The Bad News Barber of Kuala Lumpur

This is a story about a haircut, some bad news, life in Kuala Lumpur, and crocodile poop.

Before I set off for my first trip abroad to India many years ago, I harbored visions — visions of mystical women in colorful saris who would place their hands upon the crown of my youthful head and say, “I see great things in your future.” Through osmosis, I would absorb their wisdom and they would enlighten me with the path I might take to achieve such great things.

Instead, 14 years later, as I sat in a barber’s chair in Kuala Lumpur, a man named Deepak, a Gujarati Indian barber from Mumbai decked out in too-tight jeans and a checkered shirt, placed his hand upon the front of my head and told me I was going bald.

Where did I go wrong?

The Chop, The Bad News

My haircut at the Indian barbershop began innocently, as most haircuts do. Deepak began with a few zips of the electric clippers in the back and on the sides, then he grabbed for the scissors to cut the top.

Chop, chop. Cut, clip, cut.

At the Indian Barber in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Inside an Indian Barber in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

After a few sprays of water from his pump bottle and a comb-through, he delivered some astonishingly unsubtle bad news: “Hair very thin. In four, five years — all gone.”

In all the countries I’ve endured a haircut, never has a barber had the courage to deliver such bad tidings. But that’s what I love about barbers, Indians and especially Indian barbers: when it comes to bad news, man, they give it to you straight.

I was shocked. The blood drained from my face. I squinted into the mirror. “Really?!?!”

Deepak didn’t just answer “Yes.” He didn’t even waggle. He went full bore and gave me the side nod, which as much as said, “You’re in deep shit, cue ball. You’d better find yourself a Ferrari and start ridin’ out that midlife crisis.”

Deepak finished. It wasn’t the best cut. Wasn’t the worst, either. But I bore him no ill will. In fact, he was a rather nice guy.

Life’s Important Questions

As I stroked my impending baldness with my right hand, Audrey began taking a few photos and we engaged Deepak and his colleague Suppeiyav.

They asked to look at the photos we’d taken. Meanwhile, Balaji, one of their friends from the neighborhood dropped in to say hello and read the newspaper.

Dan with His Barber - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Dan with Deepak (far right) and Balaji

Eventually, the five of us convened a circle and covered all of life’s critical questions:

Where are you from?
How old are you?
How many hours does it take to fly here from your country?
Do you have children?
Why not?

I love barber shops.

Low Cost Airlines: The Engine of Migrant Labor

A good deal of our time was then spent exchanging information regarding low-cost airlines to and from India. We found out that Kingfisher is good, but only flies within India. We know Air Asia is inexpensive, but discovered it now also flies to once unlikely cities such as Trichy. Tiger Air is OK, too.

We even got a run-down on which airlines allow you to drink their beer for free. (I don’t believe there are many of those left anymore.)

In a fit of excitement, Balaji spoke up, “Sometimes you can find Air Asia to Chennai or Trichy for under 300 ringgit return ($100). Need to pay attention to sales.”

He, too, had figured out how to play the low cost airline price game.

Low cost airline talk at an Indian barber shop in Kuala Lumpur may sound trivial. However, it’s a key variable in the movement of migrant labor. Like many of the Indians you find in Kuala Lumpur, these men live and work in Malaysia, but their wives and children all live in India. For Balaji, a 15-year resident of Kuala Lumpur, cheap flights mean he can now afford to visit his wife and two young children every few months, rather than just once every year or two.

A Doozy of a Massage

Amidst our talk of airlines and southern Indian food, Deepak looked at me once more and pointed to my hairline: “No shampoo. Only conditioner once a week.”

“OK,” I said, figuring that this untimed dose of advice was an indication of just how advanced my hair loss had become in the few minutes since I’d left his chair.

I felt uneasy.

Suppeiyav, sensing my discomfort, waved me in the direction of his chair: “Massage!”

Friendly Indian Barber in Kuala Lumpur, India
Suppeiyav, the master of the Indian head massage

I hopped up and instantly he began squeezing my neck, pounding my shoulders and back, and tugging around the few tufts of hair I had left. Then he administered a stunning barrage of “prayer chops” — his hands placed together, thwhacking every inch of my skull.

I began to see stars, quite literally.

As I prayed for the massage to end, I was reminded of a recent comment from a friend on Facebook. “In India,” he said, “Indian barber means a head and neck massage that will make you see stuff that isn’t actually there.”

When Suppeiyav finished demolishing a few billion more brain cells, I found myself struggling to get up from the chair. I had forgotten my name. Well, my middle name at least.

Don’t ask me why I was searching for my middle name. A mild concussion will do that to you, apparently.

A Chinese Perspective: Traditional Medicine

When we returned to our guest house later that evening, we ran into a Chinese Malaysian man who’d taken up residence. A permanent fixture of the joint, he was also a font of practical local knowledge. We needed a notary public. He knew of three nearby. We wanted an acupuncturist. He told us of a tea shop in Chinatown with a connection.

Then I mentioned that the barber told me I was going bald.

Oh, my friend was going bald. He uses crocodile shit.

You have got to be kidding me. He didn’t just say what I think he said, did he?

Before I could respond, he followed up with, “I heard your foot was hurting. Are you diabetic? My friend’s foot was hurting and he went to the doctor. The doctor told him he was diabetic and he had to have his toe cut off.”

“Let’s get back to the hair loss. Tell me more about the crocodile poo.” I redirected.

“I think he uses it once a week. I don’t know where he gets it. I can ask him.”

“Thanks. I think I’m OK. I’m trying to cut back on the excrement treatments these days.”

I ran my fingers through my hair — out of habit, or perhaps in anticipation of it slowly vanishing.

If only I could find those mystical women in colorful saris, perhaps they could help me find the wisdom to go bald gracefully.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but my last haircut was in KL in November 2009. Me and my fiancee had spent the day traveling from Penang to KL and had a few hours to kill before our flight out and found ourselves outside of a training salon for beauty school students. My stylist was a waify Chinese boy who insisted on giving me giant barrel curls and only seemed to know how to say “Barbie doll” in English. But it only cost three dollars!

  2. Pete De Ritter says

    Having a lot of experience with hair loss, I’d rather polish my head than than rub croc poo on it. Of course it might give new meaning to some one saying to you, “That’s a croc of shit.”
    You could always get a T-shirt like the one I saw a while back. It said, “I’m not bald, that’s a solar collector for a sex machine.”

  3. says

    @Lindsay: That’s OK. I have been laughing since. If I go bald, I go bald. In either case, there will be no croc poo on my head.

    @Kirstin: If the barber training school that you are referring to is the one in Berjaya Times Square mall, I almost went there. (It’s next to the Apple service shop). Mens’ cuts with the trainees were $2. I never did get back there. I was more interested in an Indian barber experience, that is, when I thought Indian barber experiences came without hair loss predictions. Now as for those barrel curls, that sounds like it was worth a photo.

    @Anne: Glad you liked it. I’m especially pleased that you found it funny. As this piece circulated on Facebook, the reaction was rather somber. Hair or no hair, I laughed about it from start to finish.

    @Pete: As I pressed the publish button, I wondered to myself, “What’s Pete going to think of this.” You have summed it up quite nicely. It’s a croc, indeed.

    By the way, I’m getting a t-shirt that says “I went to Malaysia and all I got was a mid-life crisis.”

  4. Brian says

    OMG! me and Lenka nearly peed ourselves laughing! Too funny. Thanks for the laugh, great story! I had a haircut and a shave in Florence 3 weeks ago and I swear I am still bleeding from the neck. If you do decide to try the croc poo, let me know how it goes

    Brian.

  5. says

    Sorry about the news, Dan… but I’m sure it will be a character building experience! Funny, the older I get, the more interesting bald men become… Who ever imagined? Back when you were eying Indian women in colorful saris (OK- make that 10 years earlier) my preference definitely went to men w/waist-length hair…times change, core beings do not… you will remain cool regardless of how much hair sprouts upon your noggin!
    Saludos from Venice!

  6. says

    This could possibly be my favourite post from you, so sad it has nothing to do with food but your impending baldness.

    So sorry you´re in deep shit but cueball made me giggle.

  7. says

    @Brian: You are quite welcome for the laugh. Glad you enjoyed it. Do you feel my pain?

    So you had one of the fangoria shaves, eh? Horrible and traumatic, aren’t they?

    If I try the croc poo (unlikely) and it works (less likely), I’ll let you know. Actually, I’ll abandon my travel blogging and photography career and launch a new company.

    @Margaret: Thanks for the condolences. We’ll be holding a memorial for my hair on Twitter (hashtag #nollgoesbald) tomorrow.

    Interesting that you have a thing for bald guys. You are not alone. I hear Audrey is beginning to like them, too.

    “…you will remain cool.” Thank you. Hey, but I can still grow waist-length hair. It’s just going to have to come from the back and the sides.

    @Ayngelina: Glad you enjoyed it, particularly the cue ball bit. It was fun to write. The barbers were a hoot, even if Deepak took a few chunks out of my hairy ego.

  8. says

    @Addy: Glad you liked it! Barbers make the world go round, especially in KL.

    Any idea where in KL someone might get their hands on crocodile poo? (Just curious. I have absolutely no intention of putting poo on my head.)

  9. says

    Haha..what an interesting (obviously hilarious) incident. First the baldness, then the crocodile poo. You can’t get a better straight forward advice than that (I’m joking). This is one other unique thing about Malaysia (and most of Asia), people are a bit more innocent when it comes to conversations, often going directly to personal comments. But because of that, its much easier to strike a conversation and understand better the world they live in and hence the friendliness aspect. Great article and hope you’ll find a cure the next time you visit a barber shop in Malaysia!

  10. says

    You wouldn’t believe it, I am going to KL in 2 days and I was thinking today that I need to get a haircut when I am there. I don’t wan’t to hear how many years of haircuts I have left, so I won’t be going there!

  11. says

    I thought you only get this kind of straight forward comment from hair saloons. Because they have the intention to sell you stuff that suppose to safe your hair. That’s why, (yes,i suffer hair loss as well)I no longer frequent the hair saloons, instead an indian barbershop now. :)

  12. says

    @Amer: About the innocence, so true. There’s beauty in it.

    I’m OK with whatever is said, so long as it comes from the right place. Certainly that was the case here. I think that’s what made the whole situation so funny. Every time we tell the story, we laugh. It would be impossible to make it up. Truth is often stranger (and funnier) than fiction.

    Glad you enjoyed the article. Now it’s time to find some croc poo.

    @Jeff: For the moment, I’m going to hold off on accepting membership in the baldness club. I still have more than a few good hairs left. Stay tuned.

    @James: Well, I’m a little late in my response here. So did you get a haircut while in Kuala Lumpur? How did it go? More importantly, did you receive any unwanted diagnoses?

  13. says

    @Tom: Hair salons have a stake in telling you that you need treatments. Deepak, the Indian barber, had no stake other than being straightforward, upfront. That was the beauty of our interaction. Best of luck at the barber!

  14. Priya says

    Hahaha, hilarious! Mix coconut and almond oil and get Audrey to massage it into your head. Anti-clockwise for fast results :-)

  15. says

    @Priya: Adding coconut (oil?) and almond oil to the grocery list, stat! Anti-clockwise — now there’s the secret. And if that doesn’t work, time to find some crocodiles.

  16. says

    Barbers are always a place for banter, mine cuts my sideburns off everytime I go even though I tell him not to. At the same time discussing the owner (who’s a friend of my wife), I explained I was a friend of Joy.. a pause came about then “Yes Joyous very happy!”. Our conversations seem to go in opposite directions every time and after 4 years still something new everytime I go in.

  17. says

    There is surely a song in there somewhere..lol The barber had another experience on offer. His brother was there and at the time my scooter was idling a bit slow so while he cut his hair his brother tuned the scooter (Which i then had to adjust myself later). But while sat there he began asking the usual questions “are you married?” etc. etc. and introducing me to his mother, father and then asked if I wanted to meet his sister. I explained I am already married for which the response came “yes one wife many girlfriends” at which point the whole barber shop began laughing.. Its a strange perception here where they expect foreign guys to be disloyal. Bizarre but true.

  18. says

    @Matt: Full-service barber. Funny that your tune-up had to be undone. Regarding “one-wife, many girlfriends” my experience has been that it’s not just the behavioral expectations of foreigners, but local men also.

    Perhaps a lifetime of haircuts was on offer for his sister.

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