Singapore theatre's hairstylist extraordinaire

Nimble fingers and a love of opera led Ashley Lim to become a hairstylist and make headgear for the theatre

Dedicated to his craft, Ashley Lim tries to attend every show for which he is the hairstylist to ensure quality control. -- ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH
Dedicated to his craft, Ashley Lim tries to attend every show for which he is the hairstylist to ensure quality control. -- ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

When Ashley Lim started work at the late hairstylist William Teo's Botticelli salon in Lucky Plaza as a shampoo boy in 1986, he was, as he put it, "just eager to learn the craft".

Little did the then 26-year-old know that about three decades on, he would be the owner of his own appointment-only salon and have hairstyling credits for more than 400 home-grown theatre productions under his belt. These include Beauty World, the Dim Sum Dollies revues and Emily Of Emerald Hill.

Back then, Lim held no lofty ambitions about rising the ranks and becoming a top hairstylist.

In fact, the baby-faced 55-year-old candidly admits that he "knew nuts about hair".

The only thing that fuelled his decision to give hairdressing a whirl was his quiet confidence in the dexterity of his fingers.

From as early as the age of six, he knew he had a knack for working with his hands. The youngest of six children, his childhood in Spottiswood Park was spent building dollhouses with his sister and clipping her hair into imaginary bouffants using clothes pegs.

This inclination was due in part to a strict upbringing.

Lim's late father, Mr Lim Keng Siong, a clerk at the Port of Singapore Authority, was the sole breadwinner of the family. His mother, Madam Quek Ya Way, was the homemaker and disciplinarian, raising her children with a watchful eye and an iron fist.

"I had a very simple childhood. I didn't get a lot of toys or the chance to go downstairs and play every day," says the bachelor, who recalls wearing his siblings' hand-me-downs.

"But that's also probably what made me quite imaginative. Because I didn't have much in the way of games, I would just make my own little toys to amuse myself."

He went to the technical stream at Bukit Ho Swee Secondary, where he picked up metalwork. However, he did not know how to translate that into an occupation.

As a result, a host of disparate jobs followed.

For six years after finishing national service, he worked as an army medic, dressing wounds and giving injections. He then became a dental technician, where he did everything from sweeping the floor to making dentures.

He even worked briefly as a sales assistant in a 1980s boutique, Hemispheres, which stocked home-grown labels, at the Delfi.

Lim's only requirement was that his job allow him to work with his hands. And while each new role matched his basic criteria, the jobs did little in terms of providing a fulfilling career.

"I was really lost, just taking on jobs to pay my bills, but not really going anywhere," he recalls. "I actually started to feel quite jaded, not knowing if I would find something I really enjoyed."

But there was one upside to the monotony on the career front. The lack of a taxing work schedule gave him a chance to train with the Chinese Theatre Circle as a chorus member for Cantonese opera.

"My parents would take me to the wayang as a child and I was fascinated by the costumes and accessories on stage. So when I got a chance to train with them, I thought, why not give it a go?"

The 12 years he spent in the early 1980s with the opera not only gave him his first taste of theatre, but it also gave him an outlet for his creativity.

And though his shy demeanour never saw him chase leading roles, he found a niche in another area - making headgear, hairpins and earrings for opera productions.

It was a sideline that quickly became what he called a "labour of love".

It was only after seeing him work his magic with stage wigs that a friend encouraged him to give hairdressing a go. But the suggestion led to the dismay of his mother.

"She didn't approve of it as a job and wouldn't lend me the $2,000 I needed to train to be a hairdresser," he recalls.

Sticking to his intuition, he borrowed the money from a friend and enrolled in Botticelli's hairdressing school in 1986. After spending a year as a shampoo boy, he began to learn to cut hair and in the years that followed, quickly became one of the top stylists at the salon.

"It was then that I felt like I finally found something I was good at and that I really enjoyed. I was finally quite content," he says with a smile.

What sweetened the deal was that his boss William Teo was at the time artistic director of the now-defunct theatre group, Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre, and he encouraged Lim to learn to style hair for theatre productions.

And unlike most hairdressers who would shudder at the thought of overtime spent in theatre dressing rooms, Lim jumped at the opportunity.

"At first, I did it very nervously because these were professional productions and I was just an inexperienced shampoo boy. But I quickly began to love it. There was something so magical about the spontaneity of the theatre."

He went solo for the first time on Rashomon, a TheatreWorks production in 1987, and soon found himself volunteering to take on more theatre work.

By the late 1990s, he was doing six or seven productions a year. And he did not get paid anything extra beyond his monthly wages for his efforts.

Not content with just styling hair for actors, he also began making wigs and headpieces for the stage, experimenting in his spare time with different materials to keep his hairpieces light and comfortable.

From the retro beehives in Beauty World to the elaborate headpieces for Forbidden City, Lim worked on them all.

He would often also take pictures of objects that inspired him, later tinkering at home to try and recreate them into headpieces.

"I began to enjoy doing everything myself. That way, I could make headpieces and wigs that were suited for the character and make quick changes behind the scenes," he says. "It took lots of trial and error but I learnt as I went along."

Theatre director and actor Ivan Heng, 51, of Wild Rice, who met Lim in 1987, recalls that he was infinitely resourceful.

"He would use everything from foam to recycled plastic spoons to make headpieces and masks, carefully moulding and spray-painting everything to create beautiful works of art. Even as a young stylist, he was constantly pushing boundaries."

1n 1999, after 12 years at Botticelli, Lim struck out on his own, using $20,000 of his savings to open Ashley Salon, a 700 sq ft shop on the ground floor of Fast East Plaza.

He continued juggling his business with his passion for the theatre, but six years later, in the face of rising rents, had to move to a smaller 300 sq ft location on the third floor.

Seven years ago, he moved his salon again, this time investing $50,000 to open the chic appointment-only Ashley Salon at the Soho@Central in Clarke Quay.

He now sees between 15 and 20 people from 11am to 8pm, six days a week.

And even though his salon no longer accepts walk-ins, little has changed. He still prefers the flexibility of working solo and his two employees are women stylists who have worked with him for the past 15 years.

He has also raised his prices only twice in nearly three decades. Haircuts cost $45 on average.

It is evident that despite being a veteran in the industry, he has no desire to become a celebrity stylist like David Gan.

Instead, he prefers to shun the spotlight and work hard at his "day job" to fund his love for the theatre.

"Many in the theatre community are my loyal customers but I don't like to publicise that with hair sponsorships," he says. "For me, cutting hair is my rice bowl. Theatre doesn't pay well, so I need to work hard in the salon so I can continue to do what I love."

He now gets paid a few thousand dollars a production - up from the meagre $200 he was paid back in the day - but it still only amounts to barely $100 a show when divvied out.

And given that he often single-handedly creates the wigs and styles the hair of entire 10- to 20-person casts, the costs definitely outweigh any potential financial gains.

He also often has to burn the midnight oil, working in his salon after closing hours or at his home in Martin Road to create all the wigs, masks and hairpieces required for theatre productions.

"I do lose lots of paying customers when I have to close early to get to the theatre," he says, adding that he prefers to be present at every show if possible, including the matinees.

"Still, I have no choice. If I'm not there, how will there be any quality control?"

And it is apparent from watching him at work that quality is his ultimate priority.

When he cuts hair, he is fast, quiet and focused, with none of the chatting that you would expect of a hairdresser. Even in the few moments of pause during the photoshoot, he is bursting with restless energy.

Instead of relaxing, he flits back to a corner of his salon, his fingers nimbly styling a wig for an upcoming production.

Asked if he considers himself a perfectionist, he is quick to deny it.

"I'm hardly enough of a perfectionist. I still make errors," he says, before laughing at the irony of his statement.

The unwavering dedication to perfecting his craft has unsurprisingly led to firm friendships and a tight bond with the local theatre community here, with stalwarts such as Tan Kheng Hua, Hossan Leong, Karen Tan and Lim Kay Siu calling him a dear friend.

Back in 2006, when actress Pam Oei, 43, threw him a surprise party to celebrate his 20th anniversary in theatre, nearly 150 people from the scene showed up, all decked in outrageous wigs and fancy headgear as a homage to his work.

And just a few weeks ago, at the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards, Oei celebrated him again, joking that it was pointless to have Best Hair category because every nominee would be Ashley Lim. Her special mention of him led to a standing ovation and the loudest cheers of the night.

Oei says: "He has the most nimble fingers and we trust him because he's so incredibly fast and accurate. There's no one quite like him."

Now just a year shy of his 30th year in the theatre scene, Lim admits that he has yet to find someone as passionate about hair design.

"I guess it's too much time and effort to invest unless you truly love it," he says with a smile.

"But if you ask me, I still want to do this for as long as I can. For me, the theatre is magic."

My life so far

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"Even though I've been doing this for 29 years, I still constantly find myself learning on the job. Every day that I get to experiment with a new look or new hairpiece makes me more confident in my own abilities."

Ashley Lim on perfecting his craft

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"Over time, the theatre community has become like my family. I've gotten to know so many of them and have worked with the same people for multiple restagings of the same shows across the years. We have a bond. They keep me going."

On his friendships in the theatre community

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"Being my own boss gives me the flexibility to work my schedule around my theatre commitments. I can reschedule my appointments when necessary and focus energy on the projects without having to answer to anyone. It's why I still work solo even after all these years."

On preferring to work alone

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"I love the excitement of it all. You never know what to expect or what could go wrong. I love just being in that moment, it's really thrilling."

On his favourite thing about the theatre

"Yes, disasters have happened. I've had wigs fall off dancers and hairpieces fly off before. But even after all these years, I don't take these things lightly - errors shouldn't happen if work is done well. Still, I've come to accept that I can't control everything, all I can do is learn and not repeat my mistakes."

On recovering from on-stage hair malfunctions

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