Trader has a lock on his art

December 16, 1996|By Katherine Marks | Katherine Marks,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Exhibits at the American Institute of Asian Art are funded by a strange currency of sorts -- human hair.

It's a marriage of practicality, says Wang Hong, the Chinese immigrant who owns both the art gallery and the hair-importing business -- Hi Tong International Inc. -- on bustling U.S. 40 near Rogers Avenue in Ellicott City. He taps the lucrative hair-extension market in the United States to help struggling Chinese artists.

Wang's hair business may be foreign to many Americans, but in such countries as China, India and Indonesia, buying hair goes back at least 100 years, he said. And his family has been in the business for almost that long.

Still, Wang says, "I never thought I'd be doing this."

He came to the United States for graduate school eight years ago after receiving a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Southwest Jiaotong University in China.

At Bowie State University, he sought a master's degree in management and computer science. But soon he needed money to pay for college and support his wife and son, now 10.

So when people in his hometown Xuchang in Henan province urged him to expand on his family's business and open a factory in the United States, he left school and did so.

His factory in Henan processes hair collected from Chinese women to be used in extensions and waves. Asian hair is usually thick and straight, and holds dye well, Wang says. The hair, which varies in length, texture and price, is sold to beauty suppliers in New York, Chicago, Atlanta -- and, soon, Baltimore, he says.

While suppliers can be found all over Asia and Europe, a whopping 91 percent of U.S. imports during the first eight months of this year came from China, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. That amounts to more than $11 million worth of human hair.

Wang's home province is a hub for hair factories, and his hometown is one of China's biggest hair centers.

Waves and extensions are so popular that Wang says his company sometimes can fill only half its orders.

Thanks to such success, Wang says, he is now in a position to help other immigrants encountering the problems he faced when he arrived in the United States.

He moved to a larger office six months ago to open an art gallery that promotes Asian art and artists who might not know English or have a college degree.

Wang also sees the gallery as a way to introduce Americans to Chinese art.

"We want more people to come to look," he says. "We want people to know each other."

The institute's latest exhibit, which ends in early January, features three Chinese artists who mix traditional Chinese art forms with a touch of Western culture.

Bright colors adorn canvas, a material foreign to many traditional Chinese artists who paint on thinner paper backdrops and opt for more subdued grays, blues and pinks.

Gan Yifei, one of the artists, teaches art at Howard Community College. The other artists, Sun Hong and Qian Pingzheng, are assistant professors at Southwest China Normal University.

Most paintings exhibited in the gallery are for sale. Wang said he tries to stick with the price the artist suggests -- unless it is too high for the painting to sell.

While Wang has no problem selling hair, he has slashed prices in his gallery, where paintings still range from $190 to $20,000.

Wang said exhibition openings can draw a few hundred people, but he acknowledges that most people who visit the gallery "are just looking."

"We have different style paintings," he says. "Some they like, some they don't."

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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