A Historic Alleyway Barbershop Prepares to Say Goodbye – But Why?

Sze Yuen-yee

For more than 55 years, Oi Kwan Barbers has been part of the ebb and flow of life on Spring Garden Lane in Wan Chai. Wedged in a narrow passageway between two buildings, its ceiling fans whirred as electric razors buzzed. It persevered even as other alleyway barbershops faded, thanks to its second-generation master barber, Mark Lau. When he took over from his father, he revamped the business with a social media presence and brought in younger customers, all without sacrificing the loyal neighbourhood business that kept the stall alive for nearly six decades.

That will soon come to an end. For the past year, Oi Kwan has been fighting an eviction order from the government and the owners of the adjacent building. At this point, it seems inevitable that the stall will be destroyed. Hong Kong will lose one more thread in its urban fabric – and another piece of its cultural heritage.

Hoping to see the stall before it goes, I pay it a visit with Billy Potts, a designer, writer and photographer. “When I was a teenager I stumbled upon the stall with my dad and brother when we were wandering around at night,” he tells me. He met Mark Lau nearly 20 years later, when he passed by again noticed that it was a young man cutting hair – an odd sight, since many traditional barbershops have been fading away along with their customers. “I got my haircut and it just so happened he’d received the Buildings Department notice that day,” says Potts. “He had been crying.”

When I arrive with Potts, we find the shop tucked neatly between a restaurant and a florist. Most alley barbershops are simple and unadorned, but Oi Kwan meets the street with a cheerful red and white façade painted with a barber’s pole. Behind the shopfront is a scene that looks right out of a movie: three 1960s-era barber’s chairs and a long mirror under which dangles a variety of well-aged razors, brushes and clippers. Three ceiling fans hang from the pitched tin roof.

In fact, Oi Kwan was in a movie – Wong Kar-wai’s 1995 drama Fallen Angels. It was the sight of his family’s shop in that movie that inspired Lau to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I thought that if a director could see something beautiful in that shop I should give it a try,” he told Potts when he interviewed him for Stand News last year.

This morning, it’s not Lau we find but his mother, Sze Yuen-yee. She says the eviction order has taken its toll on Lau. People in the neighbourhood used to call him Fei4 Zai2 (肥仔 – “Fat Kid”), but over the last year, he has lost 70 pounds from stress alone. “He’s such a good boy,” she says. “Not many people are like my son, helping to revitalise an old trade. He has a god-given talent. I couldn’t have been luckier if I had won the Mark Six.”

Barbershop

The late Master Lau in 2013. Photo courtesy Oi Kwan

Hong Kong was a very different place when Sze’s husband, whom everyone called Master Lau, came to Hong Kong from Guangdong in the 1950s. “People set up barber stalls everywhere – in the roads, in the alleys, in the parks,” she says. The public bathhouse on Spring Garden Lane was a hub of activity — many of the area’s residents didn’t have their own toilets — and so Lau joined the barbers that set up shop on the street outside. “Sometimes he sat there all day without a customer,” he says.

At one point, Lau noticed the alleyway barbershop across the street was up for rent. Hong Kong in the 1960s was coping with an enormous influx of mainland refugees and people opened businesses wherever they could; back then, the government turned a blind eye to illegal structures like alleyway barbershops. Lau took over the space and began to pay rent to the woman who had built it. She was surly and contemptuous. “She called my husband a dog,” says Sze. Whenever rent was due, he kept the money tucked halfway into his pocket so the landlord could snatch it as she walked by.

In those early days, Lau slept with his fellow barbers on bunk beds built above the storage room in the back of the shop. He didn’t move out until he married Sze and they rented a 50-square-foot sixth floor walkup across the street for HK$800 per month. The bunks are still there, but now they’re used for storage.

Wan Chai could be a rough place back then. Heroin addiction was common and so were overdoses. “In the old days it would not be surprising to find a dead body in the alley,” says Sze. There was a brothel in the building next door and its pimp took a disliking to the barbershop. Occasionally, he came downstairs to hurl abuse at Lau, and when he returned upstairs, he threw used condoms, dirty toilet paper and syringes out the window. “Every week my husband would be up on the roof with a bucket and barbecue tongs,” says Sze.

But the other neighbours — the gaai1 fong1 (街坊) — made everything worthwhile. “People lined up down the street to get their hair cut,” says Sze. Old men from up and down Spring Garden Lane stopped in for a trim; so did American sailors berthed at Fenwick Pier. Young people joined the mix when Mark Lau took over from his father a few years ago. “Before Mark, young people never got their hair cut here. They thought it was a place for old people.”

Mark Lau. Photo by Billy Potts

Mark had been working in a hair salon, picking up new techniques his father didn’t have. When his father was struck ill with lung cancer, he returned to help run Oi Kwan. Even with his salon skills, the younger Lau was committed to his father’s Guangdong style of barbering. “It will always be one barber who greets, washes hair, cuts, shaves and sends the client off,” he explained to Potts last year. “We’re not the same as Shanghainese barbers that have nice shops and cut fast for quick turnaround.”

Wan Chai was going through some major changes just as Lau breathed new life into the barbershop. Government-led urban renewal projects had torn down many of the nearby blocks and replaced them with luxury apartment towers and upscale retail. Streets once full of working-class businesses quickly gentrified. Then the block immediately opposite Oi Kwan — Lee Tung Street, best known locally as Wedding Card Street for its many nuptial-themed print shops — was redeveloped into a high-end shopping mall.

“Before the redevelopment of Lee Tung Street, it used to be a real neighbourhood,” says Sze. “Now all the old shops have shut down, the old people have died and young people don’t stay.”

Oi Kwan’s troubles began soon after the new mall opened. Sze suspects the adjacent building is being bought up for redevelopment, which is why its owner’s association wants the barbershop gone after so many years. If the stall is dismantled, the building’s owners want Sze and Lau to pay for the demolition costs.

The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that Sze and Lau don’t own the shop. For a time, the squatter’s granddaughter came by to collect HK$3,000 in rent every month, but she disappeared after the eviction drama began. “My son’s just a young man trying to make a living with his hands,” says Sze. “The way they’re going about this is so mean-spirited and wrong.”

Not all is lost. Earlier this year, Oi Kwan was invited by the government to move into Comix Homebase, the heritage conservation project on Mallory Street in Wan Chai. It allows Lau to keep barbering, though the rent is much higher, so he has had to raise his prices. And the atmosphere can’t match that of the alleyway shop. With a carpark entrance and chain stores across the street, the new location feels less intimate and less full of character. There are no longer any neighbours who casually stroll by to say hello.

Lau and his mother are running both locations for now — the original shop is by appointment only — but they don’t expect that situation to last for long. They hope someone can collect the alleyway shop’s decades-old fixtures and accessories. “They’re not a precious antiques or anything, but it’s still culturally significant,” says Sze. “If you take these kinds of things away it will only be the same shops around.” Oi Kwan will survive, but it’s not the same barbershop it used to be – just as Hong Kong is not the city it once was.

Oi Kwan Barbers is located at 11 Mallory Street and (for now) 20 Spring Garden Lane, Wan Chai.

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