“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” – Sigmund Freud
“Some of the worst mistakes in my life were haircuts” – Jim Morrison
When I was young, daring, invulnerable and stupid, I did a fair amount of traveling on my own in Asia. My folks had encouraged it, as my life in Quebec had produced a walking banana or a Chinese kid who is yellow on the outside but white on the inside. I had wholeheartedly embraced my Canadian heritage, with little or no knowledge of my Chinese roots and admittedly didn’t even think of myself as an Asian kid. So, when the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore came up, I didn’t hesitate (much). I thought it would be fun, and in a time before the internet, it would be interesting to explore new lands and places that I’ve seen only in James Bond movies and the Noble House mini-series (ironically starring a young Pierce Brosnan).
Well, the novelty quickly wore off and then some. Being of a northern climate, the 30+C temperatures roasted me alive during the day, and the intense humidity made me gasp for breath. Worse, all of these areas seemed to have been extremely influenced by the West that made it indistinguishable from some southern cities, just with way more Asians.
Of course, that’s not true. There’s a lot of little subtle differences here and there if you’re willing to look and listen. Some of even funny as heck, really. Go to a Pizza Hut in Hong Kong around lunch time on the weekend. They offer a set price for a bowl of salad, as much as you can fill from their salad bar for a few bucks. On the weekends, you’ll see some of the most astounding acts of balance and scale ever, as ever growing 3 or 4 foot high salad towers arise from these bowls, with a starved group of students waiting in the booth for the salad acrobat to bring his creation over to. Heck, look at the pizzas too, as scrambled eggs and scallions has their places of honour next to the pepperoni with extra cheese. It’s the little things, where the West swamped them with our culture, and they turned around and made some tweaks to make it their own.
And this is where I come in. I had spent a few months in Taiwan at the time, but having the mandarin language skills of a deaf-mute, I had to take a LOT of things on faith that it was identical to Canada. Most of the times, being the seasoned traveler I was, I really kinda winged it most of the time. Worse, I was guilty of a common traveler’s crime, that is, when encountering people of another culture who had no clue what the heck you’re saying, you repeat your questions over and over in English, but LOUDER. Needless to say, I don’t think I really endeared myself to a lot of the locals.
Well, it had been months since I landed, but not knowing where my usual sources of useful services could be found, I hadn’t cut my hair in ages. It was getting pretty bad, so I kept an eye out for hair salons and the like. And it’s with total abandon and boyish glee that I ran over to the first barber pole I saw.
Before I go on, I have to explain a little bit about Taipei’s famous Snake Alley or Huaxi Street Night Market. It’s a tourist wonderland, filled with some of the most awesome clothing, music and trinket deals, and some of the best street food on the planet (really recommend the oyster omelet!). It’s also famous for it’s delicacy of snake blood and urine, mixed in a alcoholic aphrodisiac, and for being a den of sin and villainy to some extent. Being the person who I am, I couldn’t resist exploring it alone. (Yes, as I mentioned, I was young, invulnerable and stupid indeed.)
When I saw the barber pole. I saw it as a lucky event as what were the odds to find a barber in a place like this? I quickly ran through the door and hoped there wasn’t too much of a line up. There wasn’t… in the front. In fact, in the reception, there was no one at all.
The room was quite unremarkable. While everything seemed to be made of a dark wood with a dingy layer of dust everywhere, there were the customary barber chairs and mirrors, a little cash, and a curtained door in the back. Lighting didn’t seem to be all too hot as well, but as I was in a barber shop for the first time in months, I didn’t really care too much. I called out, wondering where the heck was everyone, when a young woman in a pretty tight dress walked out. It quickly became apparent that there was a language barrier, as everything she said was pretty much greek to me. So, I thought, might as well pantomine everything to show what I wanted done. I walked over to a chair, dusted it off a little (yes, warning bells should have gone off but I was again, young and stupid), sat down, and indicated to her that I wanted a hair cut with a few hand motions. She seemed to be a little puzzled, but played along and started to cut my hair.
Now, this was where things started to get weird. The girl was a bit apprehensive when considering that all I expected was a haircut. She seemed a little confused, and I just chalked that up to maybe dealing with someone who couldn’t talk back to her. So I sat down and let her cut away, wondering why and so on while it was taking forever. And things then started to take a different turn….
As she was cutting, I noticed she was getting closer and closer to me. In fact, within a few minutes, I would describe the event as practically intimate. With each snip, she started to rub her body against mine and I, being the catholic school boy at heart, was getting to be pretty flustered. Was this some sort of new way to cut hair?? Is this the custom? What kind of place was this? Needless to say, I was just speechless. I had no idea what to think about this, and would have jumped out and left but I didn’t want to leave with a half done job as well. Besides, it… admittedly.. was getting to be kinda fun in a weird barber shop experience.
Finally, over 20 min later, the ordeal came to an end. My hair was cut, maybe not expertly so, but decent enough to be able to walk around in society. The girl was still looking a bit confused, and was now trying to get me to get into the back room for some reason. Well, I hadn’t paid yet, so I thought maybe her cash was there and so I went…. into a back room with a few beds separated by curtains, lit candles, lots and lots of beads, the heavy scent of jasmine and more… It suddenly hit me, this wasn’t so much a barber shop as it was a BROTHEL.
I can’t really elaborate on what happened after, only that the resulting fumbling, really nervous English dialog and me giving her about $30 (no idea what it cost, but at that time, I wasn’t really thinking straight). I promptly ran out and hit a bar for a few drinks.
Here I was in Taiwan, a devout catholic kid at the time, and fairly naive in a lot of ways with no internet existing as we knew it. How was I supposed to know that in some parts of Taiwan, barber shops and poles were used not to indicate a hair salon, but a prostitution brothel! There were events like these and more, but this would be enough for this tale. My brother in spirit, Dave, reminds me of this every so often, and I keep wondering, how the heck did I survive my stupid years.