From back alley to office, volunteers give free haircuts for those in need

The idea came to Cai Yinzhou in 2013 after he played a game of badminton with a group of foreign workers at a back alley behind his house.

One of them told Cai that he had not gone for a haircut in six months as he could not afford it. His father had an accident and he had to send money home to pay for medical bills.

The worker’s moving account inspired Cai to give free haircuts to those who could not afford them.

A year later, Cai and two other volunteers started running Backalley Barbers out of a small alley behind Yong He Eating House in Geylang.

The initiative was cut out for success – it has grown to a roster of 25 barbers, in their twenties to fifties, including students, a housewife, a musician, and a property agent.

To date, Cai, now 29, along with his roving team, has given close to 1,700 free haircuts over 97 sessions, not just in the back alley in Geylang but also in nursing homes and migrant worker shelters.

Founder <span>Cai Yinzhou giving a haircut at </span>Green Avenue Home for the Elderly on 19 January, 2019. (PHOTO: Geylang Adventures)
Founder Cai Yinzhou giving a haircut at Green Avenue Home for the Elderly on 19 January, 2019. (PHOTO: Geylang Adventures)

For their efforts, Backalley Barbers under Geylang Adventures was one of 14 ground-up movements and individuals to be inducted into the Singapore Kindness Movement’s Kindred Spirit Circle in May last year.

And 2019 will mark another major milestone for the initiative. A “convertible” barbershop-office, to open in March, will give the team a permanent space to provide free haircuts daily.

“We also hope to train people from different backgrounds, including ex-convicts, those with disabilities or at-risk youths…to be barbers to volunteer with us as well as to work full-time as a barber,” said Cai.

Volunteers learn basic haircut techniques

Sarah Ong, a volunteer coordinator for Backalley Barbers, has been instrumental in growing the initiative since joining the team two years ago.

The 23-year-old Singapore University of Social Sciences student was one of four volunteer barbers Yahoo News Singapore met at a session held in the back alley of Geylang in January.

Ong shared that volunteer barbers, like herself, sign up for a two-day intensive course before they join. They would pick up basic haircut techniques such as “scissors over comb”, “straight cut” and “shaver over comb”.

Each volunteer typically pays $400 to attend the course.

Armed with various haircutting tools, which are powered by electricity “donated” by nearby hawker stores, the volunteers would get down to work for three hours. To provide a soothing ambience during each session, they would sometimes play “oldies” from their music list.

Volunteer coordinator and barber Sarah Ong at Transient Workers Count Too on 19 August, 2017. (PHOTO: Geylang Adventures)
Volunteer coordinator and barber Sarah Ong at Transient Workers Count Too on 19 August, 2017. (PHOTO: Geylang Adventures)

Occasionally, the volunteers might encounter language barriers or awkward situations. During a session at a nursing home, an elderly woman with dementia had “rejected” Ong, and the encounter left her confused and helpless.

“I sought help from a fellow volunteer…so she assisted me and calmed the auntie down. We eventually realised she had phlegm that she wanted to spit out from her mouth,” she quipped.

The sessions have been an eye-opening experience for Ong as she learns more about her beneficiaries of different backgrounds.

“We try and engage them in a conversation because we definitely want to offer more than just a haircut to them,” added Ong, who is pursuing a degree in social work. ”Besides playing the role of a barber, I also play the role of a supporter.”

Ali Mamun, a 30-year-old Bangladeshi who has been working in Singapore for over a decade, was one of 25 men who got their haircuts that day. The site engineer had found out about the session by word of mouth.

“I am very satisfied with the haircut. I am very happy to find good people (like them). I will definitely come again,” said Ali.

More Singapore stories:

Championing caregivers of dementia patients through videos, graphic novel

Why I Play series: Water polo player Bryan Ong