I made a rather obvious but stark observation today about my peers in the hairstyling industry: The do not exercise…ever. When I ask directly “What do you do for exercise?” I get answers like “I don’t,” “no time,” or “I walk, sometimes.” Nobody goes to the gym, plays pickup basketball, goes for an occasional hike or run, or even plays ping pong. I asked Li Wen Zhong about this and he said he used to swim a bit, but hasn’t in years, and gave me a vague explanation why not, mentioning time constraints. (The week before he had told me he was bored, and had nothing to do since his school was on winter break). 7 or 8 years ago, a commute was often regular exercise, as most stylists rode bikes. These days, human-powered bikes have been replaced by electric bikes, and those who walk to work typically live in an employer-provided dormitory in close vicinity to the salon. In short, there is no physical activity, either organized or informal, for most of the hairstylists I have spoken with in Fuzhou.
Granted, my sample is small, and my surveying methods are unsophisticated, but it hit me this morning in the shower as I realized I, myself. hadn’t exercised in two weeks. I can’t recall any other such situation in which I’ve been spending so much time over a month hangin’ with a bunch of dudes (for lack of more scientific terminology) and having the topic of exercise or sports never come up. Part of the equation is time constraints. The typical hairstylist in China is at work from about 10:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, 6 or 7 days a week. While much of those long hours consists of free time (mostly spent on WeChat or watching videos on cell phones), stylists must remain near their salons while on the clock. Even in situations where the boss is lax about work hours, stylists have their own incentive to stay on the job, since their incomes are derived almost entirely from commission. With the early morning hours being the only regular free time, this would leave little time for exercise. Or does it not? I know many people (both Chinese and Western) with tight schedules who still manage exercise 2 or 3 times per week.
So maybe it’s more a matter of lifestyle and habits? One of the first questions I used to ask stylists was “What hobbies do you have?” But I get answers like “making money,” “I don’t have hobbies,” or “hairstyling is my hobby.” For many in the industry, the one-track focus on career could render hobbies (and other interests) into the subconscious realm of a “waste of time”: the language I’ve heard parents use to describe “normal” adolescent activities such as playing sports or dating. To be fair, I should mention that whenever I broach the topic of exercise, the response usually indicates that exercise is indeed something which should be part of one’s lifestyle, in theory.
In many regards, working in the hairstyling industry provides a safer environment than many of the alternative career paths for those without higher education. I’m often told of stories of friends and relatives who work in coal mines or in construction. They make more money, but also subject their bodies to more dangerous working conditions, some of which may have long-term effects. Hairstyling is viewed as “clean work,” a trade which may not pay as much, but at least doesn’t involve the same occupational hazards. However, a lifetime of no exercise probably isn’t very healthy either. This combined with compulsory smoking mean hairstylists who remain in the industry may be doing serious long-term damage to their bodies which probably won’t be apparent until it’s too late. It’s something I want to ask more about in ensuring fieldwork, but my hunch is that chronic health problems will take the back seat to concerns about the near future.
Tong Yachi (pseudonym) was one of my coworkers when I worked at the Red Sun back in 2007. When I caught up with him on WeChat last year, he told me he had been out of the hairstyling industry for several years and was now working as an “illegal dentist” (黑牙科) on the outskirts of a small town outside of Fuzhou. Last week, I finally got the chance to go pay him a visit.
When I walked into his clinic, I was greeted by a women holding a baby, who I later learned was Tong’s sister. She led me to the operating room of the clinic where a woman was lying down, mouth open in the dentist’s chair. There was Tong hovering above. His face was covered with a surgical mask and his hands were wrapped in latex gloves, as he operated on the woman’s moth with instruments that looked no different than those from a more “legitimate” dental clinic. After finishing the job, he removed his gloves and mask, washed his hands, and took me to the front room of the clinic where he updated me in on his new career and why he left the hairstyling industry.
“I didn’t have any dental schooling, or official training. I don’t have any kind of certification to be a dentist. This entire operation is completely illegal. This is quite common actually. If I were in the city, I’d need official certifications, but here on the outskirts, it’s ok. People out here are poorer than the city people, and most of them need to go to a small, affordable, clinic like this.”
Tong’s prices for routines dental services such as fillings and teeth cleanings were indeed significantly cheaper than from a licensed clinic.
“Do the police ever bother you?” I ask.
“Do you ever worry that your industry will become more regulated, that you won’t be able to continue working on account of being unlicensed?”
“No, that won’t happen,” he replies, without further explanation.
Tong is 33 years old. He entered the hairstyling industry in his late teens. When began working with hair dyes, he noticed an allergic reaction to the ammonia used in several of the chemicals. After an initial flare up of blisters on his hands, the allergic reaction slowly faded away until it became a non-issue. Tong invested several years into his hairstyling training, including 2 years of apprentice work as a little brother, and several stints in training schools. Then when he was nearly qualified to become a stylist, the reaction returned. It caused his hands to blister so much that he had to quit the industry, and find a new trade. He showed me spots on his hands where the blisters had left scaring.
Tong’s sister’s husband, who also has no formal dental certifications, had been working as dentist, and invited Tong to move in with them and learn the trade. I asked Tong how satisfied he was with his new career path and his response was “Eh, it’s ok, it isn’t really better or worse than hairstyling.”
I was surprised by Tong’s apathy towards dentistry. Legality aside, I had assumed that being a dentist would have carried more prestige (and a higher payout) than hairstyling. Tong is an intelligent guy, and I had incorrectly assumed he had chosen out of his own volition to go into the field of dentistry, either out of a desire higher income or more challenging work.
“I work as an illegal dentist. I’m 33, I live with my sister, and I’m not married. No girls want me.”
After we catch up, Tong takes me across the street to meet a friend of his who runs a small barbershop. Tong isn’t much for words, but I can sense his frustration. Like being an illegal dentist, there are no official certifications required to be a hairstylist. But this does not mean anybody can open up a barbershop and start cutting hair. Hairstylists, like dentists, are masters of a craft, and the skills of a craft require years to master. One of the common themes I’m told by hairstylists is revealed by this quote,
“If you want to make quick money, this industry is not for you. Do construction work, or some other unskilled labor and the short-term payout is higher. But if you are willing to invest the time, and are willing to be poor for a few years while you master a craft, you may be able to make a lot of money and be very successful in the long run.”
Unfortunately for Tong, he sacrificed these earnings to learn a trade which he was never able to capitalize on. Now he has restarted the process of learning a craft. At 33, he isn’t at the stage of his career he had anticipated, and this has ramifications not only on his work, but his social stature, particularly his value on the marriage market. It’s tough luck when in a system dependent on craft, your ability to do your craft is taken away.
And no, I did not have him work on my teeth, in case you were wondering.
I’ve learned a new word during my fieldwork : 门槛. It regularly comes when I ask people why they joined the hairstyling industry.
“This industry has no 门槛, it doesn’t matter your education level, your gender, your social class, your intelligence. Anybody can do it.”
“For many occupations in China, there is a strict 门槛, in this industry anybody can join.”
“I am not intelligent. I did not do well in school, so I needed to find an industry without a 门槛.”
Google translate defines 门槛 as a “threshold.” The way I hear the term used is more like a “gatekeeping mechanism” or a “ system of credentialization,” and in the hairstyling industry there is neither, provided you are physically able to do the work. Most hairstylists I’ve spoken with have completed elementary school, and some have finished 初中 (junior high). There are a few who stopped schooling after elementary school, and few with some 高中 (senior high). By in large though, hairstylists represent the lesser educated (institutionally speaking) social strata of Chinese society. Even hairstyling training school, which is becoming more and more common, is never a requirement for employment. A teacher at a training school told me,
“Yeah, sure, the students get a certificate from completing my program, but that certificate doesn’t mean anything. It’s hard to find workers now, so anybody can get a job in the industry if they are willing to start from the bottom. And if you want to get a high-level job, the boss will just ask evaluate your technique. Nobody will ever ask to see any kind of certifications.”
This is different from the opposite end of the educational spectrum in China, where a hyper-obsession with degrees and certifications leads parents to spend spend thousands of RMB (and undoubtedly ruin many childhoods)absence in the race to a high score on the college entrance examination. These days, more and more of my middle-class big-city Chinese friends are telling me that a bachelor’s degree from an elite university isn’t enough anymore to get a good job. You need a master’s or PhD, and if it’s from the United States or Europe, all the better.
No matter how much we think otherwise, educational requirements and other institutional gatekeeping mechanisms are inherently skewed towards those who have the best access to the resources necessary to obtain them. The hairstyling industry on the other hand, because of a lack of 门槛, is largely removed from these inequalities which affect many other industries. And while some hairstylists start out with more resources than others (i.e. financial help from parents), this support is generally minimal since most come from humble backgrounds in rural areas.
Since job placement and upward mobility in the hairstyling industry are determined almost entirely by one’s individual skills and technique, there is little potential for any form of corruption in the industry (The potential for graft is often cited as a reason not to eliminate China’s standardized college entrance examination). You can’t “sneak through the back door,” since the front door is wide open, and there is no way make your way to the top through payments and bribes, since employment is based almost entirely on actual skill level.
People often ask me why, of all the potential topics in China, I study the hairstyling industry. This is a complicated question with many answers, but one I keep returning to is that the people around me who I see become successful, do so almost entirely on two factors 1) their skills and technique and 2) their attitude and work ethic. In a world absence of 门槛, it’s refreshing to see those who make it to the top are doing so on account of their own hard work and talents.
Chinese people aren’t rich. They’re poor people. They may look like they’re rich, but they’re actually mostly poor. If you want to understand Chinese people Ben, you only need to know 3 words: 安全感 (feeling of safety). This is why Chinese people are always working so hard. It isn’t actually for the money. Make more and more money for that 安全感. In China, there is no 安全感. People are always afraid the government could come and take their savings. This is why all Chinese people want to go abroad. Abroad there is a 安全感. Your money is safe, plus there are welfare benefits. In China, there are no welfare benefits for most people. Do you know what Chinese people fear most? Getting sick. If you’re a regular worker like a hairstylist and you get seriously ill…you just wait to die. If you have a baby in a hospital, it will cost around 6000-7000 RMB. That’s basically two months of salary for a stylist. Maybe make about 500,000 RMB, and then you’ll have a 安全感.
This is a fieldnote excerpt from a chat I had with Cheng Rao (pseudonym) who runs a hairstyling school in Fuzhou. We were sitting in his office drinking tea, and I had told him I was interested in the career aspirations and trajectories of his students. What are their dreams? What are their material aspirations? Why do they decide to become hairstylists? Rather than provide an answer specific to the industry, Cheng generalized the Chinese working class as a whole. He continued:
People in China don’t really buy brand name stuff because they like it. It’s all about face, a show that they have that 安全感. Even if they’re rich, they’re still mostly just poor people. But at least they can show they have 安全感.
Hairstylists, and this includes those who have “made it,” either by opening their own salons and schools, or selling hair products, are by and large members of the working class. A typical stylist in Fuzhou makes around 3,000 RMB per month (Just under $500 USD). By any metric, hairstylists are not wealthy. Yet in Fuzhou, you would be hard pressed to find one who does not have either an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy, which are each slightly more expensive in China than the US. As a Westerner, it’s easy to pass quick judgement on somebody who spends over nearly 2 months salary on a cell phone, and then still complains they don’t have enough money for a safety net (I do this all the time, consciously and subconsciously). But it’s a question I’ve been pondering for years. Is everybody acting irrationally? Or is there some deeper logic to this ostentatious show of wealth from people who don’t really posses it? Cheng drew upon consumption patterns into his analysis of the 安全感.
安全感, I believe, is a universal concept. Many of us take it for granted in developed countries, since a) we are generations removed from struggles for survival and b) we have more developed social security safety nets provided by the government, relatively speaking. The procurement of a safety net, and the need to display to others doesn’t figure into our daily routines. For those who don’t take a safety net for granted, it’s existence, or lack thereof, constantly bears on their decision making: Where to work, who to associate yourself with, who to marry, who to loan money to, how to evaluate your children’s (or children’s potential spouse’s) ability to care for you in old age.
For Cheng Rao, not only is 安全感 a salient good, but so is the perception to others that one indeed possesses 安全感. His opinion is just one take on the issue, but it’s a viewpoint I plan to explore as I talk to more industry workers about their perceptions of success, wealth, and security.
Nearly two years ago, after taking an extended break from the barbershop scene, I made the decision to write my doctoral dissertation on the development of the Chinese hairstyling industry as a cross-sectional peak into the largest urbanization project in the history of the world. The vast majority of hairstylists in China are from rural villages and small towns, and for the last 30 years, they have been part of a rapidly changing industry, which in many ways has mirrored China’s transition to a free market. When I discussed my previous experience working in a barbershop in Fuzhou, my primary academic advisor insisted I use it as a topic for my dissertation. I pitched the idea to several Chinese sociologists as well, and they each felt it was ripe for sociological analysis. The key would be to find the right angle, and develop solid research questions.
I made two return trips to Fujian in 2013 and 2014 to catch up with old contacts and, assess the feasibility of writing a dissertation about them and their industry. My old boss at the Red Sun, Li Wen Zhong (who insists I use his real name) and his business partner Sister Xie were onboard with the idea, and invited me to stay at the Red Sun Hairstyling Academy where Li was the headmaster. I spent about 2 weeks each in 2013 and 2014 at the school, conducting ethnographic research with stylists from across the province and beyond, and building my list of contacts for a potential dissertation. Doing “cold call” ethnography in China can be difficult. Due to my yearly spring residence as a TA at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, I had been trying to build relationships with stylists up North, but with little to show for my efforts. But using my personal relationships with Li Wen Zhong, his circle of friends in the industry, and students at the school, I have built up a sizable (WeChat) rolodex of hairstylists and other industry workers (i.e. product representatives, educators) who are onboard with my research.
This winter, I am having my first extended fieldwork stay in Fujian. I arrived here in mid-December, and will be staying until the end of March, when I return to Beijing for the spring academic quarter. Months ago, I tossed around the idea of blogging my fieldwork experiences, and came to the conclusion that blogs are all but dead. They had a great ride, which coincided with me living in China full-time (2004-2007), petered out towards the end of the millennium, and now appear to have succumbed to the rise of rapid-fire social media status updates. This aside, I’m basically here alone in Fuzhou, in terms of people I can converse intelligently with in my native language. Now that I’ve been here almost a month, I’m realizing I could benefit from a forum to discuss some of the more interesting trends I’ve been learning about. Even if readership is low, a medium for me to record ideas (in a more synthesized format than fieldnotes) is always helpful in the march to a finished product. So here you have it. I’m resurrecting the blog. I’m looking forward to your commentary as I continue to learn about this fascinating industry, and refine my research questions which will hopefully yield a contribution to the fields of sociology, geography, and migration studies.