I was recently invited as a guest artist to teach and style hair in Chengdu with a Beijing salon group named Hair Code that runs more than 70 salons across China.
The offer was extended through Weiheng DU, who came to live with my family in Santa Barbara as an exchange student at Santa Barbara City College. “Duke,” as he now prefers to be called, ended up living with us for three years and became like a son to me. Most of the young Chinese that I encountered also preferred English names like Snow, Shine, and Sky that they had picked up from English-speaking rock bands and movies. The names were all a bit funny and cute when not too naïve.
Duke returned to his hometown of Chengdu more than a year ago and insisted that I visit. He is particularly skilled at networking and aggressively seeks opportunities, so he found several salons groups that were interested in my work. After some research and online submissions, we chose Hair Code as the best mutual fit.
I don’t speak Mandarin, so I carefully selected an outgoing interpreter named Nora with whom I was able to speak both English and Spanish. The thought of doing hair on clients without speaking Chinese was both exciting and frightening. Due to the creative nature of styling hair, I knew having a nuanced interpreter was to be part of my success. I have traveled extensively doing hair shows for various international brands, but working face-to-face on clients is more personal and requires cultural sensitivity. I thought Nora, who had lived in Mexico for a year and had an artistic outlook on life, would best be able to translate my humor, if nothing else.
The location of this particular salon was in an outdoor lifestyle mall, which intrigued me because it reminded me of The Grove in West Los Angeles, with cool space, great lighting, and a minimalist look and feel. Chengdu is full of skyscrapers, but this mall was unique in that it surrounded a one-story Buddhist monastery with interesting rooflines. The mall was built around the temples with the same architectural themes in mind and had outdoor cafés, with some offering trendy California cuisine.
The staff at Hair Code was very professional and attentive. I was immediately impressed. I was introduced to Lisa Lightfoot, an artsy New Zealander who has worked on great films like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as a wig designer and special effects makeup artist. She is now also on an adventure styling and cutting salon hair in China with the Hair Code brand.
Following a short conversation with one of the Hair Code partners, I was promptly asked to do a client’s corrective blonde-on-blonde color. The staff surrounded me, obsessively taking photos and videos of my every move. I believe they found my cutting style unusual because theirs is mostly robotic and mine is rooted more in a feeling and connection I get from the client consultation. Although they are technically very strong, I do not think they have yet developed their eye for unorthodox shapes.
The rush of attention I received in the salon prepped me for my next challenge: an impromptu appearance on a soap opera being shot on the floor below! My scene involved a couple fighting while I styled a client’s hair in the background. From the looks of it, I can only assume that they were the two stars of the oddly translating Tale of the Taming of the Husband.
That evening I was invited to dinner with Hair Code’s senior team. We had an amazing traditional Sichuan meal, and I enjoyed all the choices, except for the chicken feet, which I did not find appealing either in thought or texture.
I continued to work and teach at Hair Code for another two weeks. Every day was an adventure, for events in China happen quickly and sometimes without warning. As they like to say, everything and anything is possible there. Going forward, I hope to set up a more formal education program and bring some of their staff to Santa Barbara for a tailored curriculum.