Veteran barber Chen Youbao on his years grooming China's top leadership

By Li Ying in Xi'an Published: 2014-4-22 19:07:22

Chen Youbao, 80, grooms a customer at his barber shop in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province on March 15. Photo: Li Ying/GT

Veteran barber Chen Youbao knows best that for any Chinese politician looking to get ahead, just take a little off the top.

"I wouldn't ever cut too much off," said the spry 80-year-old Chen, sitting in his aging and empty barber shop in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. "This way it appears thicker, since they were always in the public eye or in meetings with foreign guests."

As an official barber at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a place which houses foreign dignitaries during their visits to Beijing, and later the Chinese embassy in Moscow, Chen gave stately trims and shaves to everyone from former premier Zhou Enlai to leader Deng Xiaoping.

And over his 60-year career, Chen learned what it takes to groom men for leadership.

"Most officials preferred slicked-back hairstyles, and they did not dye their hair," he said of his former clientele. 

"Today officials are more inclined to a side-part, and they dye their hair black," he divulged.

According to Chen, a haircut is part of a politician's branded look that rarely gets changed.

"Top leaders are less inclined to change their hairstyles because people are familiar with that image," Chen said. 

In neat dress and polished shoes, Chen stands in sharp contrast to the 20-square-meter rented and run-down space. From the outside, the only indication of Chen's past is a small sign that reads - "Shop of Former Barber at the State Guesthouse of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs." 

But as young urbanites flock to the growing number of vintage barbershops pop up in Beijing and Shanghai, Chen delivers the real thing - Complete with old-style barber chairs, straight razors and racks of electric clippers, the space provides a rare glimpse at a different era of masculinity, and what it means to dress like a gentleman.

Even more rare are the neatly-framed black and white photos of Chen alongside China's top leadership, all with smooth shaves and dapper trims.

But beyond the photogenic smiles are wounds left from tumultuous times. Chen's chapped hands and fingernails tinted brown from chemical dyes and shampoos hint to a fall that ultimately led to obscurity in the northwestern corner of a northwestern provincial capital.  

"If I had not given up my job in embassy, maybe I'd be in Beijing, retired and enjoying a life of leisure. Or maybe I would have been promoted to an official position. But I came back and can never go back again," signed Chen.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Born in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, Chen started his barber career as a teenager, a move that eventually landed him a job at the Xi'an No.7 Haircut Cooperatives.

"We needed to pass various technique exams and were sent out to observe the best barbers of the day in action," recalled Chen.

Young and debonair, Chen was handpicked to work at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1959.

At the end of the year, Chen was once again awarded a rare post abroad at the Chinese embassy in Moscow, where Chen trimmed and shaved the likes of former premier Zhou Enlai, late president Liu Shaoqi and leader Deng Xiaoping.

Once seated in Chen's chair, however, the most powerful men in China became just regular fellas in need of a good shave and a trim. 

"They were just as genial as regular people, sometimes even more so, and chatted with me as I shaved or cut their hair," recalls Chen, who often regales customers with stories of famous past trims.

"There was one day in October 1961 when I gave a haircut to premier Zhou when he was in Moscow for The 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He was very happy, and even conducted us in song together," said Chen, pointing to a group photo of himself with the premier.

"I liked Zhou's hairstyle the most," he said.

But applying a straight razor to the throats of China's top comrades can shake up even the most seasoned veteran. Chen said he was once so overcome with nerves while shaving Liu Shaoqi that he nicked the presidential neck. Understanding that shaving a statesman is a high-pressure job, Liu comforted him and said, "It was not a big deal."

Chen's life wasn't all smooth shaving. Tired of raising their family on her own back in Xi'an, Chen's wife pressured him to give up the job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1963. The couple later divorced.

Chen only talked briefly of the hardest years. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), his wife, embittered over their divorce, accused him of speaking ill of State leadership.

As a result, Chen was subjected to numerous struggle sessions and paraded around the streets of Xi'an. He had later to attend a reeducation program through hard labor in Yongshou county, some 100 kilometers away from his home. Chen did not touch a razor for a year.

Groomed for growth

Chen had returned to Xi'an in 1963 and worked at the Qiaozikou Barber Shop. When he finally decided to open his own in 1988, he quickly earned a group of loyal and regular customers because of his skills and outgoing personality.

"I've been a regular of Chen's for years," said 74-year-old local resident surnamed Ding, "Chen is very skillful and his prices are cheap."

A men's haircut goes for 10 yuan ($1.6) and 5 for a shave - the secret to which, he says, is all in the wrist.

"You need good technique and quality steel, but inspiration is key," said Chen. "A good barber needs sharp eyes, good understanding and years of practice."

Local media soon picked up on Chen's story, bringing his small shop some much-needed attention. Some went out of their way to find this hidden gem.

"I read his story in a newspaper, and it took me three times to find his shop," said one patron surnamed Zhang. "Chen deserves his fame. He's got a light touch, which really makes for a comfortable experience." 

"Now I get a dozen customers each day, and sometimes even more," says Chen.

Shaved and confused

Growing fame does not necessarily mean that Chen needn't worry about the future, as mirror-filled salons with a taste for the outrageous continue to cut out older barber shops.

"I would rather go to a modern hair salon than his old shop," said Chen Rong, a 26-year-old employee at a local IT company. "It's not that he's unskilled, but young people are into fashion, which is something that he might not be able to offer."

According to China Business View, an eight-stylist salon in Xi'an can bring in at least 50,000 yuan ($8,040) a month, while Chen brings in only around 3,000 yuan ($482.40).

Though the trend hasn't hit Xi'an yet, vintage-styled barber shops are making a comeback in China's more urban centers. Notable examples include Beijing's Two Face, which has served celebrity clientele from model Zhang Liang to writer turned racer Han Han.

In Chen's case, there is no lack of real nostalgia, only customers - for now. 

"I may stop cutting hair someday so she can take over the business," said Chen of his newly-hired apprentice. "But I'll probably still help out now and then."

Chen's barber shop is located in an old residential compound at Qingnian Road of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. The hand-written sign at the entrance reads "Shop of Former Barber at the State Guesthouse of Ministry of Foreign Affairs." Photo: Li Ying/GT


Chen flips through family photos on his cell phone as he waits for customers on March 15. Photo: Li Ying/GT


Chen trims hair for a customer. Photo: Li Ying/GT

Chen chats with a customer during a haircut. Photo: Li Ying/GT



Pictured is a group photo of Zhou Enlai (middle) and employees at the Chinese embassy to the Soviet Union in Moscow in 1961. Chen (third from left) is looking at former premier Zhou. Photo: Li Ying/GT


Chen (first from left) poses for a group photo with military officers at the Chinese embassy to the Soviet Union during the 1960s. Photo: Li Ying/GT


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