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    Black Gold: The Fate of the Wig Capital of the World

    The long, black hair of young girls in Xuchang was once the lifeline for many families.

    The city of Xuchang, in China’s central Henan province, is widely recognized as the wig capital of the world. With more than 300,000 of its residents making a living at various points in the supply chain, the city produces half of the world’s wigs, supplying more than 120 countries. Thousands of metric tons of human hair are transported here each year. At the industry’s peak, there were roughly 20,000 locals working around the world collecting hair.

    The business dates back as far as the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). According to local records, during the reign of Emperor Jiajing of Ming (1521-1567), people here began to make wigs for singing troupes. Later, a local man named Bai Xi befriended a merchant who’d come from Germany to buy human hair, and together they opened the country’s first “hair bank.” They bought hair from rural merchants, combed it, tied it into bundles, and sold it abroad.

    These days, however, it’s getting harder.

    Black gold

    Xu Mengge, aged 11, has a head of long black hair that her father Xu Hai sees as a gold mine.

    She has never been to a barber in her life as she used to trim her own hair at home. And now her hair, in its most natural state, reaches down to her waist. It was so thick that when she tied it into a ponytail, it measured three fingers’ wide. Though there were lice and dandruff at the roots, the ends were silky and straight with no splits. On the scale, her hair pooled into a neat, compact pile.

    The village hair collector offered them a flat rate of 600 yuan ($89).

    Upon seeing Xu Hai’s hesitation, the collector unzipped his backpack, in which he’d organized bundled rows of hair for display. “Look, this is all I just collected. I’m an honest businessman: Her hair isn’t permed or dyed and it’s a good length, so 600 yuan is a fair offer,” he said.

    Deal. Xu Hai lives with his three children, including Mengge, in a village in Henan’s Xincai County, where women have long been selling their hair to bring in extra income for the family. In Mengge’s class, at least two or three girls have already done so. “The highest price anyone got is 1,600 yuan,” she said.

    1,600 yuan is already more than the Xu family could make from planting corn. Xu Hai has only an elementary school education. Both his parents and his wife died young. Xu himself also had major abdominal surgery, which to this day prevents him from doing heavy labor. He does his best to make ends meet by growing corn on their humble one-third of an acre of land.

    But Mengge was unwilling to sell. Although collectors offer flat rates to villagers, they give factories different rates based on the weight and length of the hair. An additional few centimeters can mean up to several hundred yuan in profit, so collectors usually comb the hair at the top of the head forward to expose the roots and make the cut there, where the hair is longest and healthiest.

    This makes it easy to spot the hair-selling girls in the schoolyard: They all sport choppy layers and have patches of their scalp exposed, making them look like mangy dogs. Sometimes, kids jokingly refer to them as laitou, a term for those suffering from favus, a fungal infection of the scalp.

    Xu Hai didn’t think it was that big a deal. “How much is being good looking worth around here anyway? If it’s that bad, I can always just buy you a hat,” he told his daughter.

    He thinks of his daughter’s hair as little more than a crop. “It takes time and care, not to mention money — just think of all that shampoo,” he said. At the time of the trade, winter was coming, yet all three of his children were still wearing flip-flops. He figured it prudent that they exchange vanity for warm clothing.

    Realizing he was unlikely to win her over, the hair collector decided to hurry off to the next village, but not before telling Xu Hai to keep persuading his daughter. “If she changes her mind, you have to sell it to me,” he said.

    Unbeknownst to them, the vendor was urging them to accept the offer because 230 kilometers away in Xuchang, where wig factories were in desperate need of raw materials, her hair could be sold for over 1,000 yuan.

    A crisis in the making

    On the streets of Xuchang, hair-related businesses are everywhere: Barber shops offer “high prices in exchange for long hair,” while wig factories stencil ads on walls and post flyers in windows.

    “Earning ‘black gold’ is simple: just pick up a pair of scissors and work the streets,” said Zhou, a Xuchang local who has been collecting and processing human hair for 13 years. He added that when he first joined the business with his uncle, all he had was a pair of scissors and a cloth sack.

    After he buys hair from residents and vendors, he washes it, untangles it, sorts it into bundles, and sells it to wig factories.

    Because the trade has such a low barrier for entry, wig factories and entire villages dedicated to collecting hair proliferated in Xuchang during the 1990s. They emerged as wig companies from South Korea opened factories in China due to rising labor costs and industrial upgrading at home. Xuchang took over as the hub of the global wig industry by virtue of its location and dense population, which provided cheap labor and abundant raw materials.

    Zhou recalls that in the industry’s heyday, there were almost no young men left in the village. They were busy collecting hair across the country, spending the morning in the eastern Anhui province, and then ending up in the neighboring Jiangxi province by afternoon. They were on the road almost every day, except during Spring Festival. It was good money. “At its most lucrative, our profit margins hiked up to almost 70%,” said Zhou.

    But this is no longer the case. The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a serious blow to foreign trade. Companies in Xuchang were unable to import hair from overseas, throwing them into a supply chain crisis.

    In 2020, Xuchang was home to 4.38 million people, with one out of every 14 people working in the wig industry. Competition was fierce as there were many players, compounded by the fact that e-commerce lets sellers compare prices much more aggressively, making industry profits more transparent. Smaller workshops that lacked publicity and regular customers could only survive through aggressive marketing strategies and price wars, which in turn made lives harder for their suppliers.

    Many locals had no choice but to leave Xuchang, trying to replicate the city’s tried-and-true model elsewhere in China. Populous provinces and megacities such as Sichuan, Hunan, and Chongqing are increasingly popular destinations due to an abundance of relatively cheap labor. Though Xuchang has yet to be dethroned as the wig capital, many feel that the days of easy money are gone.

    But in the view of Mengge’s teacher Liu Qing, this is not quite the heart of the issue.

    Fewer heads

    This is Liu’s fifth year teaching in the village. As she sees it, the underlying reason why the hair business is on the decline is simply because fewer people are selling.

    She was born in the 1980s in a rural village in Henan province. “My mother, aunt, and sister all sold their hair,” she recalled, adding that her sister’s hair would get the best price. The rule in the industry is that teenage girls’ hair is of the best quality. Many of Liu’s classmates also sold their hair.

    “Now that the rural economy has improved, parents are paying more attention to their children’s education and hoping that they will be able to leave the village one day for a career in the city. To keep kids from distraction, parents don’t let them grow their hair too long in the first place,” she said.

    Many children go to school in the county, where their parents work, to study. The schools often have stricter rules regarding hairstyles and clothing, which further lowers the number of long-haired girls.

    Zhou also feels the crunch. With each passing year, more young people are turning their backs on the countryside, and the only women left behind are middle-aged or elderly. Influenced by social media, these women have started to perm and dye their hair. “This is why we now have to procure hair from overseas,” Zhou explained.

    Now, Zhou can go days without finding a single bundle of suitable hair.

    “We don’t cut from the roots anymore, and we’ve started doing hair styles,” said Yang Cheng, a 37-year-old barbershop owner in Xuchang who used to trade hair as its main source of revenue. He’s been running the business with his father ever since he graduated from middle school. Back in the day, the hair trade was so good that they didn’t have to offer a wide variety of styles, so they only needed a set of the most basic tools.

    Today, the shop still looks the same on the outside as it did in the 1990s, but inside, there are now posters of the latest styles on the walls, as well as scissors of all shapes and sizes. “There are more people buying hair than selling it. If we don’t start doing proper hairstyles, customers will just go elsewhere,” he explained.

    Lately, Yang has turned to the internet in the hope of diversifying his hair supply channels. Both Yang and Zhou, neither of whom are very adept at using a smartphone, have learned to use social media platforms to promote their businesses, but with little success.

    The internet flattened the trade: Everyone with a decent head of hair to sell can easily contact multiple potential buyers to compare prices. Many demand that they be paid in advance and ask for a quote based on the video they send. “But it’s hard to ascertain the quality, weight, and length through a screen. Very often, we end up over quoting,” Zhou said. He has no choice but to adapt to the times.

    What worries Zhou even more is that many large factories in Xuchang now have enough capital to innovate, using synthetic materials instead of human hair to make their products. “It’s fast catching up to the real deal,” Zhou said.

    “When things get to that point, I guess we’ll just be out of work,” Yang said with a shrug. For the moment, he doesn’t have time to think about the future.

    The chop

    Mengge never sold her hair in the end. While she was still giving her dad the silent treatment, Liu happened to pay a visit.

    Xu Hai said, “Why do girls let their hair grow long? Taking care of it is so time-consuming. Why not just sell it and focus on school?”

    Liu seized the moment. “The point is not to make money, but to help the girl focus better on her studies, right?” she asked.

    He nodded. Finally, he let Liu take his daughter to town and cut her hair to shoulder length, giving up the 600 yuan that for his family is the equivalent of several months’ income.

    Reported by Zhang Yangyang.

    (At the request of the interviewees, Xu Mengge, Xu Hai, Liu Qing, and Yang Cheng are all pseudonyms.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in Xianwei Story. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Elise Mak.

    (Header image: Danijela Racic/VCG)