In May 2007, Benjamin Ross, an American living in Fuzhou, Fujian, made waves on the China blogosphere with his "barbershop stint" in which he worked as a barbershop trainee—asking his boss to treat him no differently than he would any other staff member—from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily for one month with three days off. Part of the project was keeping a regularly updated blog on his thoughts and experiences. The following are excerpts from this blog.
"As an American living in China, I have spent the last three years of my life enjoying the benefits of being a citizen of a country that is far wealthier than the one in which I reside. I travel around town by taxi. I drink at expensive bars. I eat sushi. I take trips across the country, and when my apartment is dirty, I call a maid to clean it up. My life is not that different from the other several hundred Westerners who call Fuzhou home. We all come to China for the 'China experience,' but we still live our lives with the advantages of being Westerners."
The Huanying Guanglin Meeting
[My boss] Mr. Zheng is a young guy, probably in his mid-30s. His hair is slicked back in a wave, and he wears clothes up-to-date with the current Chinese fashions. Essentially, he is just like one of the workers, except he has been in the industry for 15 years. He has put in 11-hour days, swept floors, cleaned bathrooms, washed thousands of heads, and given thousands of haircuts, but today he sits as the boss over 17 people doing the work he labored through for so long.
"Lately our customer service has been pretty shitty. You guys need to stop being so lazy about customer service. You all act like the customers owe you 1 million dollars. Do the customers really owe you 1 million dollars?" Mr. Zheng yelled at us. "You need to be more attentive, more caring, more ... 光临 (guang lin). 'Huanying guanglin.' Those are the four most important words for customer service. Everybody say them."
"Huanying guanglin," we all replied with the enthusiasm of 10 people who just finished working an 11-hour shift.
"Louder!" Mr. Zheng exclaimed.
"Still not good enough. Jie Lun, come, stand up in front of the group. Put your hands in the air and repeat "huanying guanglin" 20 times, counting on your fingers. After each time he says it, I want you all to repeat."
Jie Lun stood up and walked to the front "Huanyin gua—"
"No," Mr. Zheng cut in. "Say it like there is a customer at the door right now, 20 times!"
"Huanying guanglin, Huanying guang—"
"What are you doing?" Mr. Zheng piped in again. "Don't over-emphasize the first syllable. It's not 'Huanying guanglin,' it's 'huanying guanglin!' Just let it flow."
Finally a sufficient "huanying guanglin" came out of Jie Lun's mouth, and the rest of us repeated in unison.
After Jie Lun finished 20 "huanying guanglin"s, Mr. Zheng called Xiao Fang up to the front. After seven or eight "huanying guanglin"s, he cracked up, and Mr. Zheng made him start over again. Every little brother and sister, myself included, had to have their turn.
Over 400 "huanying guanglin"s later, Mr. Zheng reiterated the rules. "Customer service is the most important aspect of this business. Starting tomorrow, whenever a customer comes in that door, I better hear 'huanying guanglin' from all of you. No more slacking."
I am still not totally convinced of the enamoring effect of the "huanying guanglin," but I'm willing to take a leap of faith and accept Mr. Zheng's knowledge from 15 years in the business as proof.
As a foreign English teacher in a Chinese university I was working 919 hours per year. As a white-collar employee at an American company in the U.S. I was putting in 1,936 hours per year. And as a full-time barbershop employee for a year I would be clocking 3,542 hours.
Now I want to take a look at the pay if I were to actually work all those 3,542 hours.
Most of the income of a little brother or little sister is not fixed. They get RMB150 per month in base salary, and the rest is based on how much work they do. The price charged to the customer for a hair wash is RMB12. Of that charge, RMB2.5 goes to the little brother or little sister who performed the service. Each hair-wash service lasts approximately 35 minutes and also includes a massage.
On average each little brother or little sister washes about 150 heads per month, and average pay for a beginning worker comes to between RMB500 and 600 per month. Bear in mind this is for a 70-hour workweek.
[Starting employees] must go through a probationary period, during which they do not get paid. Once they have become competent at doing hair washes and massages, they can start making money. According to Mr. Zheng this takes anywhere between two weeks and two months.
If I were to work at the barbershop for one year, making RMB600 per year and accounting for the first month going unpaid, my hourly rate would be RMB1.86 per hour. That comes out to a walloping 24.47 [U.S.] cents per hour.
Even though this job pays less than a quarter an hour, by all my observations so far, it does provide what I would consider a living wage to its employees. This is assuming they do not have any dependents, which none of the little brothers and sisters do. Employees are all offered free housing in a three-bedroom unfurnished apartment which serves as the "dormitory" for the barbershop. Currently eight of the 10 little brothers and sisters plus the two managers and one of the barbers live in the dormitory. One little brother and one little sister live with their relatives, and four of the five barbers rent their own housing.
For food, Mr. Zheng hires a maid to cook meals for the employees. For a fee of RMB200 ($26 USD) per month, the employees get lunch and dinner every day of the week. That comes to RMB3.33 per meal.
Yesterday was an exceptionally busy day at the barber shop as customers flocked in for haircuts, washes, and perms. At about 3 o'clock I looked around the store and noticed that all nine of the little brothers and little sisters were occupied either giving hair washes or massages. I was sitting near the front door chatting with Cheng Qing and two other unoccupied barbers when two middle-aged women walked in the door.
"Two hair washes," one of the ladies said to Cheng Qing. He looked around the room, saw that all of the little brothers and little sisters were busy, and told the lady, "It's going to be about a 20-minute wait. Why don't you sit down and have a drink of water?" The women sat down at the one of the tables, and Cheng Qing returned to his chat with me and the other two barbers. The women sat chatting and glancing around the shop for about five minutes and then decided to leave.
I should point out that everything the little brothers and little sisters can do has been done already hundreds of times by the barbers. All of the barbers worked as little brothers for several years before graduating into hair cutting. Seeing that all of the little brothers and sisters were unavailable, wouldn't it have made more sense for two of the barbers to wash the women's hair themselves? Instead, they went back to their conversation, and RMB24 walked right out the door.
Three main levels of the barbershop food chain
At the lowest level is the little brothers and sisters. Little brothers and little sisters begin their careers in the industry with hair washes and massages and gradually move on to learn how to 做发 (zuòfà) which includes dyes, curling, and perms. The little brothers and little sisters are also responsible for menial shop tasks such as sweeping hair, folding towels, bringing cups of hot water to customers, and cleaning the shop every night.
The second level are the barbers, called 师傅 (shīfù) or "masters." The masters' sole responsibility is cutting hair. Occasionally they help with a dye or a perm, but never once have I seen any of them do a hair wash. They are also exempt from clean-up duties.
Finally, on top there is Mr. Zheng, the boss. Mr. Zheng's daily routine is similar to the masters except he is able to show up to work a little bit later every day, and his haircuts cost RMB50 instead of 30. He also serves as the teacher for instructing the masters in their haircutting technique.
After work yesterday, I told Mr. Zheng what I had seen, and asked him his thoughts.
"This is a very, very bad situation," he commented, "and it is like this in all barber shops in Fuzhou. The masters don't want to do any of the hair washes. But this does not make much business sense. It must change, and I think it will change."
This is a situation that Mr. Zheng has to deal with or else risk angering his employees and possibly risk them quitting. As angry as Mr. Zheng was that the two middle-aged women left his store without getting hair washes, this certainly will bode better than losing two of his top barbers.
Truth be told, on my last day I did not want to leave. Granted, I had only worked for a month, and I was reminded several times by co-workers that had I stayed for a year, I would have certainly hated my job. But in the end, I ended up enjoying my coworkers and lifestyle more than I ever could have imagined. With each passing day the 11 hours came and went faster and faster.
What I found the most discouraging from a humanistic perspective was that with the possible exception of Jiang who gets creative pleasure out of designing hairstyles, I can honestly say that nobody in the barber shop likes their job. Even Mr. Zheng, if presented with the right opportunity, would leave the industry if he could. There is an overwhelming sense of lack of self-actualization, and many of my coworkers view their job as pointless, literally.
So why do they stay? A quick answer would be that the hair industry is the best they can do. None of my colleagues have a college education. To my knowledge, only two of them have high-school certificates. The rest finished only middle school. China has very few continued-education opportunities. The only way to go to college is to pass the entrance exam at the end of high school. Failure to pass the college entrance exam (or the high-school-entrance exam for that matter) will almost certainly lead to a life in the working class.
While I would be lying if I claimed I had truly experienced the life of a Chinese worker, I can honestly say that I feel more in tune with the hardships and joys that they face on a daily basis.
For the past two days, I missed the barbershop. I have gone into the barbershop both days to visit and share some pictures I had taken with my co-workers. It was admittedly a little weird to be wearing shorts and not be wearing my work apron, and to see hair on the floor and not rush to sweep it up. As I was sitting at one of the tables with Cheng Qing and Adam, a customer came in. I instinctively shouted out "Huangyin guanglin!" before I could remind myself I was no longer an employee. I guess some things are hard to change.
This article was originally published in "work and leisure" (issue 3/July 2007). Republished with permission from the author. Benjamin Ross is an ethnographer, writer, and Sinophile currently based in Chicago. Photos by Benjamin Ross
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