Haircuts are a breeze in Beijing

SUN JOURNAL

Outdoors: Street-corner haircutters provide a popular and inexpensive service, but the Chinese government considers them at odds with its new image for the capital.

November 24, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Each morning, Yang Deyong arrives for work in a white smock pushing a converted baby carriage filled with plastic combs, rusted shears and a folding metal stool.

Standing in the November air, he chats with his customers as he carefully snips away, sending tufts of hair tumbling off a blue apron and onto the cold pavement. Fifteen minutes later, Yang's customers leave wearing a handsome haircut and a smile.

Yang, 78, is among scores of outdoor haircutters who make their living by turning the street corners of Beijing into open-air barbershops. Mostly middle-aged and elderly men, they are part of the city's rich street life that is under threat as local leaders try to recast Beijing in the image of a modern Asian capital.

Earlier this year, officials banned about 30 barbers from one of the city's main streets, North Workers' Stadium Road. In other parts of the city, authorities force them off the sidewalks just before dignitaries such as Chinese President Jiang Zemin drive by. Haircutters also complain that police periodically extract fines or bribes and confiscate their carts and bicycles.

"They are like bandits," says Yang, who has worked as a barber for most of the past six decades. "We want to make a living, but they won't let us."

The intermittent crackdown on sidewalk barbers is part of a larger struggle for control of the streets of China's capital.

On one side stand Beijing's traditional, urban culture and the thousands of outdoor entrepreneurs created by the market reforms begun two decades ago by the late Deng Xiaoping. On the other side stand current city and national leaders, who are trying to turn Beijing into a sophisticated international showcase.

With the help of officials, developers have already razed many of the city's 19th-century gray-brick homes in favor of more lucrative -- and often hideous -- glass and steel high-rises.

When Beijing celebrated the golden anniversary of the People's Republic of China last month, police threw tens of thousands of migrants, invalids, street vendors and prostitutes out of town to make it more presentable. Some were held in police stations or warehoused in government "Custody and Repatriation Centers" on the outskirts of the city.

Despite occasional harassment from authorities, sidewalk barbers show no sign of folding up their stools and going home. Yang enjoys cutting hair and is as much a part of the Beijing neighborhood where he works as the fruit and vegetable sellers who operate the open-air market down the street.

Whether the mercury drops below freezing or rises above 100, Yang spends every morning on a sidewalk in the city's eastern district just north of Ritan Park. Well before the sun peeks over the buildings and arrives on his side of the street, the neighborhood is already bustling with life.

Taxis weave down the road honking their horns in competition with bicycle bells. On the nearby corner, vendors sell baozi -- buns filled with pork and parsley -- from bamboo steamers stacked six high. Dressed in white aprons, they knead mountains of dough on the smooth, wooden flatbed of a delivery tricycle. Later, the vendors will shave strips off with knives and flick the long strands into a steaming wok to make fresh noodles.

Yang paces the pavement in his brown corduroy slippers and a black watch cap as he waits for customers. Many of the neighbors, including cooks, waiters, state workers and vegetable vendors, have their hair cut by Yang.

A man in camouflage fatigues walks up and tries to bargain -- a common practice. He offers 24 cents.

"Too little!" Yang barks, refusing to budge from his standard rate of 30 cents.

Thirty cents might not sound like much, but he cuts about 10 heads a day and earns from $50 to $60 a month tax-free -- not a bad wage for a pensioner like Yang.

Some minutes later, Guo Fenggang, a worker at the Beijing No. 5 Computer Factory, rides up on his mountain bike. Yang reaches over to the wicker baby carriage -- held together by twine and bolts -- and begins snipping away with the shears.

Afterward, Guo admires the haircut and marvels at the price.

"I think I'll come back," says Guo, who normally pays $1.20 for a haircut and a shave in a state-run barbershop.

Open-air barbers operated in Beijing long before Mao Tse-tung arrived here in 1949 to declare the founding of the People's Republic.

With the communist takeover, the government absorbed all private enterprise. Barbers such as Yang went to work for the state. After Deng began opening up the Chinese economy in the 1980s, barbers returned to the fresh air to ply their trade.

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