posted in Barbershop at 7:16 pm by Benjamin Ross

When I worked for a month at the Red Sun in 2007, I felt sympathetic for my coworkers. But it wasn’t for any material disadvantage. Afterall, they were all making a living wage. Room and board was provided by the barbershop, and therefore salary, though small, could be devoted entirely to savings, remittances, or personal entertainment. This was not a bad deal, especially considering many of my colleagues were hardly of legal working age, had little formal education, and were living in a country in which only a generation before, many people were still unsure where there next meal was coming from. It also wasn’t because of any adverse working conditions. Heavy industry such as mining, and many forms of factory work are notoriously hazardous in China, with injured workers having no means to attain workmen’s comp. Hairstyling on the other hand, aside from cosmetic wear and tear on the hands, is one of the safest forms of manual labor in China.

The reason I sympathized for my colleagues was the destitute boredom they were subject to each and every day, for 11 hours, 28 days of every month. Of the workday, typically only half was spent doing actual work. The rest was spent chatting, smoking cigarettes, reading the newspaper, and playing with cell phones (this is before cell phones could do all kinds of fun stuff like play videos and WeChat). This would not have been so terrible had my colleagues actually enjoyed, or believed in, what they did. With very few exceptions, they did not. “This job is meaningless.” “I hate this industry.” “I have no other choice but do this.” were all common responses I’d hear when I would ask generally how they felt about hairstyling.

“In our generation,” Mr. Su a former stylist in his 40’s told me, “the only reason people would enter the industry was because they needed to study a craft, and their families were poor.  It wasn’t because people actually liked to do it.  China in those days wasn’t like developed countries where you can just say ‘Hey, I’m gonna go volunteer in the Philippines for a year.’ You had to work. It was for survival ” And survive people did. The 1990’s was a very, very prosperous decade for hairstylists in Fujian. When talking about the old days, Li Wen Zhong reminisced, “I can really work…When I was an assistant I used to make 1000 RMB per month. That was in the 90’s, and I was just a kid! That was a ton of money back then. Then when I started working as a stylist, I’d make 3,000. That’s basically what the stylists make today. I always had money back then.”

Thesedays, making money a good living as a hairstylist is increasingly difficult. Cost of living in China has appreciated, while hairstylists’ incomes have not. However, more and more younger hairstylists are using the word 感兴趣 (interest) when I ask why they entered (and remained) in the industry. My dormmate Xiaowei quit school when he was 15, and immediately started working as an assistant in a hair salon. “I wasn’t doing well in school, and I was always kinda interested in hairstyling.” When I asked Xiaowei what it takes to be successful in hairstyling he says, “It needs to be your hobby. You need to like it a lot. If you aren’t interested, you definitely will not be successful.”

This is partly selection. As China’s economy has grown (and the young labor force has shrunk), there are ever expanding opportunities for unskilled labor. Whereas hairstyling in the 1990’s was one of the more reliable routes to “keeping oneself fed” (为了饭吃), increasingly it’s becoming just another job in a sea of career opportunities. When better opportunities are available in other careers, it’s reasonable to think that those who stay behind will be those with some kind of intrinsic interest in the craft. Those who aren’t interested will be more likely to leave, or never to have entered the industry to begin with. And this is exactly what I am finding in Fuzhou. Of the 15 workers from the Red Sun in 2007, only 2 (including Li Wen Zhong) are still in the industry. The others have moved on, doing an array jobs unrelated to hairstyling, such as wholesaler, teashop owner, and illegal dentist. Several of the women have quit working altogether and are now housewives.

For those who are in it solely for the money, hairstyling simply isn’t as good of a career as it was a generation ago. “Kids these days, they are different,” Mr. Su told me. Kids who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, they could 吃苦 (eat bitter). They knew what it was to live a tough life, and they were willing to work just to keep themselves fed. Kids who grew up in the 90’s and 00’s, they are different. They never had to worry about survival. They can follow their interests. More and more of them study hairstyling because they like it, not just because its a way to keep your stomach full.”

If this is indeed the case, and I would agree with Mr. Su, at least in Fuzhou, this is potentially a very, very good sign for China’s work force. While incomes may be stagnating, it is possible that job satisfaction may be going up. Or more precisely job dissatisfaction may be on the wane. Because from the replies of most of my informants, those stylists who hate the industry, and would have sucked it up 10 years ago, have by and large quit and found other means of employment, and possibly…happiness?

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