Going to a barber can be hair-raising


Venturing to a hair salon outside of Singapore is daunting for those who just want a regular style

Upon coming home after spending months overseas, most people will meet their friends, head for their favourite food stalls and maybe even check out a new mall.

Me? I get a haircut.

"Haircut" almost always comes right after "putting down suitcase", and often before "meeting friends and family" because I frequently have to put up with not cutting my hair for months during my time away from Singapore.

You see, I hate cutting my hair outside Singapore.

Correction: I hate cutting my hair anywhere except at my regular hair salon in Bukit Timah, where an auntie has been doing the job for the last 20 years.

That is a familiar place where I can go in, sit down, tell Auntie to give me "the usual" - if I even have to tell her anything at all - and leave in 10 minutes, all for an affordable sum of $12.


Straightforward, fuss-free, almost mundane. That is the way I have had my haircuts for decades. That is the way haircuts should always be.

You would think that a style like mine - only slightly more innovative and longer than an army crew cut - is foolproof, but I realised even for a job like that, a good barber is hard to find.

Indeed, my relocations in recent years - first to England, then to China - has resulted in several of my haircuts becoming experiences akin to a thriller.

In fact, it became a downright horror show. Once, I was forced to patronise one of those $10-for-10-minute barbershops during one of my trips back to Singapore because Auntie was not free to give me my usual trim.

The problem - and I suspect I am not the only guy who faces this - is that I cannot tell if a haircut is done right or not at the shop. I actually have very low self-esteem when I visit new barbers.''

"Just cut short," I told the new barber. Ten minutes and $10 later, I turned into Jim Carrey in Dumb And Dumber. 

The problem - and I suspect I am not the only guy who faces this - is that I cannot tell if a haircut is done right or not at the shop. I actually have very low self-esteem when I visit new barbers.

"No lah, nobody cuts like that one," the barber at the $10 shop told me when I asked if she could shave a bit more from the sides.

Who was I to question her? She does this for a living. So Jim Carrey it was.

When I was in London, I resisted cutting my hair for months, until one day I realised I was starting to resemble the vagrant who sleeps outside my university residence.

One day, I finally popped into the nearest barbershop.

"How many inches?" the barber asked me in a thick Middle Eastern accent.


"Your hair. How many inches you want it to be?"

Since Auntie never asked me this before and I did not have a ruler with me, I showed him a picture on my phone.

"Like this short?" I asked hopefully.

"So small, I cannot see," he scoffed. "I'll see what I can do."

I held my breath. Ten minutes and £10 (S$21.60) later, I turned into one of the guys from Ah Boys To Men.

That is why I never understand why people can enjoy going to the hair salon, are best friends with their hairstylist or "have fun" experimenting with hairstyles.

A friend of mine easily reeled off a dozen hairstyles when I asked what she has tried before. Bob, bangs, sideswept, clipped, razor chop... are these even real styles, I asked her. She rolled her eyes at me and walked away.

It does not help that I am too lazy to spend time to maintain my crowning glory, which is already troublesome enough because it is wavy.

Needless to say, I visited my first hair salon in Beijing with a lot of trepidation. 

I went in because it was near my office and, also, I got off work early that day.

Then, I realised the hair salon was bizarrely decorated with multi-coloured crystals, had black-and-white checkered seats, and the hairstylists looked like brooding boyband members, with matching funky hairdos.

I am dead, I am dead, I am dead, I kept repeating to myself as an assistant escorted me in.

The woman at the counter sat me down and whipped out a menu with a whole host of items and treatments.

"You know, you can do this..." she said.

"I just want to cut my hair short," I replied.

"Do you want to try..." she persisted.


"We have this package that..."

"Just a haircut," I repeated.

"Er... okay," she muttered, as she walked off to see which unlucky boyband member would get to serve me.

As I sat in the chair, I looked through my phone to see if I could find another suitable picture to show him what I had in mind, in case he started asking about inches or styles.

I bit my lip as I showed the hairstylist what I wanted - short style and only slightly more innovative than an army crew cut - praying that he would not judge me for being so much less funky than him.

"Sure, I think I can do that," he said with a nod.

I held my breath. Ten minutes and 60 yuan (S$13.40) later, I actually looked like I would if I got my hair cut by Auntie in Bukit Timah.

"Thank you, thank you," I told him as I got ready to leave. "I'll look for you next time I'm back," I said.

"I hope I'm around," he replied with a laugh.

I hope so too.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'Going to a barber can be hair-raising'. Print Edition | Subscribe