How (not) to be a barber?

Reflections from the inaugural class of back-alley barbers.

by Danielle Hong

It’s not every day you get to murder the locks off a mannequin’s head in the name of volunteering. But for five weeks during after-work hours, that’s what the fourteen of us did — sitting at the stage of Youth Park, lining up our mannequin heads in a row while Ann lao shi (老师, Chinese for teacher), an animated and optimistic character, imparted her skills as a hairdresser to the often frazzled dozen.

The barbering course was held at Youth Park, with the support of Youth Corps Singapore.

Looking around each week, I would often find myself wondering where my fellow hairdressing students were from, and how we managed to converge at this present point gawking at our layering mistakes.

Some of us had managed layers like the J-pop nobody in our reference picture Ann lao shi had sent us via WhatsApp, while mine was starting to resemble dishevelled curtain drapes.

All of us had answered the Geylang Adventures open call to form a larger #backalleybarbers team, and offer our services to people in need, be it migrant workers around Geylang, or those living in homes for the elderly.

The learning curve turned out to be pretty steep, with specific learning points for each lesson. My mannequin, which I very affectionately named Ah Mui (but of European descent), first had a trim, then layers, before transforming into a J-pop prince with stylish waves. Then she decided to have a classic side-part, before ending up as a G.I. Joe.

Ah Mui and me.

Most weeks, I sat next to Robyn, who turned out to be a pretty serious weightlifting gym bunny. We we would swap sighs when Ann lao shi transitioned into harder techniques, but mostly encouraging comments such as, “It’s okay, let’s ask 老师 for help!” Together, we also amassed a large number of Boomerang videos of our mannequins flipping their hair back and forth.

Allowing someone inexperienced to cut your hair can be a real test of friendship.

While not thoroughly acquainted with each other, our barber apprentice club soon started to give each other hair trims as tokens of friendship. The more daring and zen ones, such as Ivan, would allow everyone to have a go with their clippers on his hair, while it was not unheard of to go home with a sudden fringe.

Ending quickly as soon as it began, we received our certificates one balmy night with old men rubbing their bellies at their lepak corners around the Youth Park. The thought of how far I had come from cutting off my Barbie doll’s long hair at the age of five almost made me tear.

The first class of #backalleybarbers!

The team has started to roll out volunteer shifts at elderly homes this month, and I’ll be joining them soon. During this giving season (and all year round), what better way to contribute to the lives of others than to lend them your skills?

To celebrate the 2nd anniversary of #backalleybarbers, we made a trip to Econ Nursing Home at Buangkok Green with other volunteers from Ann lao shi’s previous classes!

A Note from the Organizer

At Geylang Adventures, the key goal has been to bring people together through a series of initiatives, helping to spark the conversation and allow everyone (locals or not) to get to know the community that resides in this space. We believe Geylang Adventures to be a bottom-up initiative in changing social norms and perception.

Our next class of #backalleybarbers begins in March, you can sign up at the link here! 4 slots left!

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