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Star Hairdressing Salon - Part 1 - Star Logo
This Star logo is engraved on the 5 foot way of the Old Town, right in front of the entrance door of Star Hair Dressing Salon; it is of significant importance in the history of the existence of the shop. It is also an interesting point to note as one takes a heritage walk around trhe streets of Ipoh. On our behalf, Peter Shaoming Wang visited the shop to research the history and take photographs. Here is his story.
" Star Air-Conditioned Hair Dressing Salon, 97 Belfield Street (now Jalan Sultan Yussuf) IPOH 30000
"My friend," he gravely began almost at once, "I am a 4th generation barber with proud roots reaching back to India. I have been working here since 1953, when as a young man of 13, I joined Star Hair Dressing Saloon as an apprentice. I've been given notice by the property owner and feel very sad that we have to go after 84 years. But I realize that everything must come to an end."
I was talking to Thirunavu Karasu a/l Krishnan, 1 of 2 barbers still manning the hair dressing saloon where I had my hair cut in the 50's, when I was just a kid. Stepping inside for the first time since I left Old Town 1959 to live in Pinji Park, I am not surprised that it looked pretty much as I remembered it.
There were the slightly tilted mirrors that ran the length of the shop on the right wall. The opposite set stopped just short of the two gorgeous vintage ceramic basins that announced "Armitage VITREOUS CHINA" in no uncertain terms. And they were in pristine condition too, with not even a hairline crack in them!
That wasn't the only surprise. Thirunavu - or Thiru as I called the genial septuagenarian - readily showed me around and demonstrated a hair dryer and an electric hair trimmer, both in working condition, albeit a little rusty in places.
"Come, look at the remaining chairs we have," Thiru called out. "Take a look at the foot rest, and tell me what you see." I squinted at the grey embossed letters - by now worn down -in the cast iron frame, and manage to make out TOKYO - TAKEHANA CO - KURAMAE.
"What is the word kuramae doing on a barber's chair?"
"Now, I have a story to tell you. A Japanese lady happened to walk in one day on a heritage trail and told me that kuramae means 'as strong as a sumo wrestler'. Isn't that apt? And the chairs were assembled by local workers lead by a Japanese engineer who came down with the crates of parts."
I swivel towards the back wall, "I vaguely remember those curious slots cut into the drawer fronts on this cabinet."
"The day's takings are kept here," he replied, unlocking one of the drawers and pulling it halfway out. "Each barber was given a compartment into which the customers' payment was inserted. The change is retrieved from a cash pool and reimbursed to the customer."
Opening a paper file showing daily takings, Thiru continued, "Records were carefully kept, and at the end of the month, each barber would be entitled to a salary plus food and laundry allowance, while the boss kept the rest. Later, a more equitable system enabled the sharing of takings with the barbers.
"We once had as many as 14 barbers, and they lived in the shop, as I did. I used to go to the market every day for fresh supplies, and a cook would prepare the meals in a kitchen upstairs.
"You must have been very motivated then?" I prompted.
"You might say that," he smiled at the compliment. "I was studying at St Michael's down the road and would come here after school to pick up the skills I needed. When I married, my family lived upstairs and 1 of my 2 sons now runs a barber shop in the city. He's now a 5th generation barber," he proudly proclaims. "The other son is an architect working for a private practice in the city. while my daughter teaches at Raja Perempuan school down in Chung Thye Phin Road."
By now quite piqued, I asked, "What was it like when the business first started in 1927, as it says on the roll-up shades in front?"
"Ah... Star saloon was started by my father's brother-in-law Megarai Karuppiah with just 2 barbers - my uncles Katchiappan and Manickam - and shared the premises with a Japanese tailor. There was no electricity supply then, and someone would provide cooling with a punkah. After 2 years my uncles were joined by my father Krishnan, eldest brother Marathumuthu and the youngest Ratnam. The next year, the tailor left, so we took over the other half of the shophouse and bought ceiling fans for the comfort of the customers."
"Then in 1954, a ducted air-conditioning system was installed; but running it for 10 hours non-stop daily led to continual breakdowns, so it was dismantled in 1965 and replaced by 3 window air-cond units. You can still see 1 of the original air dispersal outlets," he said, pointing at the ceiling. "That year we stopped offering hair dyeing after having done so since the Japanese surrender 1945. It took too much time."
"We even had wet shampoo (wash and blow-dry) or 'dry' shampoo (rub with lotion and blow-dry) but nowadays, the younger male customers would rather go to the spanking new premises in the malls. You know why of course : there are pretty young girls to massage their scalps as well as their egos," Thiru grinned cheekily.
How things have changed over time. I vividly recall I had to perch on a wooden plank placed across the arm rests of the barber chair. The planks are still around, and you may find them propped up on the wall near the basins, though they are now padded for comfort.
As I take a last nostalgic look around, I zoom in on a framed photograph hung from the top edge of the mirrors. It's dated 1965, and a young Thiru sits in a lotus position at the feet of Dr Moreira who once ran a clinic on nearby Brewster Road.
"May I know why he was in that group photo?"
"Dr A W E Moreira was a valued customer who wanted to be shaved in his clinic. One of the barbers would take a short daily walk over to his clinic in performance of his duties."
"I see," I murmured. "The good doctor must have been a prominent Ipohite in his time, serving on several committees including St John's Ambulance, flood relief and refereeing at hockey matches. When I studied in ACS his brother M E Moreira (Mark Edwin Moreira) acted as discipline master, invariably wearing a stern demeanor that suited his role to a 'T'."
"Yes, those days are now gone, and all we have left are memories," Thiru sympathised.
Taking my leave of Thiru, I snap a few more photos to keep as mementoes of a carefree childhood spent running around the quiet streets and back lanes of a fast changing Old Town : one that has decided, in cavalier fashion, to uproot itself from a yesterday that the corporate world seems not to value and save for tomorrow."
© Copyright 2011 by Peter Shaoming Wang All rights reserved.
Editors note: What Thiru did bit tell the interviewer was that the business started, not in this Belfield Street shop, but in Hale Street. This original Star Barbers shop ws demolished when RHB Bank was built opposite the Padang.