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Vanessa Workman: The Long and Short of It

No culture was left untouched by the sixties - or the seventies for that matter.

by / Published: 21 Sep 2015

Vanessa Workman: The Long and Short of It
Photo: iStock

Vanessa Workman is a sand-and-sea girl through and through. Moving to the north of Malaysia from a job in Singapore, she found her home and now writes about her experiences as an expat on a tropical island.

I’ve basically been going to the same island hair salon for years now, because although my particular island lacks quite a few big city creature comforts, there is no shortage of barbershops and hair salons. Usually identified by a sign stating ‘potong rambut’ (‘potong’: cut; and ‘rambut’: hair) or even hair ‘saloon’, which is much easier to pronounce and a seemingly common misspelling.

Of course those particular hair saloons may also get an occasional tippler looking for a shot of old red-eye.But hey, a customer is a customer, right?

But for me to have found an island salon that is well versed in Western hair is a true blessing. And to keep regular business hours seven days a week? A gift from the gods of good grooming.

The other day I popped into this favourite salon of mine, to get my often-unruly jungle tresses tamed down and noticed something new. Or maybe I just never noticed before. There were a number of local men filling the surrounding seats along with the three of us female clients. In fact, we were out numbered. They also appeared more comfortable getting publically groomed than I usually am. Shampoos, exotic precision hip haircuts and even time consuming dye jobs were the flavour of the day. Complete with plastic see-through bags in place.

This being an island obviously these men were familiar with each other as well, and appeared unabashed to sit with plastic bags on their soon-to-be jet-black hair. They nodded and chuckled in acknowledgement of each other. Just another day at the hair salon.

The gentleman, or ‘uncle’ if you will, next to me was getting his grey roots touched up and as luck would have it he spoke English. I just couldn’t help myself, my curiosity was getting the best of me and I had to pry (okay the truth is that I’m just nosey sometimes). And since he was willing to spill the beans about the hair salon trend that I hadn’t previously noticed, I asked him: “How long have you been going to hair salons instead of barber shops?”

“We come here (not the royal ‘we) because they know what we want. We don’t have to tell them each time.” (A nod to the loyalty reward for attentive customer service and a philosophy I can certainly appreciate!)

I asked him when he first started going to actual hair salons instead of barbershops. Did his mother drag him in one day? (I didn’t put it quite that way, but close enough).

“I am from a small village in Perak, as a child we had only one person who cut our hair and we all went to him. We all had the same hair cut. (I could see how that could grow boring rather quickly.) He would put a bowl on our head and then cut”.

I’d almost thought this ‘bowl hair cut’ story was some sort of myth I’d heard all my life, but apparently not. I asked him, “What type of bowl did he use?”

“A soup bowl.”

I let that information sink in for a minute and then thought about the ‘soup bowl’ being akin to my own mother marking my childhood height on the kitchen wall, to make sure her child was indeed growing accordingly with the predicted norm.

But in the Perak of yesteryear you didn’t just get a bigger soup bowl to fit your growing head, you eventually grew big enough to journey to the nearest town that had an actual barbershop. And for this gentleman that would have been the late 1960s.

But no sooner than the kampung boys, at the time, outgrew the one-size-fits-all community soup bowl, another version of the bowl cut was becoming all the rage as the mop-topped Beatles became an international sensation. No culture was left untouched by the sixties—or the seventies for that matter. Must have been interesting times in developing and culturally diverse Malaysia.

Changing times, and also a time when many young men were rebelling against short conservative styled hair and embracing hip, new modern looks. Popular looks that made the cover of every magazine and newspaper during that era. A look, perhaps, that some could only achieve properly at the local saloon?

Well, that’s just my theory. The uncle never finished answering my question, it was time for his rinse.


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