Zhou Junhua looks over the tattered mess of her hair salon’s stairs, shakes her head once, and then unlocks the door. The glass of the windows and doorframe has all been smashed out, bars and wires now the makeshift barrier. The interior is a dusty shadow of what it had once been. It has been tidied up, but signs of wreckage and age are evident in every corner of the establishment’s three rooms. After twenty years of peace, the last two months have seen four attacks by vandals. Most of the mirrors and windows have been smashed, virtually all of the salon’s equipment destroyed. Zhou extracts her last blow dryer and clippers out of her bag: she now carries them home every night.
Her once thriving salon is situated in Balizhuang hutong, a narrow hutong alley which once bustled with cheap restaurants, shops, and hair salons. But the hutong has recently been transformed into a wasteland of brick piles and dust. The Wuluju apartment building complex is to be erected where this historic hutong now lies, and most of the alley’s residents have sold their properties and cleared out.
A speaker system has been installed along the hutong, loudly repeating announcements for 12 hours a day. A man and a woman’s friendly voices urge residents to vacate the area. “Now, more than 80% of residents have signed the compensation contract. Yet there is still a small group of residents who want to take chances. They expect the policy to change, waiting aimlessly and refusing to sign contracts. We should all know that family problems cannot all be solved by remaining. Agreeing to relocate will change your living conditions for the better and raise the security level.”
The hutong was one of the last vestiges of “old” Beijing, surviving just outside of the city’s third ring road, a hutong where life had somehow escaped the thrust into modernity. But now almost all of buildings have already been demolished, only Zhou’s salon and a few others remain upright in the growing sea of broken cinder blocks.
Development may seem unstoppable, though a few have made highly publicized attempts to do so. Zhou’s salon is not, however, a “nail house” (a home that refuses to make room for development like a nail in wood that refuses to be pounded in or torn out). She and her husband have not once been approached by developers or the landlord about leaving.
It was 1992 when Zhou and her husband opened up shop in the hutong alley, at the time the only barbershop in the quiet lane. But by then, the second wave of China’s economic reforms were reaching all corners of the city and soon after all the neighbors were opening up their own businesses. Ironically, it was also at that time that the State Planning Department announced it was going to redevelop the area. “In fact, the street should have been removed years ago,” Zhou says with a dry laugh.
Zhou found herself suited to her profession, using equal parts hair cutting skill and motherly warmth to build up a loyal clientele. She gave discounts to children, the elderly, disabled people and soldiers. Most of her clients are blue collar men, but the full variety of locals employ her services from young professionals to prostitutes. Her full price hair cuts are still among the cheapest to be found in the capital: $1.60 USD.
Since then, her salon has done reasonably well for itself. Not only has Zhou cut countless heads of hair, she has also trained countless students in the skills of her trade. She built up her business until it had a staff of eight, teaching each employee how more than scissors were needed to succeed in this business. “Sometimes the kids would complain about unreasonable customers,” she reminisces. “So I told them, ‘All kinds of people exist in this world. As someone providing a service, you should fulfill your obligations. You should do your job well; otherwise the customers will definitely be angry with you. Why don’t they get angry with me? I always greet them warmly. This is our principle.’”
And Zhou Junhua’s haircutting skills are as renowned as her friendliness. Her apprentices prove her abilities as many of them went on to open up their own salons or to work in more upscale establishments.
But business has dropped dramatically since destruction became the neighborhood norm and the vandals began visiting. All but one of her staff have recently departed. Zhou wants only to continue on, and many regulars worry about her leaving. Throughout the day, neighbors pop their heads in to say hello and ask about the situation. At dusk, a crowd fills the salon, half of it waiting for a cut, half just coming to chat.
Zhou Junhua’s husband, Jiang Longtan, pulls out an accordion and places it on his knees. “I’m the one that paid for this place so we could open the barbershop,” he grumbles. “I spent 100,000 yuan on it. Now they want us to leave without a penny. Where can we go without the money? Now my wife’s about 60 years old and she can’t earn much money. We’re just not able to leave.”
Since the attacks Zhou Junhua and her husband contacted the authorities but found them to be of little assistance.
“I really don’t know anything,” complained Zhou. “I’m just a tenant. They wouldn’t explain the policy to us. Only the landlord knows about the issue. Apparently, our landlord has already handed in the keys, so the house will soon be taken back. He left without a word.”
“No one has ever said a word to us about any of this,” Jiang affirmed with a grunt, nodding his head to the wreckage about the room. “No one.” Phone calls to the landlord had been unanswered for weeks.
Zhou is unsure if she’ll be able to continue working in her salon for even another week. When her customers tell her they wouldn’t know what to do if she departs, she advises them to find a “roadside” barber who simply sets up a chair by the canal.
Zhou herself is wistfully wondering if she too may eventually resort to giving roadside cuts. Born in one of the poorest of Hebei province’s villages, Zhou Junhua began working after completing five years of school (“I am girl so I was not allowed to continue my studies at that time,” she says, matter of factly), and from there dedicated herself to her business.
“My families say that I’m a workaholic,” she says. “But I just love doing things. I wake up early, clean the yard and greet the neighbors. I have a secret belief that I’ll have good luck if I’m the one that opens the shop everyday.” But now even Zhou feels like her luck can’t hold out.
“I didn’t expect such a messy end,” she says with a touch of resignation. “People come and ask me who smashed my shop, if it was the Removal Office’s work. I can only say I don’t know. In China, it’s said that everyone is equal in front of the law, that there is justice.” She glances at an indistinct point outside of the battered door frame. “But I just don’t know.”
Hometown: Montreal, Canada
China timeline: William arrived in Beijing in 2007.
2007-2011 - Beijing. Teacher at an international school
2011-2015 - Beijing. reporter, and freelance writer/videographer
Most memorable moment from my first year in China: I once had to take an overnight standing-room-only train ride from Xi'an to Beijing. Highly recommended to try once, but maybe not twice. I was with the rest of the crowd, along with the garbage strewn out all over the floor, across the aisle, in front of the bathroom. After 5 hours of standing, nobody cares anymore. It's definitely a communal sort of experience.
Moment I realized China was an important part of my life: Back in Canada. I worked up north on a rather unhealthy First Nations reserve. High unemployment, alcoholism, family violence and suicide rate. Kids and their parents all hated being Cree. But actually the Cree tribe is extremely interesting with tons to offer. I wanted to tell those kids, "You don't understand your own culture." But then I realized I'd be a total hypocrite, since I understood zilch about my own Chinese lineage. Decided then and there to live in China for a few years.
My writing history: In Vancouver, I wrote for the Vancouver version of the Beijinger for a couple years. Mostly concert reviews, so I could get free tickets. Later i tried being a freelance writer in China, and quickly realized that nobody makes a living as a freelance writer in China.
One word to describe the process of writing: Reediting.