By Annabelle Lee
My first time at Winnie Unisex Salon was as a 7-year-old.
I climbed into the tall, square rattan chair. Mom had taken me there to have my hair cut short, in time to start Standard 1 at a Chinese primary school (which forbade long hair). I stared at my reflection in front of me, realising my days of having my thick, long black hair adorned with colourful plastic butterfly clips were soon coming to an end.
Deep in my resentment I saw Winnie from the mirror, strutting up and down the salon. Winnie had multi-coloured hair, not in the rainbow balayage style people sport now – but a pixie cut dotted with patches of red, yellow, green, blue and black! It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Mimi, one of the young hairdressers, tapped me on the shoulder. She served me Chinese tea in a porcelain cup before placing a bowl over my head to begin my haircut. Or that’s how I remember it.
When I was 16 I was obsessed with the singer Corinne Bailey Rae. I wanted to have an afro just like her and ride bicycles in the sun. After saving part of my allowance for four months, I asked Mimi for a perm.
“Is your mom okay with this?”
“Yeah she’s fine, don’t worry. I have the money”.
I got my hair permed from root to tip that day while sipping on Chinese tea and reading The Malaysian Women’s Weekly. My parents hated it, and I looked more like a poodle than Corinne. But that was my first taste of teenage defiance.
A year later I was done with secondary school, and I was ready to take the next step. I got mom to drop me off at the salon on her way out to the bank. I told Mimi I wanted a bright pink dip dye. I got a bright pink dip-dye.
I punched the air in victory.
“I started this salon 40 years ago on January 1st, when I was 24 years old.”
Winnie, who turned 64 in March, invites me into the pantry at the back of the salon, where the hairdressers go for their meals.
“You know the rattan chairs in front? They were made by one of our customers, we’ve had them for more than 30 years,” she shows me an old photograph of the salon from her Samsung smartphone. She had hundreds of old photographs digitally scanned for the salon’s 40th anniversary party last month.
Her salon is located on the first floor along a busy row of 1970s-era shophouses in Ampang Jaya.
“When we started these mamak stalls weren’t even here! We’ve really seen this area change over the years,” she says.
She peppers her mostly Cantonese speech with English phrases like “you can’t have everything in life”, “you need to bite your tongue” and “as a team we must give and take”.
While she does not sport her signature colourful pixie anymore, all 5″ of her remains the same force of nature as when I first met her as a 7-year-old.
I have always looked forward to trips to her salon, I tell her. I recount all the crazy hairstyles I walked out with over the years.
“All our customers are our friends! We try to make people smile when they walk out of the salon,” Winnie says.
She tells me how she has customers who started coming for haircuts as young women, now bring along their grandchildren when they come in to get their hair done.
“I have had bad luck in life! I don’t have any children or grandchildren! You can’t have everything in life.”
Winnie never married.
“But I have been really lucky to have such good colleagues. I don’t treat them as staff but as zi mui (sisters), as family,” Winnie points to the other hairdressers eating their lunch in the pantry.
They laugh and smile shyly as I try to take a photograph. Almost everyone is dressed in bright pink polo shirts today.
“We like to have coordinated uniforms,” Winnie says as she shows me some group photographs they posed for in the past.
A lady named Karen walks into the pantry to hug Winnie goodbye before leaving. She has been coming to the salon for the past 20 years.
“Sometimes when I come, I even get given meals. Aunty (Winnie’s mother) used to make fried noodles and pig’s trotters for everyone in the salon!” Karen gushes.
Winnie’s mother has been lying down on a lan lou yee (lazy man’s chair) throughout our interview. Winnie took over the role of cooking meals when her mother lost mobility.
“You guys didn’t say anything about the noodles I made last week! I wasn’t sure if it was nice,” Winnie looks worried.
Karen says she had two whole bowls.
“Ah, that makes me happy,” Winnie says.
As a young woman, coming back to Winnie’s for a haircut still makes me feel like I could ask for anything.
And from time to time, Mimi will check with me if my mom is okay with whatever I’m requesting.