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 Taiwan in the mid 1940’s to be free of communist oppression. But first he stopped in Shanghai where he learned his trade. And if you were going to be good at the job, Shanghai, at that time, was the place to be, with a reputation as having the best barbers in Asia. As my wife told me, not long after I met her and we were talking about her father’s career, “Shanghai was known for three cuts – chef, tailor, and barber. Cut and knife mean the same in Chinese,” she further explained. “We say that scissors are like two knives together.”
While that interested me, my attention was deepened 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 leaders and politicians of the day. She said her father had to take much time to do it correctly, cutting only with scissors right down to the roots, sometimes snipping hair by hair. The final result was a tight, polished, extremely neat look that purportedly would stay still in a typhoon…or, I imagine, a raucous board meeting or a hostile coup.
I wrote about this in an earlier column but I mention it again as background, to give context to what happened to my father-in-law in one of his visits to my family’s home in Wainscott, one of the tiniest (and perhaps toniest) shore towns in the Hamptons.
First, to be upfront, my family’s home in Wainscott represents the true American dream. My grandparents, immigrants from Ireland, worked for a wealthy family who owned an impressive estate in the esteemed Georgica Association. The family also owned a much smaller house down the road (and outside the gates) and some land next to it and gifted this to my grandparents in gratitude for their loyal service and to give them future security. The point being is that we could never have afforded such a situation in such a place without their foresight and generosity.
So we had the home, two to be exact, as my grandmother later built another residence on the property for rental purposes, for many decades when Mr. Pei visited.
At this time, Mr. Pei was in his mid-80’s, and despite perhaps four or five cigarettes a day and a whiskey before bed, or perhaps because of it, was in amazingly good health. As with his smoking and drinking, he was a man who adhered to moderation as a lifestyle and as a means to stay healthy – he never missed a meal, but did not eat too much, and he always exercised, every day of his life, but nothing too strenuous, favoring walking, light calisthenics and stretching.
In this way, he loved Wainscott. The town is easy to navigate, not many roads, beautifully lined by trees and framed by farms and houses both modern and quaint. It is a beautiful place. And then there is the beach. It is pristine – without boardwalk or buildup. This sandy treasure is located only a mile or so from our home. Mr. Pei, from the first day he arrived, zeroed in on this as the walk to take. His usual practice was to wake early, before any of us even raised a head off the pillow, and head to the ocean, where, in front of the lapping waves and the vast Atlantic, performed his light calisthenics and stretching.
One late afternoon, I decided to go fishing on the beach, near a jetty where I heard striped bass were feeding at dusk. I donned my summer beach fishing outfit – old swim trunks, ripped T-shirt, bucket hat, and jumped on a decrepit, no-speed Scwinn that flaked rust with each pedal. But it always got me where I wanted to go, and that evening, as luck was on my side, I made the beach, hit the jetty, and actually caught a keeper bass.
At the same time I was landing the fish, Mr. Pei had decided to add a pre-dinner walk to the beach. It was during his stroll back that he was suddenly greeted with a rousing: Laoban! Mandarin for “Boss.” From what Mr. Pei told us after, he looked up and was astonished to see one of his most frequent clients to the barbershop back in the day, and one of the richest. With the man was his son, who also had gotten haircuts from my father-in-law as a boy, and his wife.
After the shock wore off, Mr. Pei greeted the man with Laoban as well. They then caught up. The man told him that his son had purchased a home in Wainscott. “And why was Mr. Pei here?” My father-in-law returned that his son-in-law owned a home in town as well. And while somewhat true, I was not in the same standing as this man’s son who had purchased, from what I later saw, a very expensive estate.
But for Mr. Pei, it was a glorious moment, not only to have such an amazing coincidence of connection, but to bask in the refracted, but false, pride that his daughter had married into riches and here they were, two men from Taiwan, two “bosses”, in such enviable and esteemed circumstances in the States.
The whole night, during dinner and after, Mr. Pei smiled wide, smoking his cigarette and drinking his whiskey with pride and profound happiness. He was not a vain man, and, if anything, he was a frugal one, but he did brag a bit that night about the encounter, the greeting, about being called a boss, and about feeling more than equal with someone he truly admired.
Of course, later, my wife said all of this might have been ruined if I had met her father and the wealthy family from Taiwan on the road, riding my horrific bicycle, holding a dead and stinking fish tight to my mangled shirt, and introduced myself as the son-in-law.
But then again, I doubt it would have mattered. Because in the end, no matter my bank account or holdings, Mr. Pei was a boss indeed.