Good deeds and good snips
Apprentice hairdressers give free haircuts in Yangon’s poorest neighborhoods.
“Teachers told children to cut their hair but I could not afford haircuts at the salon. Luckily, they’ve come today” A resident of Ywar Thar Gyi
YWAR Thar Gyi in Yangon is split in two by train tracks. On one side of the railways every household has electricity and living standards are decent. On the other, factory workers are packed in powerless shanty towns.
Adding fashion to the injury, only one side has a barber. It is, of course, the richer one and it applies prices (K500 for children, K700 for adults). That, residents of the poorer side explain, is the cost of a meal for three. On their side, parents cut their children’s hair themselves (and often sell them to make an extra buck).
But since 2016 a team of volunteer barbers goes around Yangon to cut people’s hair for free. They’ve came four times to Ywar Thar Gyi, says Pan Pan one of the benevolent hairdressers. The 5-member team is not some sort of weird fashion avengers roaming the streets of Yangon; they are students who found an opportunity to finesse their technique while giving a haircut to those in need. “It is a winwin situation”, says Pan Pan from the Gallant Home Hair Training School.
That day the team had arrived just after school time. Plastic chairs were set ready at the station – with the approval of the relevant authorities, of course. The large majority of “customers” were students, but a few parents also took a sit and a snip.
For some, the volunteers are a boon. “Teachers told children to cut their hair but I could not afford haircuts at the salon. Luckily, they’ve come today,” says a mother of four.
For others, the volunteers are a welcome distraction. A 7-year-old once asked a volunteer to reproduce the hairstyle of his favourite football player. The rest of the audience stared all through the process, in awe.
Not only the volunteers learn how to finesse a hairstyle, but they also learn how to handle difficult customer. (It turned out that the wanna-be footballer had not asked his mum for permission).
Chan Chan is almost done with her three-months-training at Gallant Home Hair Training School. This is the second time she joins the volunteers. The first time she came along, she was terrified at the thought of applying what she had learned on rea l human hair. But after a first try, she realised she was fine.
“Customers” in Ywar Thar Gyi are more patient and their expectations are lower. But they come with a lot of other difficulties. For instance, she says, not all of them wash their hair ahead of the haircut. “As I combed their hair, lice were falling off,” she says while shivering with disgust.
But a few bugs won’t stop her. “Here I have fun,” she says. She also has a sense of reward when she’s done a good job.
Most importantly, she is building confidence. She’s also providing advice to newer recruits. “They asked me lots of questions”, she proudly says.
Additionally, the Buddhist members of the group are gaining some merit for doing charitable work. “They are doing good deeds,” says Khin Maung Myint, an officer at the station. As long as they don’t bother passengers, he is happy to have the volunteers coming and cutting.
Growing hair - growing needs Pan Pan, who is an experimented hairdresser now, had the idea of setting up this operation back in 2007 when she was learning. At that time, her professors sent here to blind schools to practice.
She opened Gallant Home Hair Training School but she wanted to continue the charity work. One of her trainee living in Ywar Thar Gyi informed her of the dire situation of the people in this area. She decided a hair cut would help the poorest gain dignity. Her team also goes to North Okkalapa and North Dagon, two other relatively poor areas of Yangon.
The first time she went there to seek for permission, officials feted her. Not only she was granted all the approval she needed, but she was asked to cut people’s hair all day. If it was a test, she passed it with flying colours.
Now demand for her services is high. Her volunteers only come when they have some spare time. What a disappointment it was when nobody showed up before Shinbyu, the ceremony where young boys are made novices (and for which a neat haircut is recommended).
Many in Ywar Thar Gyi went to the monastery and shaved for Thyngyan. The number of customers has reduced. Still, when leaving the station the day Weekend paid the volunteers a visit, a kid launched: “Please make sure to come next month.”
A volunteer cut a children’s hair, Ywar Thar Gyi train station, June 2018.
A volunteer get an uncle a haircut, Ywar Thar Gyi train station, June 2018.