The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.
My father-in-law, Mr. Pei, was a celebrity barber in Taiwan. It’s true. Like so many Chinese immigrants he came to this new country in the mid 1940’s to be free of communist oppression in his native China.
But first, he stopped in Shanghai where he learned his trade. And if you were going to be a barber of note, Shanghai, at that time, was the place to be, with a reputation as having the best barbers in Asia. As my wife told me once, when I first met her, about her father and his career, “Shanghai was known for three cuts – Chef, tailor, and barber. Cut and knife mean the same in Chinese,” she added. “We say that scissors are like two knives together.”
While that interested me, my attention was grabbed further when she told me her father’s specialty was the Shanghai Cut. When I inquired, she told me it was a very conservative style favored by Asian business and political leaders of that day. She said her father had to take much time to pull it off, cutting right down to the roots, so the hair would stay neat and in place, even in a typhoon.
She pauses, draws a breath, exhales.
“But customers also get wash, massage, facial, shave, manicure, ear-cleaning. That’s part of it, too.”
William runs a hand over his bristled scalp. A few days before he’d gone to a hair salon, a nationwide chain charging twenty-five bucks for a shampoo and cut. A girl in her early twenties with a tattooed neck finished his hair in five minutes, snapping her bubble gum the whole time while raking an electric razor over his head.
“I’d never leave your father’s chair,” he says.
“Oh, his customers loved him. He was famous in Taiwan because he had very important clients: celebrities, politicians, businessmen. They never went to any other barber but my father.”
William pulls her hand close to his lips. Her fingertips smelling of fried fish and dish soap, a product of her dinner duties that night.
“He never passed it on, the Shanghai Cut?”
“Because the style isn’t popular anymore. Young people don’t want to learn something only a few old people want. My father had to apprentice more than three years in Shanghai before he could start his business in Taiwan. Who has that much time and patience nowadays?”
William understands. He thinks of himself at work, busy and distracted, flitting from one task to the next, unable to concentrate long enough to complete any of them.
“I wish he could speak English,” he says. “He could teach me.”
They grow silent when the snoring downstairs suddenly stops, followed by hard coughing. They hear the soft creaking of floorboards, then the gentle closing of the bathroom door.
“A Chinese doctor told him his prostate is weak,” she whispers. “My father’s very worried about it.”
They hear the toilet flush, the sound of his feet padding back to bed. The snoring resumes after several minutes.
“I mean it,” William says. “I’d like to be a barber. Talking to people all day. Getting to know them while I cut their hair. Don’t you think it sounds nice?”
His wife doesn’t answer. He realizes she’s also fallen asleep, puffing out faint breaths from her small lips.
William closes his eyes and drifts into fantasy. He imagines owning an old-fashioned barbershop, with gold-plated chairs and white porcelain sinks with smooth ivory handles. He sees smoked-glass mirrors lining the walls, and a glistening parquet floor underfoot. A thick-glass parfait on a polished marble shelf holds a spray of black plastic combs drowning in green-dyed antiseptic. Next to is an opened teak carrying case, my scissors and razors, each shined and sharpened to perfection, gleaming atop the blue velvet lining.
As for him, he is wearing a white cotton smock over a navy dress shirt, its starched collar noosed smartly by a silken tie. His slacks are pleated and made of gray flannel, the cuffs tapering gracefully into a pair of newly buffed, brown loafers. In his lapel sprouts a single red poppy, and his lone jewelry is a sparkling, silver-banded wristwatch that clinks and clacks as he snaps a mahogany-handled whiskbroom across the already spotless floor. And when the first customer of the day comes through the door, a debonair looking gentleman in a somber three-piece suit with matching wingtips, William bows slightly, guides him to the chair with a confident hand, calmly awaiting his request for the Shanghai Cut.