03.06.15

Why has everything in China gotten more expensive…except for haircuts?

Posted in Barbershop at 11:56 am by Benjamin Ross

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.” IMG_5363
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.


 

03.04.15

Photo Essay on Hairstylists in Chengdu (external link)

Posted in Barbershop at 2:54 pm by Benjamin Ross

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.


 

02.05.15

Smoking in the Barbershop: for Men Only.

Posted in Barbershop at 12:26 pm by Benjamin Ross

I was chatting with my friend A Qing the other night in his Fuzhou barbershop. A Qing is in his early 30’s, has been in the hairstyling industry since his late teens, and speaks with the authority of a sage of the industry. One evening he invited me to his shop to have an informal discussion with his assistants (助理), the young workers fresh out of junior high (chu zhong), who wash hair, clean bathrooms, and undertake other low-level shop tasks, in exchange for a small salary, free housing, and instruction in the trade of hairstyling.

A Qing’s troop of assistants consists of two males and two females. Smoking is in integral part of the barbershop culture, and as we sit down to chat, A Qing offers a cigarette to me as well as to one of the other male assistants. (The other male had already lit up one of his own). He did not offer a cigarette to the two girls.

“This industry, it used to have a lot of bad (不真贵) things associated with it. Back in the 90’s barbershops and massage parlors used to provide services which you cannot find in barbershops today (referring to prostitution). Nowdays, those industries are separate. But the bad reputation remains…I don’t allow my female employees to smoke, because this will give customers a bad impression. It will make them think they are bad girls.”

This echoes a common line of reasoning I hear when I ask why there are so few women in hairstyling these days. There is an implicit association with “bad things” that were formerly associated with the hairstyling industry. While houses of ill-repute bearing the signage “美容美发” (beautiful skin, beautiful hair) are still abundant in any Chinese urban center, it doesn’t require a sociologist to differentiate between the barbershops which actually cut hair and those with ulterior forms of income. (The primary giveaway is usually the scantily-clad women sitting near the windows, cooing at the men who pass by).

Yet the stereotype persists. And the female employees are prohibited from smoking…probably to their own benefit. At least they won’t get lung cancer.


 

02.03.15

The State of the Hairstyling Industry: The Iron Ricebowl Nobody Wants

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:09 pm by Benjamin Ross

“Hairstyling is a crappy industry to be in right now.”
“You can’t make any money.”
“It’s too much work, and not enough return.”
“This industry sucks (这个行业不行)“

This is the consensus I receive when I ask point blank: “What do you think about the current state of the hairstyling industry?” On the other hand, when I ask, “What is the best thing about this industry?” I get answers like this:

“You will always have a job.”
“You will never starve.”
“It’s impossible to be unemployed.”

This is quite the paradox. Usually when we think of a “crappy industry,” the first thing that comes to mind is unemployment. According to the 2014 CareerCast Jobs report, the worst careers in the US were news reporter and lumberjack, both industries which have seen massive unemployment and layoffs in recent years. Presumably, an industry where there is always work would be a good one, right?

I’ve been researching hairstylists and their career trajectories full-time in Fujian now for about a month, and one pattern is clear: Finding a job in the hairstyling industry is easy. Career advancement and self-actualization is not.

I’ve asked multiple stylists how they would go about finding a job if unemployed, and the answer goes like this: “Easy, just walk around, find a salon which is looking for a stylist, and start working. It wouldn’t take more than a day.” The average stylist deals with many forms of uncertainty. Unemployment, however, is not one of them. “The good thing about this industry is there’s always employment. You’re never going to starve,” one informant tells me, echoing an insight I hear again and again.

China is in the midst of an expanding labor shortage, which is becoming more acute as the One Child cohort ages into employment years. In addition, China’s maturing economy means there are increasingly diverse opportunities for young people seeking work. Meanwhile, while China has experienced significant inflation over the 7-8 years, while the earnings of hairstylists have remained flat. “The stylists I have working in my shop today, they don’t really make that much more than those ones 7 or 8 years ago when you were working for me,” Li Wen Zhong tells me. These incomes are usually around 2,500 to 4,000 per month, with free housing.

Because of this, stylists feel the constant push to expand into bigger and better things. This usually means opening up their own barbershop or salon. However, unlike the dearth of stylists, there is a glut of barbershops:

“Everybody in this industry wants to be a boss. Everybody! But look around. There are barbershops everywhere, and not enough customers. Most barbershops will fail. It’s a terrible industry.”

My tracking of former stylists echoes this assertion. Many (probably most) stylists leave the industry within 5-6 years. Never once have I been told somebody left because they couldn’t find a job. Instead, the desertion point usually comes when one realizes that the road forward is too jammed to make it worthwhile to wait one’s turn.

So there you go. You’ll never be unemployed or hungry as a stylist. But you probably won’t realize your dreams either. And for most stylists in 2015, that isn’t enough.


 

01.30.15

There’s No Exercising in Hairstyling.

Posted in Barbershop at 8:41 pm by Benjamin Ross

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.


 

01.22.15

A Former Hairstylist, Now an Illegal Dentist

Posted in Barbershop at 11:53 am by Benjamin Ross

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.

“Occasionally.”

“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.


 

01.21.15

There is no 门槛 in this industry. Anybody can do it.

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:48 pm by Benjamin Ross

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.


 

01.19.15

安全感: A Feeling of Security

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:07 pm by Benjamin Ross

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.


 

Back in Fuzhou

Posted in Barbershop at 2:10 pm by Benjamin Ross

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.


 

05.26.14

Another explanation for the gender line in hairstyling?

Posted in Barbershop at 7:43 pm by Benjamin Ross

Why is hairstyling such a male dominated industry in China?

Hairstyling has been a male-majority industry since I first started observing it back in 2007. But in recent years women in hairstyling have gone from a minority to a rarity, as the industry is increasingly staffed exclusively by males. One (speculative) reason for this is the growth of the manicure/pedicure industry. Employees in the nail industry fit an almost identical social profile to those in hairstyling, and often work in shops under the same ownership. But the industry also has more of a tendency to expand and contract based on fashion trends. And as one might assume, there are very few men working in nail salons.

Yanyan is an 18-year-old girl from Inner Mongolia who has been working as a hair washer/trainee in a small barbershop in Beijing. I first contacted her on the Internet, and on one of her days off we met up for lunch. Of the 10 employees in her barbershop, she is the only girl. This does come with perks. Yanyan has her own small room in the “dormitory” (an apartment rented by the owner to house employees), while the male employees are all crowded together into the other. This is a unique opportunity for privacy unavailable to most barbershop workers who both work and live in constant confined quarters with their colleagues.

Before migrating to Beijing to train to be a hairstylist, Yanyan had worked in a nail salon in her hometown. There is little employee crossover between hairstyling and nails, and so I wanted to pick her brain on why there is such the gender divide in the former industry. I don’t recall her exact words, so I’ll paraphrase.

The nail industry is inherently seasonal and unstable. It’s subject to trends. Sometimes it’s trendy for girls to have their nails done, and sometimes less so. For example, there are always going to be more girls having their nails done when the weather is nice, in the summer. Sometimes it isn’t even seasonal, just what’s in at that time. Because of this, you can make more money in a busy month than you ever would as a hairstylist. But then there are months where it’s completely dead. You may have very little income at all, or even get laid off. It’s too unpredictable.

Hairstyling is different. People’s hair is always growing. Sure, there are trends with dyes and perms, but as long as people’s hair continues to grow, they will continue to need haircuts. It’s just a more stable job, even if you make less than you would doing nails.

The thing about women in China is that they don’t have the same responsibilities as men. They don’t need to provide for a family, save for an apartment, things like that. They can deal with the inconsistency of the income. Therefore, the unpredictable nature of the nail industry is more suitable for women.

This connection between gender expectations and occupations reminded me of another discussion I had with my friend Fei Fei, a college-educated, middle-class Chinese woman in her late 20’s who works as a landscape architect. We had been discussing restaurants, and she had mentioned that she regularly ate expensive meals (over 100 RMB) in restaurants with her girlfriends. However, for her male friends this was a less regular occasion. “Men in China are under more financial pressure than women,” she told me. They are expected to purchase an apartment before getting married, and to have money saved. Women are aware that much of this responsibility rests on the men they will eventually marry, and so they are more free to spend their earnings on entertainment, such as dining out in expensive restaurants.”

Although China has seen rapid change since the Opening Up in the early 1980’s, gender roles remain entrenched from the bottom of the working class all the way up the stratification ladder. In fact, it could be argued that China’s market transition has further solidified gender roles over the past several decades. (Obliterating gender disparities was a major, and relatively successful, initiative under the golden years of Socialism from the 50’s to the 70s).

With children serving as the de facto system of social security in modern times, failure to reproduce and carry on the family line is generally viewed as deviant among Chinese society. The pressure to get married and have a child has been further exasperated by the One Child Policy, as today the majority of China’s eligible bachelors and bachelorettes do not have siblings.

With rising housing prices and increasing consumerism, Chinese men are under more pressure than ever to obtain the financial security necessary to get married. And the societal norms which dictate men must buy an apartment before getting married place the financial onus on the male when a couple is looking to tie the know. For men, a stable job is key to fulfilling the obligation to marry and reproduce. For women, there is more freedom to float between jobs, and follow passions and trends, or choose a less stable career…such as doing nails.

This is of course a gross over-generalization of many complex social processes, which is why it’s in a blog post, not an academic paper. But I’d be curious to hear any readers’ take on gender divisions of labor in the service industry as I dig further into the issue.

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