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What Hong Kong’s Historic Shanghainese Barbershops Can Teach us About Branding

by Gavin Yeung

Earlier this year, on the last Saturday of March, a landmark quietly shut its doors for the last time. Kiu Kwun Barber Shop, the oldest Shanghainese barbershop in Hong Kong, succumbed as yet another victim of COVID-19, calling into question the immediate future of the Shanghainese barber trade – a sunset industry by any measure. 

That’s not to say, however, that Kiu Kwun and its kind have no lessons to offer modern businesses – how else could they have persisted over the better part of the last century, from the post-war period to the modern day? 

Founded by Shanghainese emigrés who fled the Chinese Civil War to Hong Kong, Shanghainese barber shops are characterised by their adherence to classical hairstyles, separation of men and women’s areas, a reliance on manual techniques, and the advanced age of the barbers. 

In recent years, however, a new breed of barber shop geared towards millennials but heavily inspired by the distinctive Shanghainese style has begun to emerge, making a reconsideration of the original model – which carved out an unmistakable niche before the concept of branding even existed – all the more compelling. Here, we discover the most important lessons for small and independent businesses to take away from the dwindling but defiant number of Shanghainese barber shops left in the city.

Stick to what you know

Possibly the most important factor to the longevity of the Shanghainese barber shop is a longstanding commitment to a particular niche in hairstyles. Coming from an era where businesses specialized in providing one flagship product or service – think mid-century contemporaries such as famed goose restaurant Yung Kee, or the handmade bamboo dim-sum steamers of Tak Chong Sum Kee – Shanghainese barber shops are similarly best known for the singular dan taat cut, which literally translates to ‘egg tart’: essentially a pompadour hairstyle shaved on the sides with a clear parting line.

From the 1970s onwards, longer hairstyles came into vogue, triggering the decline of the Shanghainese barber shop – although their dedication to mid-century men’s hairstyles through the decades have paid off. With the revival of short, Mad Men-like hairstyles, it’s a regular sight now for the number of millennial customers to equal their white-haired counterparts, thanks to a reliable end product at prices that have remained competitive to the present day.

Future-proof your design

While Shanghainese barbershops have become all but a relic of the past, they were once regarded as the pinnacle of modernization when they first opened in the ‘50s and ‘60s. As a rule, no expense was spared with the decor and furnishings, and the usual going price for just one of the traditional barber’s chairs could equal that of a car. 

Clearly the investment has paid off: many of these original chairs are still in use today despite more than six decades of wear and tear. The barbers still prefer sturdy straight razors and steel manual clippers that aren’t prone to mechanical breakage, unlike modern electric razors. 

While it would be unrealistic for businesses today to eschew technology, the message is clear: the less corners you cut with your essential tools of the trade, the further into the future they will serve you.

A cut above

In an interview with Time Out, Lam Bo, barber at Wah Lai Beauty Parlor, said: “In our line of work, skills aren’t the most important thing. What is essential is the way you treat your customers.” 

While dedication to service isn’t unique only to the hairdressing industry, barbers exemplify this attitude given the significant time spent interacting with clients during each haircut. This results in relationships that frequently verge towards the familial and, in Lam’s case, a regular client whose hair he has cut for an impressive 45 years.

“Men who go to a barbershop can also use that opportunity to relax and calm their nerves,” he explains. “A sort of gentlemen’s relationship forms once you get to know each other better, and naturally, you will start to care more about each other’s lives.” 

Clearly, camaraderie is key, and weaving yourself into your customers’ lives in an authentic way can reap rewards for everyone involved – something that you can’t put a price tag on.

The good old days

As with most sunset industries, an overwhelming majority of Shanghainese barbers are well above retirement age, with a few nearing centenarian status. The barbershops are equally antiquated, resembling time capsules tucked away above street level that provide a sense of discovery, as if chancing upon a portal into the past. These are the kinds of authentic, nostalgic experiences that millennials seek – in the same vein as the current fascination with film cameras and vintage fashion. 

While nostalgia is all too easy to overdo when it comes to the mass market (Hong Kong has seen its fair share of tacky neon sign decor), when done right and reinterpreted with tact and respect – as in the case of new Shanghai-style barbershop Too Far East Barber & Co. – it can do wonders in elevating the brand above the rest of the competition. 

As Don Draper, protagonist of Mad Men, once intoned: in Greek, “nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone”. 

When incorporating nostalgia into your brand, take care not to erase the melancholy of time’s passage in the process. It is there that the most potent connections reside.

Next, read about how Hong Kong’s newest independent cafes are setting themselves apart from the crowd.

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