I don’t really have a distinct memory of a particular moment in a barbershop during my childhood.
I can only vividly remember the low buzzing sound of the shavers, the smell of baby powder mixed with an old musky smell. Along with the radio playing the latest Malay hits, and the queues of young and old customers waiting for their turn.
As I grew up, my times with barbers lessened, like a toy that a kid is no longer interested in. I can’t really explain my declining interest back then, but I guess you could say that all things come to an end.
But yet that scent and sound have always been on my mind. Like permanent imprints, they are the first few thoughts that come to me whenever a conversation about barbershops comes up.
Now, it would seem that a resurgence in interest in barbering has arrived in the form of a new generation of barbershops.
The allure of the gentlemanly-style, smart-looking cuts and an “old-school” culture charms many, even with the hefty price tags that come with it. As such many have hopped on the bandwagon of this ‘new’ trend.
Sure, my experience with new age barbershops has been great; my haircut is good, the barbers are friendly and the place is nice to wind down at. But somehow, I cannot help but feel that something is off.
As much as these new barbershops are promoting the old barber culture, I simply cannot find a connection, there is just something that is missing.
It’s easy to identify a culture or lifestyle tied to a specific place or community.
Like the jazz bars of New Orleans, their soulful connection that continues to enchant visitors has its ties linked to the culture of the African Americans throughout history.
Tear away the fabrics of the new generation barbershops in Singapore, and you are left with a core structure that has only been adopted from a world far away. To me, it almost feels like these new barbershops are like guests in another man’s place.
That same old vivid memory of the Malay barbers still holds a strong connection in my mind. Perhaps, it’s nostalgia of the past, a reminiscence of something that connects me to my own interpretation of barbering.
So I went back to an old barbershop, a journey back in time to relive and connect the dots of those vivid memories to try to link them all together.
Now a relic of the past, here inside the barbershop, time is stuck in the year 1989 while the rest of the world advances on. As the nostalgia hit me, vivid memories of my time in the past became clear.
For the barber who has been cutting hair for decades, he treats every customer the same. Be it whether they are young gangsters, old men, ordinary folk – to him all are equal and he simply treats everyone with the same respect.
The act of being calm and patient towards anyone, coupled with the rustic furniture creates a calming environment that makes you feel as if you’re home; a place where you can sit down and relax. Something that becomes therapeutic in a time where everyone is running helter-skelter.
It is very obvious that businesses now move faster than before, but the barber is never in a hurry or stressed out. He takes his time to cut people’s hair and engage in the usual small talk, with great patience and care.
With this laidback attitude, humble professionalism and homely shops, I guess they have carved out their own cultural symbol amongst us throughout the years in their own unique way. Becoming the ‘Malay barber’ who many still hold in high regard and respect.
While many barbers are slowly adapting to our fast-paced world, I guess only time will tell if they will succeed and stay for years to come.
*Special thanks to Mr Jali for allowing me to photograph his shop