Will Manhattan’s Chinatown Lose Its Barbershops?
I stumbled upon New China Beauty Salon back in 2016, when I was an undergraduate student at Columbia. Tired of overpaying for haircuts yet weary of barbershops inept at handling Asian hair, I came to Chinatown searching for a solution.
A dozen barbershops line Pell St. and Doyers St. The two winding alleys — that used to be the core of the once small ethnic enclave — now form a letter T at the border of the sprawling Chinatown and the city and federal government buildings. Like the rest of Manhattan’s Chinatown, walking down the two streets evokes the feeling of visiting a China frozen in time.
Most of these barbershops boast a neon sign in traditional Chinese characters, radiating bright colors against an austere background of white walls, tiles, and florescent lights. Inside the shops, recliner chairs sit tightly next to each other, with large end-to-end mirrors on opposing walls, creating a seemingly infinite loop of chairs, barbers, and customers.
Behind the nostalgic exterior of these streets, a demographic shift has for years exerted pressure on the barbershops. Their customers, most of whom are old-time Chinese immigrants, have grown old, sometimes too old to get out of their home for a haircut. With new immigrants favoring Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn for their robust network of new arrivals and lower rents, it means few new customers for the barbers in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
New China Beauty Salon has been around for nearly three decades, like its peer across the street, Yi Fa Hair Salon. Right next to the latter is one of the oldest barbershops in Chinatown. New Hong Kong Barber Shop, formerly known as Kue Jong, opened some 60 years ago. Despite the number of shops, the two blocks feel like one large clan, as barbers roam from one shop to another for casual banter, or to borrow the microwave for a hot lunch.
While China has experienced exponential economic growth, boosting its GDP from $360 billion in 1999 to $15 trillion in 2021, the barbershops in Manhattan Chinatown have remained largely unchanged. Back in Wuhan, the price of a simple cut has increased more than 100-fold, from a meager 20 cents in the 1990s to 30 yuan ($4.34). Yet the price less than doubled over the same period at New China, offering men’s cuts at $10 in 2022. In any other parts of Manhattan, a simple cut typically costs at least double that.
The most recent $2 price increase was adopted only after much consideration, driven by cost increases during the pandemic and the decline in customers, according to the shop owners Huang Dongming and his wife Jiang Fengming, both in their early 40s. Often in hoodies and sneakers, they are visibly younger than most of the barbers in the shop.
Yu Canyan, a long-time barber at New China, is in his 60s. “The money we make is barely enough to help the boss cover costs like rent and supplies, so we had to raise our price,” he says. After a brief pause, he glanced at Huang and came back with an embarrassed laugh, “Still very cheap.”
Yu has a slender build, and depending on the weather, he’s either wearing a blue shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, or a thin silver down vest. He was free the first time I stepped into New China so he cut my hair. And I have been going to him ever since.
The money calculation is simple at New China. For every customer Yu takes, he pockets half and the other half goes to the owners to help defray operational costs. The tips, to the barbers’ delight, entirely go to them.
Back in 2017, Huang and Jiang bought the shop from three co-owners. Two of the three still work in the shop, with their respective barber chairs stationed next to and across from Yu’s. Maybe thanks to the fluid ownership structure, Yu and his fellow barbers have an equal relationship with the owners. The latter serve more like co-op leaders than typical bosses. Barbers step up and down, as they ready themselves to take on more risk to enrich themselves, or to retire into a quieter life, with less pressure.
Behind the scenes, the couple share the ownership of New China with the owner of Kelly Hair Salon at the corner of Pell and Doyers, who had in the distant past worked at Yi Fa across the street from New China. And before Kelly operated out of 19 Pell St., another barbershop, Chung Wah Barber Shop, now located down the block at 7 Pell St., had been operating there for years. Ownership changes, or internal shufflings, are constant.
“Some people like to be their own boss, and have other people make money for them. Some people don’t,” Yu says. “We can’t only have one type. It’s not going to work.”
In his philosophy, everyone has a couple opportunities in life, and one has to seize them at the right time to make it. When asked if he ever thought about becoming his own boss, he responded with a timid smile, “I might have missed my opportunities already.”
Yu grew up in a family of barbers in Guangzhou, where his father and brother practiced the same trade. They lived in a 2-story qi lou, an arcade building fusing Chinese architecture with Western veranda style. Pillars stood close to the edge of the road supporting the floor above, creating some shade and guarding against the city’s subtropical monsoon climate, marked by heavy rainfall in summertime.
The barbershop was downstairs and the family stayed upstairs. Because of the small size of the shop, only one brother was needed to run it. In the 1990s, Yu let his younger brother take over, and joined the large population searching for work, driven by waves of layoffs at large state-owned enterprises. Many of these companies had closed down, unable to compete with the modern factories established with an influx of foreign capital and technology.
“It was very difficult to find a job, as the new factories required less manual labor,” Yu says. “Many of my friends remained unemployed for a long time, after their old jobs were gone. For a while, people were avoiding school reunions, because they were too ashamed about their situation.”
Yu worked for three years at what was then one of the largest soft drinks producers in Guangzhou, as a mechanic repairing equipment on the assembly line. But he soon found himself in the same plight, as the factory formed a joint-venture with Pepsi and let go many workers in 1993.
Following his sister’s marriage to a man living in New York, the whole family eventually emigrated from Guangzhou. Yu came to New York 26 years ago and has worked his whole New York life on Doyers between two barbershops, staying at one for 11 years before moving to New China Beauty Salon.
In Yu’s 15 years with New China, the couple Huang and Jiang are the third owner of the barbershop. The couple had already been barbers in Brooklyn Chinatown prior to buying New China in 2017. When they took over, they thought they could easily cover rent and other costs, if each of the 10 barbers made $100 a day.
But the pandemic that started in early 2020 outsmarted the new owners. With the emergence of multiple variants, the business still has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Most barbers only get a few customers every day. “There’s no point to plan anymore,” Huang says. “Just when business starts to get better, we get hit by a new variant. Now we just focus on each day.”
In addition to the pandemic, Chinatown barbershops have been hit particularly hard by an ageing population. Unlike restaurants and shops that benefit from the gradual return of tourists to the area, the barbers almost exclusively serve local Chinese residents, most of them senior citizens who are more at risk of COVID-19 and reluctant to go out for services.
“Many of the old folks are also moving into senior homes, where haircuts are offered, so they don’t have to come here anymore,” Yu says.
“I don’t want to paint a morbid picture, but many of the old customers are only getting older and they will die one day,” Huang says. “This business is very dependent on regulars, since there are almost no new customers. I can probably count with my two hands the number of new customers I have since I bought this place in 2017.”
“I had a few students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Chinese mainland come here on a regular basis, but many went home after graduation, or moved to a different city for work,” Huang adds, “so we’re back to zero.”
The dwindling number of older customers is mitigated somewhat by the increase of Chinese students studying in New York City, like myself, and the occasional patronage of a few non-Chinese folks, but these new groups are far from enough to reverse the trend.
As it is customary to get a haircut before Chinese New Year, I went to New China for my own the weekend before. It was a Saturday. The sun shined bright, but gusts of wind chased away the heat before it could accumulate.
The energy of Chinatown nearing a major holiday was palpable. Fruit and vegetable stands crowded Mulberry St. and Canal St., with throngs of people fighting their way in opposite directions. The usual 15-minute walk to the barbershop took forever.
New China was packed at 11 in the morning, a scene that I had not seen since its reopening in June 2020. A few customers sat near the entrance of the store, waiting patiently. The barbers looked up and down between the head of hair and the mirror to make sure their customers had the perfect hairdo to ring in the new year.
As more customers filtered into the store, Huang turned his head around every time, and within seconds recognized the customer and told them when their barber would become available.
“Most customers have been coming for years, if not decades,” Huang says. “I have only been here for 4 years, but I can recognize most of the old customers now. Just like yourself, whenever I see you, I know that you’re here for Barber Yu.”
At New China, each barber-customer relationship is a time-honored contract. When a new customer shows up at the door, multiple barbers swiftly get out of their chair and gesture to their counter. But once that relationship is solidified through a few visits, the other barbers would simply sit back and get back to their reading or TV series when the same customer comes back.
Yu had just seated an elderly Filipino woman when I arrived. Holding a comb firmly in his left hand, he quickly switched between the buzzer and regular and thinning scissors in his right hand, as he danced around the woman. Yu doesn’t speak much English, so conversations were carried out in succinct chunks. “This short, okay?” he looked to the mirror, seeking the woman’s confirmation. He paused a few more times, some more smiles were exchanged. And it was done.
As soon as he helped the woman out of the chair, he went into the back and fetched her coat. He held it, as she slowly raised her arms, and gave her a few gentle pats on the back, murmuring thank you’s.
There’s something comical yet reassuring about the honoring of good service at New China. Despite the lack of physical maintenance, betrayed by the uneven tiles and the broken faucet, the store runs an organized coat check from two makeshift racks, and offers an exhaustive list of services from shampooing to beard trimming.
As Yu was handing a few dollars to the boss, I told Huang it was nice that the store was so busy. He smiled, as he hunkered down and taped together a power strip that was falling apart. “Chinese New Year is definitely the busiest time for us,” he says. “But we were making over a thousand dollars every day right before the New Year, but now we make less than half of that. I will just have to shut it down if the landlord is not willing to continue the rent reduction.”
Huang had been notified a few days earlier about a potential rent increase. New China wouldn’t be the first to close because of rent issues. Just across the street, Baishi Beauty Salon shut down before the pandemic, as the building changed hands and the new landlord didn’t want to lease out the space for the same price.
A similar fate befell the shop next door, Hong Kong Barber Shop, at 19 Doyers St. In its place, a coffee shop might be planned, according to a barber working at Yi Fa, the shop right across Doyers.
The customers at Chinatown’s barbershops are not the only ones who are aging. Yu and most of his colleagues are old enough to be grandparents, and it’s only a matter of time before the majority of them will retire.
In a community marked by decades of shared history and language, in this case Cantonese, it would be extremely difficult for a Mandarin-speaking newcomer to carve out a substantial customer base. By contrast, new barbers arriving in the city would have a much easier time finding new customers in Flushing, Queens, where Mandarin reigns and haircut trends from Asia spread faster.
“When I first came here, everything was great. Business was good for everyone: barbershops, restaurants, and grocers. Things were a lot more concentrated in Chinatown. And people came from afar to get what they needed,” Yu says, reminiscing about the heyday of Manhattan’s Chinatown.
The status of the Manhattan Chinatown as the epicenter of Chinese life in New York has long been on the decline, with the satellite Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn now boasting a much larger Chinese population. In the 197 neighborhoods that make up the five boroughs of New York City, the three neighborhoods comprising the bulk of Manhattan Chinatown are the only three to see a negative change of over 5% in their Asian population, according to the 2020 census.
“It’s quite obvious that the number of barbers and hair stylists is far bigger on Eighth Ave in Brooklyn and in Flushing than they are here because our numbers are simply not here,” says Wellington Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown Partnership. The nonprofit aims to improve the economic viability of Chinatown through services like street cleaning and information kiosks for tourists.
“I have never lived in Manhattan Chinatown since moving here in 2009. It’s convenient for work, but rent is high and the living conditions are not great either,” says Jiang, the co-owner of the shop.
“9/11 was a turning point in the history of the Manhattan Chinatown,” says Van Tran, an immigration scholar and urban sociologist who studies the integration of immigrants at the Graduate Center of CUNY. “With the revival of the Battery Park, and all of the adjacent neighborhoods, Chinatown really started experiencing the first wave of gentrification.”
The City pursued an aggressive policy of opening up to the global elite and investment to boost its economy after 9/11, but at the cost of its working-class neighborhoods, according to Tran. He considers the current decline of the barbershops as largely “inevitable,” as we’re merely observing the consequences of a neighborhood transformation set in motion decades ago.
“The Chinatown that we used to know will no longer be. That is just the way it is. But at the same time, I think a lot of people don’t realize that one thing about neighborhoods in New York City is that there’s only one constant and that is change,” Tran adds.
Not everyone sees gentrification as the main challenge facing the community. The lack of new residential units and insufficient resources to keep up the infrastructure also contribute to the fading appeal of the Manhattan Chinatown.
“People are so fearful about doing anything down here,” says Chen, the director of the Chinatown Partnership. “In the historic core Chinatown, we have not been building housing in the last 50 years.”
“No one comes to America to live in tenement buildings. Many of the buildings have no elevator, no fire escape. Home Depot does not deliver to the top floor and you will have to carry appliances and furniture up yourself. People vote with their feet. That’s why the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians all left,” Chen adds.
Chen believes that the government can play a more active role in increasing housing capacity and improving infrastructure in Chinatown. Most of the large-scale housing projects in Chinatown were at least partially funded by the government, including the Confucius Plaza Apartments, with the help of the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program in the 1970s.
To address the deteriorating infrastructure, government subsidies can help landlord defray the costs of fixing their gas pipes, boilers, and windows, rather than rely solely on rent from their ground floor tenants, where they have more leeway to charge up compared to the often rent-stabilized or rent-controlled units upstairs.
Despite the ongoing debate on the forces altering Manhattan Chinatown’s landscape, the barbers seem willing to concede their places to whatever the future holds. There’s no good colloquial Chinese translation of gentrification, likely because similar debates remain peripheral to the government’s obsession with development. When I described the disappearance of old shops and in their stead the arrival of new and oftentimes non-Chinese stores in Chinatown, Yu seemed rather calm and almost thought of it as the natural course of things.
“Our young people are moving out anyways,” Yu says. Whenever the topic turns to the younger generation, he couldn’t help but mention his great-nephew who now works as a software engineer at a real estate company specializing in flexible workspace.
“He just made five digits from his year-end bonus alone,” he says with a laugh. I could hear the pride in his voice, but also an ounce of sadness, maybe because of the opportunities he had missed in his own life.
As I was leaving the store that day, a middle-aged man came in. He seemed new, which meant he was up for grabs. The barber sitting next to Yu stopped mid-bite and motioned him to his chair.
Xiong Yang is an independent journalist and a former management consultant based in New York City. His work focuses on immigration, the food industry, and the intersection of the two. He is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School, and the recipient of the 2022 Louis Winnick Prize for Reporting on NYC.
(Header image: The external view of the New China Beauty Salon, Manhattan, March 2022. Courtesy of Xiong Yang)