Reviving glory of ageing Chinese barbershop

HEFEI (Xinhua) – As a sunbeam pierces through the cracks in the wooden roof and shines on a rusty chair with flower carvings, Shi Hancheng uses an old-fashioned shaver to work on the chin, cheek, ears and eyebrows of a customer.

Called Xiumian or face-shaving in English, the craft is one in which Shi excels. He is a barber in Datong Barbershop, located in the Datong Ancient Town in the city of Tongling, east China’s Anhui Province. The barbershop was built during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). A brick from a wall and various old items in the shop are witness to more than 100 years of glory and decline it has experienced.

The shop has been under spotlight as the country recently observed the Cultural and Natural Heritage Day. Shi, 72, is one of the two senior barbers at Datong Barbershop. He came to the shop with his father to apprentice as a teenager, at a time the salon was one of the poshest places in town.

“In its prime, there were 12 chairs and 12 barbers in the shop, in addition to people who boiled water and carried water,” Shi recalled. “There were 40 to 50 staff then.”

All the chairs and mirrors were imported from Germany and Britain, and the barbers learned to do the most fashionable haircuts, making them renowned in the neighbourhood.

At that time, the Datong Ancient Town was an important area along the Yangtze, China’s longest river. It was known as one of the four major commercial hubs in Anhui Province, which also included Anqing, Wuhu and Bengbu. The advanced water transportation brought in countless people and bustling business, giving the town the moniker “Little Shanghai”.

“Day and night, there were people waiting in line to get a haircut,” Shi said. “We received about 500 customers a day, and often worked until 9pm.”

In the late 20th Century, however, as road transport developed, water transportation along the Yangtze declined. The ancient town gradually became desolate, and the long lines of customers in front of the barbershop became a thing of the past.

“Some of the barbers went away, and some died,” Shi said. “The only ones left in the shop are me and Chen, who is already in his 80s.” Only two of the 12 chairs remain.

In recent years, authorities have decided to develop tourism based on the history and culture of the ancient town, bringing change and hope to the shop that has lasted a century.

In 2015, the local government renovated old houses in the town, and installed modern facilities in them in 2017.

The Datong Barbershop also went through a transformation. Workers modernised the electric circuits, installed shampoo basins and faucets that invoked nostalgia, in addition to fitting electric fans and pendant lamps. The storage room on the second floor became the rest area.

The changes were part of efforts to draw more customers. For Shi, the upgrade brought many modern elements to the shop, and he says the new features are both practical and necessary.

“After the upgrade, young people sometimes come over to get a haircut,” Shi said.