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The Renaissance of Hong Kong Barbershops

Sit back, sip from a glass of fine whisky, and prepare to have your beard coiffed, cut, and styled to perfection. As we discover, the art of shaving is alive and well in this city.

June 28, 2021

“Ten years ago, men used to just douse their face with water in the shower and that was it,” says Brandon Chau, chuckling. “Now, it’s becoming the new normal for men to want to invest in their appearance, whether you’re in your teens or up to your 60s. I think that’s a good thing.”

Dapper, clean-shaven, and decked out in an impeccably tailored suit, the barrister is an embodiment of the modern gentleman – one that, until recently, had been a relatively rare breed in this city. Chau is the co-founder of men’s lifestyle concept Attire House, the barbershop that has been credited with breathing new life into the craft of shaving in Hong Kong.

Tracing the roots of the craft to ancient Egyptian culture, when razors were made of oyster shells or sharpened stones, a visit to the barber was historically hailed as a rite of passage for young men and a demonstration of social status. Barbershops were the salons of the day – a gathering place for public discourse and lively debates for the cultural zeitgeist. Beards, signifying a man’s virility, prowess, and wisdom, were styled with great care. Intriguingly, the original barbers were also surgeons. “They could perform surgical procedures including bloodletting, cupping therapy, pulling teeth, and amputation,” explains Ball Ng, the co-founder  and head barber at celebrity-favourite Handsome Factory Barbershop.

While the practice of shaving has prevailed through many centuries, the artistry, craftsmanship, and social meaning have been somewhat lost to the ages, replaced by quick salon drop-ins and high-tech, time-saving electric razors. But times are changing. Even the most debonair of gentlemen (think Brad Pitt, Justin Trudeau, and Eddie Peng), months of travel restrictions and working-from-home have seen them sprout fresh coats of facial hair in what has now been dubbed “the pandemic beard”. Brands have reported up to a 40 percent rise in beard-grooming supplies, and men are venturing into barbershops looking to shave off the months-long scruff or cultivate it into a stylish beard – fuelling a revived interest in the art of shaving, which had been gaining ground over the past several years.

At the fore of this renaissance in Hong Kong is Ng, who founded Handsome Factory with actor and friend

Julius Brian Siswojo in 2015. To say that barbering runs in Ng’s blood would be an understatement. “My grandfather was an OG Shanghai barber,” he explains. “My grandfather, father, and mother all worked together.” Ng gave up his position as a top stylist at a reputable establishment to train “from scratch” in Toronto as a barber – with a clear mission in mind. “It was very important for me to continue what they had been doing and grow the authentic, classic barbering culture back to what it once was. I really wanted to see it happen in Hong Kong.”

It’s definitely happening. With a ‘quick, direct, and no gimmicks’ philosophy, the team at Handsome Factory specialises in beards, traditional wet shaves, sideburns, hair growth, and even hair and skin consultations to discover what suits each client best. A visit begins with a drink of choice, whether it’s a fine 18-year-old whisky from The Glenlivet or a cold glass of Stella Artois, and the attention to detail lasts until the last dab of aftershave balm. “A lot of men don’t take care of their facial hair properly; they think just having it is all they need,” says Ng, who himself sports an impressive moustache. “Plus, not everyone, especially Asians, can grow it fully or know how to maintain it properly. A good barber can find the shape for you that highlights your best features.”

In five short years, Handsome Factory has joined the ranks of acclaimed barbershops like The Mandarin Barber and is frequented by the city’s in-crowd, including actor Shawn Yu, with regular pop-up collaborations continuing to promote the barbering culture across the city. For Ng, however, the soul of the craft goes beyond a technically perfect shave. “What makes a barbershop so special is also that it’s a place for close camaraderie of gentlemen that’s been lost throughout the decades – conversations that go on, and the close relationship you develop with your barber.”

A stone’s throw away, nestled within a 5,000sqft Wyndham Street penthouse, is another ode to the barbershops of decades past that has taken the city’s bearded masses by storm. Attire House, a men’s lifestyle concept that unites several of Brandon Chau’s favourite pursuits – grooming, classic menswear, cocktails, and cigars – under one roof, was similarly born out of the penchant for a home away from home for like-minded brotherhood. “I’ve tried many barbershops across London, Milan, Tokyo, and Seoul. The most important thing is the connection between a barber and his clients,” says Chau, who co-founded Attire House with Roger Chan in 2016. “The barber is almost like the psychiatrist; they listen, sometimes give advice, and build a long-lasting friendship. We only serve a small group of customers, but I would say that all of them are our friends – and that’s what we like about it.”

Precision, courteousness, and a service-driven attitude are found in abundance in head barber Roy Jeong, hailing from Seoul; he specialises in classic cuts (“taking 45 minutes to an hour”), beard designs, and the wet shave, which Chau describes as “the ultimate pampering for men”.

There’s even more that lures gents in time and time again. Brimming with old-world charm, Attire House evokes the decadent yet cosy feel of a gentlemen’s club from the 1930s golden era. A tailor shop stocked with suits, knitwear, and accessories from the finest of European bespoke houses including Anderson & Sheppard, Cifonelli, and Cesare Attolini (“household names I’ve always been a fan of”, attests Chau) flows seamlessly into the wood-lined barbershop, filled with soft scents from British grooming brand Taylor of Old Bond Street. The concept is one that places classic artistry and savoir-faire centre stage. “When a customer walks out of our barbershop, we hope that they’ll feel refreshed and confident,” says Chau.

That burgeoning desire – and acceptance – for men to prioritise their self-care has galvanised an industry that’s predicted to reach US$78.5 billion by 2025. With it comes a bevy of innovations (think CBD beard-care products) and boundary-bending trends (men’s make-up), but perhaps none has been more exciting than the rise of the female barber. In the UK, women in the profession surged from 10 percent in 2015 to 24 percent today, and Hong Kong is also seeing the craft shed its boys-only label. Case in point: the four women holding court on the Handsome Factory roster.  

“I think the character of a barber, rather than the gender, matters most,” says Kabe Chan, who was taught the craft by Ng twice a week after work as a shopkeeper. “Although some have said that female barbers add a more gentle, attentive touch.” With passion and skills every bit as thorough as their male counterparts, these trailblazers are forging a new path, though it’s not without its obstacles. “A client once told me he didn’t think women knew anything about men’s cuts,” adds Gloria Choi, who first joined the barbershop as Handsome Factory’s shopkeeper. “I had to patiently explain my experience to him. At the end, he walked out with a pleased smile. I was so happy to have proven my skill to him.”  

Despite rejection being a recurring theme, so is thick skin. “I’ve evolved from a shy girl to an outgoing straight-shooter,” enthuses Lily Zhai, who joined two years ago after becoming enamoured with a retro-style pompadour cut she saw in a magazine. Cherry Chung, the most experienced female barber at the shop, sports a breezy, textured bob and sums it up best: “Sometimes when I’m working, I even forget that I’m a woman. Not much is different; I believe that men and women are equal after all.” Such ardent passion is shared among a young crop of rising barbers – no matter their gender – who will carry this millennia-old craft forward for generations.