Ensuring Malay barbers don’t curl up and dye

By Zurairi AR

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 24 — The rise of “barbershop” culture in the last five years has led to a mushrooming of such outlets, many of them owned and operated by young and aspiring Malays. Chances are there is one that just opened right in your neighbourhood.

Now, a group of veteran barbers has banded together to make sure that the scene does not die down with the hype.

Officially formed last November, the Malaysian Bumiputera Barber Association (MBBA) aims to elevate the segment both by providing skills training for barbers as well as protecting their welfare.

At the centre of MBBA is TN Winda Mohd Tahir, who has operated a barbershop for over a decade. He opened the Al Ikhwan Barbershop in 2004 and the shop still stands in Pantai Dalam today.

“It was in 2012 when the ‘hipster’ era started. Not just in Malaysia, but everywhere in the world, when hair became a trend. I asked, how can a haircut be RM20?” said Winda, as he related his first encounter with the barbershop culture.

“But it’s true, because it involves skills, techniques to produce a hairstyle, which takes some time,” he said.

Winda explained that there is a fine line between the traditional barber — called “kedai gunting rambut” in Malay — and the more modern “hipster” barbershop, which is usually called “barber” even in Malay.

He said the former tends to use rudimentary tools such as scissors and corded clippers, while the latter stocks an array of more hi-tech versions — cordless clippers, for example — and offer services approaching that of a salon.

These may include hot towels, for instance, or even facial masks.

Barbershops also tend to be more on the ball with fashion trends, and are better able to offer hairstyles such as the pompadour, quiff, side-part and slickback, usually with an emphasis on shorter sides that includes the art of “fading” the hair to produce a gradient of differing hair lengths.

The tools of the trade. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

How much for a haircut?

They also tend to charge more; a typical haircut in a modern barbershop can be three or four times more than in traditional ones.

Winda said this practice started with the birth of pop-up barber stalls in late-night bazaars dubbed “downtown” and “uptown” in Bandar Tun Razak, Danau Kota and Kota Damansara.

“In 2012, you could find barbers charging RM20 in such bazaars. There was no air-conditioning, but youths would join long queues just to get their hair cut,” Winda related.

While the experience was far from luxurious, he explained that the offering of trendy hairstyles not usually available at the barbers of yore led to loyal followings and the thriving segment that we see today.

The ensuing popularity also prompted many such barbers to open up shops of their own.

However, Winda noted that some were opened by aspiring entrepreneurs without barbering talent, revealing that several also approached him for prospective barbers.

“Without an association, the barbershop scene will turn gloomy and depressing. People will charge more, but promise no quality. People would open shop, but with no experience. Merely to grab profits,” he said.

One of MBBA’s goals is to harmonise the pricing at barbershops, which Winda said was now “rojak” due to the lack of standards.

He believed that price points — set arbitrarily high by some barbershops — could lead to animosity in the community if left unchecked and lead to customer disappointment if the services were not commensurate with the fees charged.

MBBA will propose a pricing structure that considers a barbershop’s location (rural or urban), its furnishings and its barber’s skills. While the average price will start from RM20, some areas in Pahang, Perak and Kelantan may only be able to charge less, such as RM15.

Another major issue concerning the barbershop scene is the welfare of its members, according to Winda. He said some owners and barbers experienced fraud and employment problems, such as unpaid wages and barbers who abruptly quit to start their own businesses, leaving owners stranded.

“Where can you refer these problems? If you have an association, then we know each other. At least we can be a medium. And to standardise wages for barbers,” he said.

Winda said local barbers mostly earn through either receiving commission between 40 and 60 per cent of the payment per head, or by renting a chair per day and receiving the whole payment, or receiving a monthly wage and receiving a lower commission per head — the last is the most popular.

TN Winda Mohd Tahir, owner of BlackWhite Barbershop, attends to a customer. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

What about non-Bumiputera barbers?

Winda said there are roughly 500 barbers now affiliated with MBBA. Its executive committee members also come from outside Klang Valley with barbers from Kedah, Pahang, Terengganu and Penang too.

Some are outright stars in the barber community. MBBA deputy president Syazwan Abdul Aziz, popularly known as Shino, works out of a shop in Shah Alam, but regularly does house calls for artistes and celebrities. Exco member Elyas Yunoos runs the critically-acclaimed Son & Dad Barbershop, situated in George Town’s heritage zone.

But membership remains exclusive to Bumiputera male barbers, leading to accusations that the union is racially-tinged when its professed aim is to unite barbering professionals.

“I’ve realised this from the start. But there is no existing group for Malay hairstylists. There have been for the Indians and Chinese for years,” Winda explained.

Currently, most hairstylists tend to join the national Malaysian Hairdressing Association formed in 2005, which is dominated by the ethnic Chinese. Meanwhile, ethnic Indian barbers join the older Malaysia Indian Hairdressing Saloon Owners Association formed in 2001.

School leavers wishing to enter the barbershop scene face a similar problem. Currently, their only option is to join one of the hundreds of hairdressing academies in the country — where the training is much longer than needed since it goes beyond the techniques deemed essential for a barber.

“In comparison, in countries where barbering is established, it has long been separated into two: Hairdressing and barbering,” said Winda.

Among others, barbering is simpler and focuses on men; barbers tend to specialise in basic and classic haircuts, sometimes offer shaving services.

Hairdressing is more extensive and creative, including skills like hair colouring for both women and men.

To remedy this lack of human capital, and so customers will get their money’s worth, MBBA also plans short- and medium-term courses for barbers to learn new techniques, ranging from one to six months.

Despite being dominated by men, he admitted that more and more women are trying to enter the scene as well as cater to both genders.

Winda denied the restricted membership is a deliberate attempt at gender discrimination, explaining that it is merely to provide focus to a fledgling movement — one that is currently struggling to regain control of the scene from the interests of hairdressing corporations that usually sponsor barbering events and competitions.

“There are two things that I will review. There are requests to join, several from Indian barbers. And for women too… There are many things we have to take care of. The effort is now to unite barbers across the country,” said Winda.

With more seminars, social gatherings and barber battles to come, Winda is confident that barbershops — hipster or not — are here to stay.

“This is not a seasonal thing. When it involves somebody’s appearance, men will always want to look handsome. There is no end to human desire,” said Winda.