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?