Before the last of Hong Kong-made barber poles goes dark

2021.05.09

While most barbershops around the world are identified by an iconic helical pole of red, white and blue stripes, some in Hong Kong display poles consisted of different colors. Featuring green, gold, silver or yellow, the universally recognized signs are nicknamed “floral poles’' by locals because of their vibrant colour combinations.

Many of these unconventional barber poles were produced by local workshops. From over 10 workshops competing with one another during its peak era, only Wing Sun and Sze Mei Nga have survived to date. Wong, a 57-year-old craftsman from Sze Mei Nga, has witnessed this decline over his 32 years in the industry.

Wong tests a classic red white blue striped barber pole he just made
Wong tests a classic red-white-blue striped barber pole he just made.

The barber pole’s origin dates back to the medieval times, when barbers not only provided a haircut or shave, but also performed medical procedures such as amputations and tooth extractions. The colors red, white and blue represented the arterial blood, bandage and veins respectively. It is also said that during the French Revolution, people would gather at barbershops and join to take action when barber poles began to spin.

The hand built motor drives the magnetic field to spin the stripes
The hand-built motor drives the magnetic field to spin the stripes.
The sticker on the barber pole shows the name and phone number of the workshop
The sticker on the barber pole shows the name and phone number of the workshop.

According to Wong, the barber pole in the 50s was made of a cylindrical, red-white-blue striped glass tube, with a light bulb on each end. In the 70s, the glass tube has since been replaced with an acrylic tube to cut cost and the cylindrical design also became a hexagonal or octagonal cylinder, which was much easier to make.

Wong, who always has a knack for handicrafts, still finds barber pole a difficult trade. “You have to assemble all materials by hand, build your own motor and wind the copper wire into a cord carefully,” he notes. To him, building the motor is the hardest part. The motor powers up the magnetic field through the copper wires at both ends, driving the bottom iron piece to send the spine turning-like stripes rotating at a speed controlled by a manual push and pull button.

The barber pole s mould was handmade by Wong 20 years ago
The barber pole’s mould was handmade by Wong 20 years ago.

“When I started, the industry was at its golden age. There were so many thriving barber pole workshops,” Wong recalls. His monthly salary could reach as high as HK$20,000 (US$2,575), though not because of barber poles, as each only cost around HK$400 to HK$500 back then. It was the barber signage, which was often ordered to be made together with the pole, that contributed most to his income. “I could not even take a break as I had so many orders. It was the best time.” Nowadays, the price of a barber pole has doubled to HK$900, but he can barely make ends meet.

Some workshops used to offer free barber pole replacements in hopes to build long-term partnerships with barbershops as well as to mark their territory. As a result, barber poles and signages in the same district were often made by the same workshop.

The workshops have also got businesses from nightclubs. Instead of a board hanging at the storefront, old nightclub signage looks more like a display window. Behind the front glass window is pictures of the nightclub, decorated by mosaics of tiny glass tiles on a lynel fur background. At present, these signages can only be found at a handful of old dance clubs in Yau Ma Tei.

Without any new blood, the making of barber poles has become one of the many sunset industries in Hong Kong. While Wong vows to stay in business until retirement, he would dissuade any friends from joining the trade. “I do not feel sad about it. Everything will inevitably come to an end, once its mission is completed.”

To keep a record of this vanishing local craftsmanship, barber pole enthusiast Alan has looked for and videotaped all types of barber poles across the city. He has been sharing his video clips online, even indicating the location and manufacturer of every pole. He estimates that there are less than 400 barber poles left in Hong Kong, mainly in old districts such as Kowloon City, Sham Shui Po and Cheung Sha Wan.

When Alan heard that a barber pole master from Ngai Kwong workshop was going into retirement, he bought two poles from him, one of them is a hand-painted diagonally striped pole. Alan was so attracted to the pole’s imperfect pattern and uneven paint that he even added his own touch to it.

The two barber poles bought by Alan are either not rotating left or not glowing
The two barber poles bought by Alan are either not rotating (left) or not glowing.

From Sham Shui Po to Cheung Sha Wan, most barbershops have now replaced Hong Kong-made poles with LED barber poles from China. While these new poles cost only HK$300 to HK$400, they are not as unique or durable as the locally produced ones.

At the entrance of Janny Salon, a barbershop on Fuk Wah Street, stands two barber poles with red, white and blue stripes — one locally made and one made in China. The Thai owner of the salon says the colors remind her of her national flag. The Chinese one, which was only affixed two years ago, already has an obvious crack on the tube, while the Hong Kong waterproof pole has remained almost flawless for 12 years since the shop’s launch. These two poles are probably one of the typical examples that illustrates the difference between made-in-Hong Kong and made-in-China products.

The barber pole at Floating Salon in Chak On Estate Shek Kip Mei features a rare grid pattern
The barber pole at Floating Salon in Chak On Estate, Shek Kip Mei features a rare grid pattern.
The transparent tube of a barber pole on Kiu Kiang Street reveals the structure and parts inside
The transparent tube of a barber pole on Kiu Kiang Street reveals the structure and parts inside.
The eye catching red white striped barber pole of Ngai Mei Salon on Fuk Wing Street
The eye-catching red-white striped barber pole of Ngai Mei Salon on Fuk Wing Street.

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