The 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.
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.
Several 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.
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 .
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…
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.
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?
Yesterday I was introduced to Lao Fang, the owner of a chain salon, with over 30 locations across Fujian province. Li Wen Zhong introduced him to me as “the most successful hairstyling laoban (boss) in Fujian,” and this isn’t necessarily an exaggeration. While finding a employment as a hairstylist in Fujian is as easy as ever (unemployment is virtually 0%, due to the demand for labor outstripping the supply), being a successful boss is not. Whenever I ask a salon laoban about the state of the industry, I am invariably told “There are far too many salons.”
There is simply not enough business to be shared by the proliferation of salons, and so profits have been stretched too thin. Of course, there has always been competition in this industry, but the new variable which has come into place is rising costs: from both labor, and rising rents. Recently, I met up with Adamum, who you may remember from my stay at the Red Sun in 2007. Shortly after I had finished my stay, Adamum left as well to open up a salon nearby. “I was doing it for a couple years, being a laoban, and it was going well. It was a small salon, and the rent was 3,000 RMB. Then suddenly, one year after Spring Festival, my landlord told me he wanted 8,000. So I just closed my salon. I couldn’t have made any money with rent so high.”
Labor costs are rising too. Lao Fang, who has been in the industry since 1998, told me that
Back in the day, the student would have to pay the master (stylist). The master had the power. If you wanted to learn the trade, you had to work as a 学徒 (apprentice), and do a lot of free labor for the boss. These days the roles are reversed. The boss can’t find anybody to do his labor. They have to pay at least 1,000 per month just to get an assistant (low level worker). And now, a lot of the work in the salon is outsourced because there aren’t enough assistants, like towels. It used to be that the assistants washed and dried all the towels. Now this is done by an outside company.
I hadn’t even thought of this. Back when I was an assistant at the Red Sun, one of our primary tasks had been the towels. Nowadays, I hardly ever see any in-house labor touch the towels at all. All over Fuzhou, the numbers of in-house staff at salons has shrunk, which as Lao Fang mentions as well, is a testament to the rising costs of labor in the industry.
This leads to a vital predicament. As Lao Fang puts it, “The weird thing about this industry though, is that although wages have gone up, and rents have gone up, the price of a haircut and hairstyling have remained at about the same as they were 10 years ago.”
Back in 2007 (this was right before China’s inflation and housing bubble picked up), a haircut at the Red Sun was 30 RMB. Today, at Li Wen Zhong’s salon, it’s 38 RMB, despite the fact his rent is several times higher than it had been back in 2007. Even in Beijing, for a mid-range salon, I still get a haircut, with a wash, for around 30 RMB, despite average rents much higher than Fuzhou. As Lao Fang tells me “These days a lot of laoban, they say that we are basically 替房东打工. (laboring for the landlord).”
One reason for the stagnation of prices, commonly suggested to me by those in the industry, is what they call 恶性竞争, which I loosely translate as “immoral competition.” There is a general ethos within the industry that when one salon lowers prices, all salons lose, as market competition leads to lower prices for everybody. While most stylists view this practice as immoral (不道德生意), in the intensely competitive market over-populated with salons, it only takes one salon to keep prices bottom low.
The stagnation of prices is probably the single most crucial issue facing the hairstyling industry in China today. In addition to shrinking profits, it is also shrinking the labor pool, as less and less youth enter the industry, due to the low profit potential, which in turn raises labor costs even more. Some stylists are seeking a solution, via nascent trade associations, while others are simply holding out. In theory, as the labor pool shrinks, eventually demand will reach a point that the cost of labor sold on the market (i.e. a haircut) will rise as well. When, and if, this happens, the entire industry stands to win. The key question IS when, and if? And how many stylists will wait around long enough for it to happen.
ChinaFile has posted an excellent photo essay by STÉPHANIE BORCARD and NICOLAS MÉTRAUX entitled “At Home with Hair Stylists in Chengdu.” They do a fantastic job showcasing hairstylists and their dormitory lifestyles in Chengdu. These shots are very similar to the dorm lifestyle which I have experienced and been writing about in Fujian. Take a minute to check it out. I may even have to ask to borrow some of their photos for this site at some point.