Happiness is a haircut

What would Penang life be without the regular visit to the neighbourhood barber? Walking through swing doors into a dark shop, browsing greedily through worn magazines, and sinking into a swivel chair. The warm welcome from the barber uncle can be as familiar as the old streets are hot and dusty.

AS A CHILD, whenever I was in need of a haircut my father would take me to our regular Indian barber. I never understood why we always patronised the same shop. My remonstrations were always quickly dismissed, “We’re going to Uncle Goonalam’s.”

Our visits to Goonalam Vadiveloo’s became a monthly ritual right up till my secondary school years whenever my hair became unkempt. Having my hair cut at Goonalam’s came instinctually. Like my father and brother before me, Goonalam was the only man I knew and trusted to cut my hair.

Today, I found myself at the doorstep of Goonalam’s barbershop and it still stood the same way I remember it, except for the missing trademark barber’s pole that hung outside years ago. He greeted me the same way, “You are Francis’s boy, aren’t you?” I nodded meekly and felt a tinge of shame. I hadn’t had my haircut there in ages.

The interior of the shop looked very much the same: large wide mirrors that flank the walls, the chair arrangement, the silent figure of Lord Ganesh residing on a table, and the comics and magazines that I thumbed through while my hair was being snipped years ago. “Yeah, you liked to read those. Many kids still do,” he observed. “They sometimes even doze off when having their hair cut.”

Children today do not dream of being a barber so I wondered what his story was like.

“I wasn’t good at studies,” the 61-yearold Goonalam said frankly. “And I never thought of becoming a barber either. I had been working as a petrol station attendant for a week when a colleague asked me about my parents’ trade. I told him that my father was a barber, as were my uncle and grandfather. He advised me to pick up the trade as I would be earning more than what I was doing then,” he chuckled at the memory.

“I became very keen about the idea of running my own business and being my own boss. I then learned the tools of the trade from my uncle by simply observing him and practising. I was 15 years old then.”

Goonalam started off his career by working at his grandfather’s shop in Pulau Tikus. He then plied his trade off the Tanjung Bungah main road for a while before permanently relocating to his current location in Jalan Concord. There he has been for the last 32 years.

“Many good things have happened here and I have many friends and regular clients from the neighbourhood,” he reminisced. Goonalam has lived a relatively comfortable life and seen his children grow up to be married and successful in life. “I now have six grandchildren,” he beamed proudly.

The initial start-up period, according to Goonalam, wasn’t very encouraging but after six months of toil business picked up through word of mouth. An average of 20 to 30 customers a day is now a norm for Goonalam.

“I am at my busiest during the weekends and during the holiday seasons. I only get to relax a little on weekday afternoons.

“I normally employ the services of an assistant during the weekends when his shop is closed. In fact my assistant is now a successful barber in his own right in Batu Ferringhi,” he said with fatherly pride.

“However, the life of a barber is not very attractive for the younger generation. My son would rather be an accountant!” he joked. “But I am proud of him. He received a better education and wants to seek a better career. I have no complaints about that, and I am happy for him.”

Though getting help may be more difficult these days, Goonalam refuses to employ foreign barbers from India. “I will never do that,” he said firmly. “They have made it difficult for local Malaysian barbers to earn a living. It is a big problem. Because these foreign workers are employed by a Malaysian employer and paid lowly, these shops can afford to charge a lower rate.”

Though new hair salons are now popping up all across the island, tempting the hip and trendy with sleek interiors and sophisticated equipment for the latest in cuts and styles, Goonalam does not see them as a threat.

“I don’t see them as competitors at all. In fact, I like them. I think they are very good in what they do. I think many people need their services.

“We barbers, on the other hand, like to keep things cheap, clean and simple. We cater to a different type of clientele. Not many people wanting a simple haircut would go to a hair salon when barbershops can do the same at a fraction of the cost,” he said matter-of-factly.

Goonalam’s clientele cuts across ethnic and social strata, and he regularly receives customers from as far away as Paya Terubong, Relau and Green Lane. During holiday seasons, old friends and clients from abroad who are back for the holidays would stop by for a chat and haircut at Goonalam’s. “We are almost like family!”

So what makes them come back time and time again?

“I think I do a good enough job and…” but before Goonalam could finish, a customer interjected, “Don’t be so humble, Goona. It’s because he does an admirable job. Goonalam is a professional. He consistently gives quality service.”

Goonalam, a little abashed, pointed and murmured to me, “He’s one of my old regulars. Nearly 20 years now.”

Goonalam has even won over some of Malaysia’s important and famous personalities. This is evident from a picture of the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu receiving a haircut from Goonalam which he couldn’t wait to show me, and he even regaled me with a tale of how he would be picked up with his bag of tools by a driver and taken to the residence of Tunku Abdul Rahman to cut his hair in his younger days.

“It truly gave me a sense of honour and pride that I was able to give these people a simple haircut.”

On the secret to becoming a good barber: “Being a successful barber doesn’t entirely rest on how skilled one is with a pair of scissors or a razor. A great deal of it depends on the ability of the barber to engage his clients in conversation. The barber must be a good listener and engage in conversation.”

Being a barber has not only given Goonalam skills with scissors and an eye for detail, but made him a patient observer and skilled listener.

“Just like a good bartender, I will listen to my customers’ tales attentively because sometimes they just want someone who will listen to them. Sometimes I will enthral them with my own stories too,” he laughed.

On the future of the profession: “I think barbers are here to stay. It is unfortunate that not many people are taking up the trade. They often cite ‘the long working hours’ as a turnoff . But everyone needs a haircut and not everyone can afford a cut at a modern salon,” he said.

He continued, “I have learned the value of observation, patience and becoming a good listener. It has also enabled me to afford the education of my children and give us a comfortable life. I was able to meet many people from all walks of life and learn invaluable lessons from them.”

With some hesitance he added, “I don’t know how long I can continue being a barber though. It has given me and my family many good and long lasting memories. But my son does not want to pick up the trade. I don’t know what I will do with this shop; maybe I will rent it out or sell it when the time comes.

“But even after I retire, I will fulfil my commitment as the family and neighbourhood barber to my regulars to keep the strands in order – I’ll just have to pack my tools and pay them a personal visit.”

Daniel Lee is a research officer with seri and a full-time explorer and self-indulgent hobbyist.

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