I hadn’t seen Wing in perhaps four years, but he remembered me when I came last week and silently motioned me to his chair. I explained I had not come for a haircut this time but would like to hear his stories so I could write about him. He consented, but only to answer direct questions and only if he had no customers. It is strange enough for a woman to patronize the barbershop, much less write a personal exposé.
Today when I arrive there are no customers, and Wing and his co-worker, Chau, are watching the movie In America. Wing suggests we step outside. Beneath the spinning blue, white, and red striped cylinder, we stand on the handful of steps leading down from street level to “The Old YMCA Barber Shop.” The building is a YMCA no more, but its location is advantageous for this barbershop, which still bears its name. Set between City Hall, the Police Station, Municipal Court, and Old Town Pasadena, the shop’s loyal customers include the District Attorney, office workers, and men in uniform.
I learn that Wing has been a barber here for almost twenty years. His career is articulated by licenses. “Before the barber, I do it for the ladies first. I have the license for the lady in 1983.” Cutting women’s hair was not satisfying, apparently. “No, I don’t like. Too much problem,” he says and laughs. “Sometime after haircut, they don’t like it. If men haircut, you know, they check, they like it. But for woman haircut, sometime after that they say ‘This too long,’ ‘This too short.’ Sometime they give you the picture. You need to make like the movie star, you know. You cannot do that! Sometime they care too much.
“Before [that] I work for the kitchen. I have the license for the Chinese cook. And the barber license, I go is the Long Beach.”
“But you must like cutting hair pretty well now,” I ask.
“Because long, long time, you know. It’s okay. I happy for that, yeah, because I from my country, I come here, the English no good. You cannot find that much job for the…need to talking, need to do something…something if for the hand.”
He is very thin and has more gray hair than black. Over a T-shirt he wears a white zip-up barber coat, trousers, and running shoes. His customary facial expression is almost completely unreadable. Before today, I had never heard him laugh nor seen the slightly impish smile.
After his parents’ deaths in Hong Kong, Wing came to the U.S. at the age of twenty-four. He joined his siblings in Baltimore, Maryland, but after two months of an East Coast winter he moved with his sister to L.A.
“So, that must have been a big change?”
“Yeah, lot of change. Because too old, you know, come here. I try go to the adult school in Chinatown, but after, if afterward you go there at night, you feel too tired and then you don’t learn nothing. I need to work. Need money for my life.”
Wing’s name in Chinese means happy. “Are you happy?” I ask. “Sometimes,” he says. We talk of other things, the kings in China 2,000 years ago, his experience of Hong Kong as a British colony, his admiration of Magic Johnson for being gentle. To anything I ask for which he did not have a ready answer, he says, “Next time.” “Later, I tell you next time with other book, okay?”
Periodically he points to (and ultimately taps his finger on) the list of questions I’ve brought but have not been referring to. Before today I don’t think I’d heard him utter more than a couple dozen words all told. Now, like tufts of freshly cut hair, his clipped sentences tumble down to me on the steps below.
“ And then, what, the kids? I have two kid…”
Suddenly, a burst of wind picks up and blows away my list of questions. Wing immediately dashes after it, to the near end of the building and around the corner, returning with it in hand a couple minutes later.
His days off are Wednesdays and Sundays. “I don’t believe,” he tells me, and sleeps through services, yet, though Sundays are one of the three busiest (and likely most profitable) days of the week, he has ensured he will be off Sundays so he can attend church with his family.
Wing nods in the direction of my note-taking hand. He has remembered that I had physical problems years earlier. “I still do,” I tell him. I came to Wing for haircuts (extremely short haircuts, as it happened) at a time when my income barely covered the rent, and it was a difficult choice whether to spend the $8 or, painfully, to cut my own hair at home.
I ask if it is difficult to stand up all day. He pulls up his pant-leg and pulls down a knee-high support stocking beneath his regular sock to show me the pronounced blue veins on his calf. He has stomach problems now, too. He thinks it is from all the years of not being able to take lunch breaks. Wing has many regular customers, but today business is slow.
We go back inside. Chau is finishing with one customer and begins on another. The room is small, about 15 feet square. Mirrored walls surround three barber stations and accoutrements, all of which appear to have been here since the shop opened circa 1960. Two of the five barbers employed here have an engraved nameplate and photo above their stations: the owner, Joe, and Wing. Joe later told me, “Wing is a gift from God. He’s honest, punctual, frugal, sincere…”
A black felt board with white plastic letters posts the services and prices. What are the Shave Fade and the Zero Fade? After their answers and gesticulations I think I understand.
I have always been aware this place is a men’s domain, but this afternoon I almost belong here; our banter is relaxed and fun. Wing asks if I would like a haircut.
Copyright © 2014 Clip of Wing by Donna Milton
“Donna Milton transplanted herself to Pasadena after college and has been a grateful participant in and consumer of the region’s rich arts and culture ever since. (Go, ECPAC!)”