The Haircut

By Anne Paton-Cragg

‘If you book the middle seats we’ll be able to see the subtitles better,’ Fiona suggested.

Subtitles? Singaporeans were always hopping between languages and dialects. English, the medium of education, was a lingua franca in business and social life, and increasingly used as a home language as well. Who would be needing subtitles? Certainly not our party of two Brits and two Aussies.

But when I returned to the Esplanade Theatre website to book, it became clear that we had unwittingly invited our new friends to see Macbeth in Japanese. Fiona, a literary critic, could probably recite the dramatic highlights in her sleep, perhaps even in Japanese as well as English.

I, on the other hand, could state with confidence only that the Scottish Play took place in a castle and had some murders and a ghost in it. I was going to need those subtitles.

Our new friends already thought I was an airhead and I had just proved them right. I wished we had stuck to our original idea of a few beers and chicken wings down at the local hawker centre.

On top of being erudite, Fiona looked like Coco Chanel. She wore sailor’s trousers and ropes of river pearls. Since I was not going to impress with my intellect I had better try to look nice.

My parched hair badly needed a cut, perhaps a deep conditioning treatment. A Singaporean friend recommended a stylist who could handle Caucasian hair.

I got the bus to Chinatown, where I had secured an appointment with Gloria in a vast, old school shopping mall called the Lucky Dollar Centre. I made my way through a maze of narrow corridors selling cut-price clothes, cut-price holidays, traditional medicines and so on. The salon was tucked away in a dingy recess on the top floor but, as I arrived, a middle-aged Caucasian woman walked out, sporting an encouragingly shiny bob. Gloria herself was smart, welcoming and friendly. She spoke English fluently in the colloquial Singaporean manner affectionately termed Singlish by its users.

‘I cut your hair dry,’ she explained. ‘Your hair quite curly, very fine. This way can see what doing.’

She advanced with a pair of enormous shears, recalling the illustration of the Long-Legged Scissorman in my childhood copy of Strewelpeter. Snippety-snap went the shiny blades. I watched in horror as she slashed off most of the crown section.

‘Cut short, make stick up. Look thicker,’ she explained. Too late to disagree and anyway I was speechless.

‘Now my assistant Shirley will wash hair and give massage,’ she announced.

Massage was a Singapore speciality, often administered by Malaysians who commuted daily along the causeway to benefit from higher rates of pay. Gloria herself was Malaysian, she’d told me, and so was Shirley, who now bustled to the styling chair and decanted a glob of green stuff straight onto my scalp.

‘What’s that?’ I ventured as she began massaging it in with a firm touch. A very firm touch.

‘Pardon me?’ Shirley smiled as she dug her thumbs in behind my ears.

‘What are you putting on my hair?’

‘This special treatment. Top-end.’

After ten silent minutes of vigorous rubbing with the strong-smelling liquid, which looked like shampoo, Shirley put some water on my head and rubbed it a bit more.

‘Now please lie down.’ She sketched a bow and indicated a medical-looking couch.

I lay on my back with my head over a basin while Shirley rinsed my hair. Now, I thought, she would apply a nourishing treatment to replace the natural oils stripped from already parched locks.

But no. Out came the same bottle of green stuff, and Shirley splurged more of it onto my head. Flat on my back in a remote corner of the Lucky Dollar Centre, I was too traumatised to object.

Another ten minutes of vigorous massage ensued before she indicated that I should return to the styling chair.

Gloria blasted a can of something at my head. ‘Massage very good your hair. Make grow better.’

Did Singaporeans not need conditioner? Some of the ethnic Chinese women suffered from hair loss, I had noticed. Could their hairdressers be at fault?

Gloria sculpted my hair into a sixties style, pouffed up with a lots of lacquer. ‘Look more full,’ she explained.

I put a tentative hand up. My hair felt crisp and brittle. I paid, tipped and left, thanking Gloria and Shirley.

‘How much did that cost?’ my husband asked.

‘Thirty-five dollars.’

‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘Not too expensive at least. You look like Myra Hindley. Rather disconcerting.’

There was no time to wash my hair again, thank goodness.  I comforted myself by raiding my stash of red bean ice creams before we set out for the play.

‘Have you had your hair cut?’ Fiona asked as we walked from the MRT station towards the theatre. ‘I wish I had your courage.’

Writer’s note: The names of the people and the shopping centre in this story have been changed, but not the name of the theatre.