I have been in China for almost a month and remain unshaven. A trip to the barber is overdue. A colleague gives me a tip about a good place, close to where we are working, so I head there shortly after five.
I take an escalator into a different world. So much of daily life in Nanjing is underground. The first thing that hits me is the light, it is as bright as an operating theatre down here and noisy as hell. Hordes of Chinese chatter away, as vendors in what seems like millions of little emporiums, bay for business.
I am not really sure how my mind decides that this is definitely the place. It is on a corner and is spacious by Nanjing standards. The entrance is designed like a saloon door in the wild west.
A young lady with short, angular hair looks at me like most of the people here do when I try to explain myself. I blush as I realise she is getting more confused the more I talk. Two skinny Chinese men help her out. Initially, this makes the conversation more convoluted, until one of them hands me a menu. A menu! In a barbers! It is in English and Chinese, a rarity here as most of the menus are in Mandarin only. Of the three choices on there, I tepidly point my finger at the most expensive option, wishing to conclude the awkward conversation more than anything.
The other man points me in the direction of a large silver chair. Chinese pop music plays in the background. He has a conversation with his assistant before coming back over. I just about have time to turn around and watch a well dressed young couple talk to each other on a shiny black leather couch near the entrance.
The man asks me what type of cut I want. I’m easy. He takes out his smart phone, opens an app and draws a mock hair cut and beard on a digitally created man. Yeah that looks good, I say. I would agree to just about anything. I’ve never been a fan of barber shops. I always seem to get trapped in a conversation I didn’t want.
My barber asks me if I want a drink. A drink? Yes, beer or whisky? Em, no I’m good, I say, not expecting the question.
He picks out the different implements that he plans to carry out the job with. An electronic razor, a straight razor and some different size blades. He tries different lengths on the electronic razor and starts each one up, revving them up like an engine. Settling on his tool of choice, he gets to work.
To begin with, he barely touches my hair at all, just gently nudging the razor over the very bottom of my head. He spends quite a bit of time there before changing the length of razor and starting on my head proper. My hair is pretty short coming in so I’m thinking there is not a lot to do. He eases the hot, humming razor back and forth on my scalp for a few minutes, side to side, front to back. His assistant approaches to hand him a different blade. He stops, changes it, and continues on the top of my head. He must change lengths what seems like a dozen times.
Leonardo Da Vinci may just have returned from the 16th century to cut this mans beard by the way. It is an incredible work of art. He must spend as much time marvelling at it in the mirror as he does tending to it. He needs to model this thing.
He starts on my beard with the shortest blade in his arsenal and outlines the bold new shape into the side of my jaw. When he gets to the hair on my lips, he works with an intense stare, focusing on every minute little hair there. He stops to stand back and look at his progress, then lets out a deep sigh that he tries to keep under wraps to relieve the stress, the intensity overcoming him. This has got to be perfect, my barbers face is on the line here. All the time his assistant watches, not missing any of this.
Thinking we are finished, I motion to get up. As I turn my chair slightly, the man spins it back in front of the mirror. Wash, wash, he says. I have no option here so I follow the number two away.
There are three giant chairs in the dimly lit room that he takes us to, they are all at a 45 degree angle to giant porcelain sinks. One man is lying back, eyes closed, while another hairdresser massages his scalp. The assistant guides me to me to my chair and rubs shampoo into my hair. He lathers it up and then strokes my head relentlessly for what seems like an hour. I came in for a haircut and am now getting a fully blown massage.
Suddenly I really don’t want to get up, but I’m led back to the original chair I was in. Surely we are finished? No, the artist gets back to work. Now the most miniscule of cuts, just trimming the outer edges of my beard. He snips ever so gently at the fringes with the smallest of scissors. The tiniest, most imperceptible bead of sweat runs slowly down his nose.
I feel lost in some distant world. What is this place? He finishes up blow drying my new head. Finally, he bows at me and asks me what I think. I put on my glasses, smile, and say Wow that’s amazing! My hair is virtually the same as it was, beards a little tighter. I leave a tip. I’m late for dinner.