Hair in Asia

by Bill Lennox / 07 January, 2012

Hair, there and everywhere, is sure to feature when you take a four-month trip through Asia.

First, you need to understand about beards. You don’t “grow a beard”, it grows on you. The only certain choice men have in life is whether to remove facial hair daily or not. If you can’t be bothered shaving, you have a beard. And if you’re on holiday, it will eventually need attention. So hair was sure to feature in my four months’ travel through nine countries in Asia. Short hair and a trimmed beard are cooler and attract less interest at borders, but both need regular attention.

I always go local on food, sport, beer and even red wine, so I have decided to do the same on hair. This worked well at Julia’s Salon, a resort “colour specialist” at Port Douglas, the Fast Barber in Tokyo’s CBD (where you pay in advance at a vending machine), a Hanoi alleyway beside a motorbike repair shop (where the barber grinned so broadly I clearly paid too much), Crazy Kim’s in touristy Nha Trang (where you can also get cocktails and free Wi-Fi), and Delhi where the Fancy Hairdresser (A Gentlemen’s Saloon) was the only shop open at 10.00am. I didn’t bother the barbers in Bangkok – they were busy sandbagging in advance of controlled flooding of the city.

I deny I was fixated with hair and you shouldn’t remember a culture for its hirsute customs, but I couldn’t help noticing …

In Beijing and Shanghai I’m the hairiest in every restaurant, shop and subway. There’s never a hint of a beard. I’m also the whitest and by far the oldest. Where are the old Chinese men?

Old men are let loose in Hong Kong and Singapore, but colour specialists do well from deep black rinses. There’s some relief on the train to Disneyland – I sit beside a grizzle-bearded Sikh in full turban. But we’re framed by Mickey Mouse ­windows, so maybe it’s a special effect.

Men in Vietnam and Cambodia are unburdened by facial hair. Ho Chi Minh united the nation, but his wispily flowing chin-hair didn’t catch on. A Siem Reap tuktuk driver who guides us through flooded streets to local food flaunts a lean 10cm tuft, but it’s emerging grotesquely from a mole.

It’s not until we get to India that I start to feel at one with the male-grooming landscape. Not that Mahatma Gandhi helped – at his home (and place of assassination) the prevailing image in an intriguing multi­media tribute is a rear view of his tiny bald scalp and round ears.

But modern Indian men know how to do hair. Unless you aspire to Bollywood (as many clearly do), you stay trimmed, gelled if you’re young, and you comb frequently. Few try beards – Sikhs have got a corner on that – but moustaches are common, worn short unless you belong to the warrior caste or are still influenced by British chaps, in which case you go for the full handlebar.

I bond with a shy attendant at a royal palace in the provincial town of Karauli (one of the hundreds opened to the public after the onset of democracy) because of his sweeping grey moustache. A painting in the royal palace in Udaipur, southern Rajasthan, shows an unnamed member of the royal family replete with a cleverly multilayered full beard. The white-suited current prince chatting on his cellphone just inside the gate is spickly shaven.

It’s in Udaipur that I have my defining barbering experience. We’re on a two-week Intrepid tour that delivers a “taste” of India. Between visits to famous sites, we’ve eaten in local restaurants and city and country homes, had quickfire cooking classes and visited local markets and a spice farm. I’m hooked for life on mango lassi and fragrant rice pudding.

But dinner in Udaipur is a rare privilege – we eat in the home of our tour guide. Pradeep is tall and balding, which makes him the ideal tour guide – his glistening pate is easy to spot as we scamper after him through crowded temples, markets and railway platforms. He has been away from home for months and after he drops us in Goa he’ll be away more weeks, but he gives up his last night to introduce us to his wife, mother, two children, cousins, uncles and friends.

The cobbled lanes that lead to the royal palace are home to thousands of close-knit families like Pradeep’s. They say every home has a guest house at street level and a restaurant on the roof. They all play Octopussy every night, not because it’s the worst Bond film ever, but because it was filmed in Udaipur.

The city is more famed for its labyrinthine royal palace and romantic (at a distance) Lake Pichola. The winding lanes are lined with people ­actually making things to sell. Boys shape yet another Lord Ganesh from marble gripped between their toes, young men paint jaunty miniatures on silk, a young woman produces modern lithographs of Lord Krishna, energetic men push leather book covers, and a serene man does palm readings above his department store (The Lovely). I come home with one of each.

At Pradeep’s, we squat facing each other across the courtyard to consume khadai paneer, malai kofta, endless dahl and chapati, and vodka with Sprite. Young cousins practise their henna painting on the women in the group while a grinning dude in a white jacket flirts dramatically with New York blondes. An older cousin is finishing her PhD in Sanskrit, but I’m assigned to Pradeep’s nephew. He is finishing his arts degree but needs better English to become a tour guide, a common aspiration everywhere we visit, so I’m helping. He reckons I should move here.

As we leave, Pradeep introduces me to another cousin, Hemant. He is closing his barber’s shop next door. The extended family have lived in this neighbourhood for more than 300 years. They are merchant caste, a family of barbers. Pradeep gives his family name as Barber, but Hemant retains his Hindi name – he’s Hemant Sen.

I’m surprised to hear the caste system still dictates life for many in India. We hear the tragic story of a couple deeply in love who can’t marry despite both being merchant caste – he’s from a family of barbers and she’s from flower arrangers. It was close to being acceptable, but any hint of shame would have made marriage difficult for the girl’s younger sister.

This was less than 10 years ago. Education frees young people from these constraints, but Hemant’s father chose not to pay for higher education. Anyway, the street needed a barber, and he has expanded into massages and pedicures, For He and She.

So at 10 the next morning I’m in Hemant’s tiny and immaculate two-chair shop on Nani Gali. Before me is the glowing trophy he received this year for running the best barber shop in Udaipur. His next ambition is a mention in Lonely Planet, and he deserves one.

I don’t need a haircut, but I do need a beard trim. I get both, plus an eyebrow job and one of those great Indian hair-pulling head massages. Hemant applies at least eight unguents, including women’s foundation and talcum powder to dry my chin and shirt. From the eyes up I look like I’m 10 again, cowlick and all.

It’s a 90-minute cultural experience. Cattle wander past and snuffle at the door. Friends and family drop into the empty chair for a chat. The palmist calls me to ask if I want an astrological reading. Hemant’s assistant pays a street seller 55 rupees for a long brush. Only the cow doesn’t take time out to chat on a cellphone.

Hemant gives me a discount for being Pradeep’s friend. It comes to 350 rupees. I give him 500 – about NZ$12.50 – and Hemant is overwhelmed. His embrace is even more vigorous than his head massage and he insists on delivering me to my hotel. It’s across the lake, so I ride pillion through the lanes of Udaipur on one of the millions of motorbikes that swoop and honk throughout Asia.

The final leg of our tour is an overnight train to Goa. Pradeep slips into our compartment and gives me a slim steel bracelet, traditionally worn by Sikh men. Like many Indians, Pradeep’s devotions are not limited to Hinduism. He bought two bracelets for himself but this one keeps slipping off his slim wrist. I’m very moved but also puzzled. Traditionally, Sikh men never cut head or facial hair. Is he telling me something?

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