When I tell people, Chinese or American, that I am researching barbershops, a common response is a laugh or smirk, and something like “Oh, barbershops, I bet you know what goes on in there right?” Actually yes: haircuts, dyes, perms, WeChatting, video games, an assortment of other form of miscellaneous time killing…and that’s about it.
Throughout East Asia, there is a long history of blurred lines between the service and entertainment industries, and the sex industry. This has been the subject of numerous ethnographies in the social sciences such as Rhacel Parrenas study of Philippino hostesses in Japan and Tiantian Zheng’s study of KTV girls in Dalian.
However, despite what popular (anachronistic) opinion might suggest, the legitimate hairstyling industry in China is separate from the sex industry. Much of this confusion is historical. Decades ago, Chinese barbershops used to be gateways to prostitution. As a legacy of this, many Chinese brothels still bare the characters 美容美发 (skin care/hairstyling), with available women seated in barber chairs awaiting their clientele. To even the most casual observer, it is obvious that no hairstyling whatsoever happens on premises.
Proper Chinese barbershops thesedays however, are completely divorced from the sex industry. Nonetheless, the stereotype persists, and I’ve heard it cited by many as the reason there are so few women working in the hairstyling industry today. Similar stereotypes have also emerge surrounding men working as hairstylists. One student tells me:
“One of the reason I was hesitant about the industry is that people think we are all promiscuous. We’re always chatting up girls who come into our barbershops, but this isn’t because we’re trying to take them home. It’s just part of the service. If we aren’t friendly and chatty, we will lose customers to other stylists who are.”
Most of my observations corroborate this account. The majority of my male informants are either single or involved in long-term monogamous relationships. If not for any other reason, the 12 hour workdays for hairstylists hardly allow enough time to see their partners, let alone any extracurricular philandering.
|Advertisement for a room-service prostitute in a Fuzhou hotel. Solicitations for services such as these are never found in Chinese barbershops.|
Another student at the school tells me:
“People always see us hairstylists chatting up women, and they think we’re getting a lot of action. In reality, it’s the opposite. It’s tough for us in the industry to find girlfriends. We have this reputation of philandering, and some women won’t date a guy if they discover he’s in the industry.”
That so little sexual activity, both paid and unpaid, is connected with an industry commonly assumed to be part and parcel of the sex trade, comes as a surprise to many.
Those same people who are surprised when I tell them no sex happens in the barbershop, are often surprised when I reveal how regularly I am solicited prostitutes at Chinese hotels. In fact, you never have to look far in China to find solicitations for sexual services. In barbershops however, all that’s for sale is services pertaining to hair.