John Wong applies an electric razor to the back of a customer’s neck and it buzzes in concert with a symphony of sounds in his Fan Tan Alley barbershop: the rapid snip of stainless steel scissors, excited chatter of a family waiting for their young son’s hair to be cut, gentle strains of traditional Chinese music. Outside the wood-paned windows, shoppers meander through the narrow passage that links Pandora and Fisgard Streets. An old woman throws open the door and greets John in a boisterous mix of Cantonese and English.
Fan Tan Alley hasn’t always been so lively. When John and his late partner Bob Wong opened the barbershop in 1985, the lane was a derelict alley in a withered Chinatown. Most of its eight brick structures, built between 1882 and 1920, had fallen into disrepair, the alley claimed by vandals and addicts. The barbering partners liked the alley’s character, though, and they rented space in the Ning Young building, owned by the Hoy Sun Society of which Bob Wong was a member.
Chinatown’s revitalization was in its early stages. Planners envisioned Fan Tan Alley as a Montmartre of studios and shops. In 1983, a handful of spaces were cleaned up and rented to artists. New Town Barber Stylist – named to contrast with “Old Town” Market Square – was one of the alley’s first new businesses. Extensive renovations followed. John remembers working in the dark for almost a year in 1986 as scaffolding extended the length of the alley, blocking the daylight.
Fan Tan Alley has a colourful past. From the 1880s until 1908 when the government banned the manufacture and sale of opium, four opium factories shared the passage with as many as ten “Fan Tan Guan” (clubs where the betting game of Fan Tan was played). The alley was closed to the public by heavy wooden doors at both ends; a watchman scrutinized visitors through a peephole.
According to David Chuenyan Lai in The Forbidden City Within Victoria (Orca Books, 1991), Victoria’s Caucasian community didn’t know the name of Fan Tan Alley until a police raid on a gambling den was reported in The Colonist in 1916.
In Chinatown’s early days, gambling was allowed, though the police tried to control it and periodically raided the gambling dens. By the end of the Second World War, however, the police cracked down. Customer numbers dwindled and, by the 1960s, only three businesses remained in Fan Tan Alley. In the 1970s, the buildings were condemned and their owners boarded up the doors and windows.
A few steps from the alley, on Pandora Street, John Wong launched his barbering career in 1974 at Chow Sing’s Mee Sing Barbershop. Named for the owner (Sing) in combination with the Chinese word for “beautiful” (Mee), the shop was a popular picture-taking spot for visiting barbershop quartets who got a kick out of posing next to the barber pole holding signs that read, “Me Sing, Too.”
John concedes that he didn’t intend to become a barber when he emigrated from Canton in 1968. The 17-year-old expected to work in a restaurant. In 1973 he was doing just that when he heard that Chow Sing was looking for a young man to take over his barbering business. After nine months of study in Vancouver at the Moler School of Barbering on Hastings Street, John worked at Mee Sing Barbershop for 11 years until he and Bob Wong moved into Fan Tan Alley. His customers are drawn from the tourist trade and people who live and work downtown. Most want a basic haircut and 20 minutes of conversation.
“I’ll talk about any subject, but I’m not too interested in sports,” John laughs.
His passion is music. During his early years in Canada, he studied classical guitar. Within a few years, he was teaching part-time at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, located then at Craigdarroch Castle.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he says.
Family responsibilities halted the music. John and his wife Kam were married in 1979 and soon were the parents of two sons, now in their 20s. The young barber put his guitar aside until the boys were older. When he picked up an instrument again, he chose an erhu.
“I love the culture of northern China,” he explains.
The erhu, a two-stringed folk violin typically made of rosewood, ebony and snakeskin, has been played in China for a thousand years. Its history fascinates John as much as the music he coaxes from it.
In the brightly painted barbershop at 10 Fan Tan Alley, time appears to stand still. Here, you can get an old-fashioned straight-razor shave with a stainless steel blade from John’s collection of antique barbering tools. His yellowed Moler School textbook, Practice and Science of Standard Barbering (1938, revised in 1967) rests in a cabinet drawer. When business lulls, the New Town barber might pull out his erhu and a folding stool and play a centuries-old folk tune. Then, he might play a little Bach.
“What would you like to hear next? Spaghetti western?”
The sparkle-eyed barber has played his erhu at seniors’ centres and he frequently gives tours of Chinatown which he concludes with a musical performance.
He also cuts hair.
First published in Senior Living 2006. Text and photos © Leslie Prpich.