Being There

Sham-poo washout

Being a shampoo boy to tai-tais can be quite a hair-raising experience, writer John Lui finds.
Being a shampoo boy to tai-tais can be quite a hair-raising experience, writer John Lui finds.ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

Being a shampoo boy to tai-tais can be quite a hair-raising experience

If you have ever wondered how tai-tais get their hair to look that way, combining the bullet-proof stiffness of a helmet with the soaring height of a public sculpture, then pay attention.

First, you have to treat your hairdo as something that belongs to you, but is not quite a part of you. The care that you lavish on it would be similar to the attention paid to, say, a high-maintenance status symbol, such as a yacht or a prize-winning purebred cat.

Next, train yourself to sleep on your side or in a position that will do the least damage to your hairdo. It might take years to master, but proper technique means less time spent on the morning repairs. I have heard rumours of society women who can sleep standing up, erect as the Queen’s Guards at Buckingham Palace in London.

Self-washing the hairdo, solid enough to laugh at a hurricane, is out of the question. Twice a week, perhaps more if you have a social event, take yourself down to a salon, but not one of those chrome-and-glass places where new age noises burble in the background and celebrity stylists in jeans so skinny a normal person trying to put them on would feel like they were forcing sausages into toothpaste tubes.

Places like that are for the new-money celebutants, actresses with endorsement deals and the wives and girlfriends of prosperous car salesmen. If you are a woman of a certain age who has endowed art to a museum or had a street named after an ancestor, it is not for you.

You would go to a tiny, anonymous-looking salon in Orchard Road. But walk through its doors and the throbbing nexus of tai-tai power within is revealed. They assemble here from Nassim Hill, Orange Grove Road and Bukit Timah Road. 

After every strand is set rock-hard from its comparatively affordable $25 wash-and-dry, they fan out to charity balls, high teas and society weddings.

Here, no beauty consultant or London-trained artist tells the customer what to have. The tai-tais do all the talking, the staff listen. Some of them have had the same hairdo for over 20 years. They like what they like.

Sally, the owner, does not want any names mentioned, including her own and the name of her salon.

“See that lady there?” she hisses to me at the back of the salon. I like the backroom exchange of secrets, it makes me feel more like one of the girls. She tells me who the woman in her 70s is and I am blown away. I am surprised she does not have bodyguards.

Sally does not let me near that customer, who has by now been ushered into the manicure room. There are three stylists looking after five customers. It is a Friday, a busy day because of weekend social events the tai-tais have to grace.

I, the shampoo guy, am needed. The sham shampoo guy, to be accurate. I have not been trained to give a “sitting wash”, which is when a customer wants to start her wash and scalp massage in the chair, going to the basin only for the rinse and condition. 

It is what most of these women want since they are at an age when hanging their heads over a basin for too long gives them neck problems, especially since they do it at least twice a week.

Sally shows me how a sitting wash is done. She slaps the soap solution into the hair, dilutes it with a squirt from a water bottle in the right hand and her left hand is a blur, swirling, cupping, massaging, darting hither and thither like a hummingbird. 

Clearly, she must be mad if she thinks I can do this but she lets me take over anyway, explaining to the customer that I am a trainee.

The woman in the chair sighs and shoots me a frosty look, as if I needed to be more nervous. I squirt when I should be swirling and swirl when I should be squirting.

The customer does not stand for such nonsense and makes a “come here” gesture to her regular shampoo girl. I slink away to the back to wash the sudsy defeat off my hands.


Touching heads in such an intimate way as a shampoo boy feels odd at first, but reporter John Lui soon forgets that there is a person attached to the scalp. ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

With another customer, I get as far as the rinse in the basin before I am sent off the playing field, as it were. I must be getting better, I thought. The third and last customer is a success – almost. I become so mesmerised by the lavender rivulets flowing off her locks during the wash that I forget to apply conditioner. She has to make an unhappy walk from her chair back to the basin.

When her wash and blow-dry is done, she gives everyone a $5 hongbao, including me. I take it as a sign of forgiveness. 

That’s another thing that tai-tais do: They hand out hongbaos to everyone in the shop. They demand, but they also forgive.

I try my hand at removing rollers from an 80something dowager’s hairdo, after it has spent 30 minutes baking under an old stand-up dryer that looks big enough to cook her tiny frame. She is a bit of an antique herself. I unroll the curlers, fingers trembling. The infernal things cling to her thin hair like velcro. After doing three curlers, I stop, afraid that I would yank her scalp off. The real stylist carries on.

Two weeks before, I had received training at a salon belonging to Mr Quek Joo Hock, 59. Hair Affair is at the basement of The Adelphi in Coleman Street. His place, like Sally’s, has been around for ages and has built up a core of mostly middle-aged and older regulars. None of them want to be touched by a stranger, so the very nice Mr Quek recruits his friends to be my shampoo subjects.

Touching a head in such an intimate way feels odd at first, but the feeling wears off fast. I soon forget that there is a person attached to the scalp.

In between washes, he says that a few decades ago, the only way to start cutting and styling after training would be to buy a salon of one’s own. Recruits started at the bottom, washing and sweeping floors. But now, he says, they want to pick up the scissors right away. He employs a full-time shampoo girl, though he washes hair too during the busy periods.

What I don’t know about proper salon-style washing and blow-drying could fill a book, I learn from him. Like many guys, I think of my hair the same way the Government thinks of roadside trees: functional, somewhat ornamental, with the upkeep contract awarded to the lowest bidder.

But as the formidable downtown dowagers taught me, a society lady’s coiffure is serious business. Until my left-hand swirl and right-hand squirt are in order, I will stay as far away from them as possible. I do not need the stress.