The Urban Edit tracked down Beijing’s oldest barber (he’s 98) to ask him how life has changed in Beijing in the last century, and why it is he thinks Wen Jiabao’s hair looks silly.
SIX QUESTIONS WE ASK EVERYBODY…
WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
Do not get angry. If you don’t have a temper, you’ll live longer. If you have a bad temper, and you get mad very easily, then you’ll suffer as a result. As I say to a lot of my clients who come here for a haircut, “endure and all your troubles will disappear”. If your tolerance is low, you’re going to get mad a lot, and, well, that’s bad for you.
WHAT’S YOUR GUILTY PLEASURE?
I suppose I smoke a lot. But I don’t think that’s bad. I’ve been smoking for 80 years! Back in the day, I used to sneak around to smoke because I was still a student. I would just bum one off other people when the moment presented itself, and smoke in secret. That was fun.
WHAT SHOULD EVERY PERSON THAT VISITS BEIJING DO AT LEAST ONCE?
There are too many places to name. I like Gulou and Houhai Lake, because that’s where I started as a barber. If you are in Beijing, a stroll around those areas is a must.
FAVOURITE BEIJING FOOD OR RESTAURANT?
I don’t like to eat in restaurants.Maybe when I was young I did. I cannot eat like young people anymore. I like dumplings that my wife makes for me. In the past, you could only have dumplings on certain occasions, but people seem to eat them all the time now.
BAIJIU OR BEER?
I don’t really drink. Alcohol is not good for your health. I haven’t drunk since my twenties…
JIAN BING OR BAOZI?
Both! I can’t choose, I eat everything.
I lived in Japan for a while and there people used to call me “Miss” because I was very serious about my hair.
WHAT’S THE SECRET TO YOUR SUCCESS?
I am very good at my job. If you give a customer a good haircut, he’ll be so happy he’ll probably pay more. If you’re good at what you do, then people will come and find you.
We were just 1 million people here, now there’s a population of 20 million. How do you express that kind of change in words? You really can’t.
FONDEST CHILDHOOD MEMORY?
My fondest childhood memory is of training to be a barber. I moved to Beijing from Shunyi (which is now just another Beijing district) when I was 15. It was quite hard and Beijing was so different, so exciting. Back then the Forbidden City was totally closed off to civilians. Even this area where I live used to be closed off to regular people – this used to be the ice warehouse, where they used to store ice.
HOW DID YOU START OUT?
I started learning when I was 15, in 1928, and trained for three years. At the end of my training, my boss gave me all the tools I needed, and I have been on my own ever since. I started in bathhouses in Dongcheng district, and stayed around the Gulou area. Being a barber is a tough job to learn – knives and scissors being so close to someone’s head. It’s a very tense profession.
DO YOU STILL CUT HAIR FOR OTHER PEOPLE, EVEN AT 98!?
No, not as much as I used to. I’ve been very ill for the past half year, but if someone comes and asks me, I’ll do it. Also, if someone is disabled and can’t get out of the house, I’ll go over there myself.
HAVE YOU GIVEN HAIRCUTS TO ANY FOREIGNERS OR ANYONE FAMOUS?
Japanese people often come to ask me to cut their hair, and I have a Canadian regular too. He loves it, he says he can’t get the same haircut anywhere else. General Tangzhenling used to come quite often. He was a general for the Communist Party. In truth, I don’t care about status. People are all the same to me. Everyone needs haircuts.
WHAT TIP WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG HAIRDRESSER STARTING OUT?
Many people actually ask me to be their mentor/master, and my advice to them is: Cutting hair is not something mechanical. It’s like applying make-up, you should yield to the shape of the face and the head, and not just chase fashion. I mean, look at Wen Jiabao’s hair: his sides are really flat, then poufs out at the top. It really doesn’t suit him.
WHO CUTS YOUR HAIR?
Another barber, a friend of mine, used to cut my hair, but he died when he was 60. Now my kids cut it for me. A haircut is not that big of a deal, but if it’s a bad cut, it’ll just feel awkward. When I was young I took my haircut really seriously, it had to be stylish. I lived in Japan for a while and there people used to call me “Miss” because I was very serious and fussy about my hair. Now it’s not a big deal.
YOU HAVE BEEN LIVING IN BEIJING FOR SO LONG. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE CITY TODAY?
There have been so many changes, I can’t even start comparing the old Beijing and this Beijing. It is too huge a transformation. When I first arrived in Beijing, there weren’t even that many bikes on the streets, let alone cars. After 9pm, there would not be anyone on the streets. We were just 1 million people here, now there’s a population of 20 million. How do you express that kind of a change in words? You really can’t.
SO COME ON GRANDPA JING, WHAT’S THE SECRET TO LONG LIFE?
Not doing too much. If you work too hard in life, 24/7, without a break, you’re going to end up old and dissatisfied. I never did much when I was younger, and that’s why I am still going. Just take it easy.