In the busy heart of China town on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock in Kuala Lumpar (KL), you will find KL’s oldest established commercial barbershop – Stylo.
The barbershop was established in 1937 so I’m not sure where the claim of being the oldest barber has come from, maybe it was one of KL’s oldest western barbershops. The business has four chairs and is run by third generation Indian barber M. Mathenan. His dad T. Madhirajan is in his 70’s and is still cutting hair occasionally. The day we visited we were greeted by two South Indians who did not speak much English but radiated happy gestures and were well equipped with big white smiles beaming from their faces.
The small shop was built halfway into the road so it was an awkward step down off the busy street into the entrance. We had to duck under an old illuminated front sign that would have most likely clipped a few brows over the decades. The shop, we were told, has been flooded once, burnt out twice, run into by a drunk in a sports car, and recently hit by a passing bus. Luckily for us, it is still standing with only a few scars on the outside facade.
We were greeted by the two happy Indian barbers. They looked well worn, just like the original decor and furniture in the store. There was an old boy in his late eighties getting a traditional short back and sides in one of the chairs. There was some pretty smooth clipper manoeuvres happening, especially when the photographer clipped on her 50 mm lens. They were more than impressed about being reviewed in The Cutthroat Journal but, looking at local newspaper clippings on the wall, they were already quite famous in the media.
I jumped into one of the old Japanese cast chairs and hung on for some serious scissor work followed by some smooth buzzing clipper movements. I was a picture of style within a few minutes. It was not all over though, as my old mate pulled out a big heavy iron like device and plugged it in to start massaging my back with the rumbling contraption. He worked my shoulder muscles for a few minutes until the city stress seemed a million miles away. I don’t know if every customer gets this treatment or if it’s only used on stressed out foreigners having a break in the Malaysian capital.
The nice thing about this visit was that the two old Indian barbers made the experience very friendly and enjoyable. They definitely had the man space going on, except for the next two customers, a pair of young Scandinavian girls that were waiting for a trim. I don’t know how the boys would go with these young girls, who were looking to get their split ends trimmed cheaply before getting back home to their mum and dad.
The Malay barber experience was steeped in its own unique style, but it had the very traditional feel you get when you meet a passionate artisan who is proud of their daily work life. The owner M. Mathenan runs nine other barbershops in the Klang Valley.
The average haircut is around six dollars and it costs ten dollars for a shave. There has been a sudden spike in the number of barbers in Malaysia, it’s currently around 300 stores. The price of a haircut is also on the rise as modern shops start to spring up in the new modern malls and major shopping precincts. KL has recently seen the appearance of iconic British ‘Trufitt and Hill’ Barbers in the Bansar Shopping centre. They are believed to be the oldest formal barbershop in London. This is the first of many franchises coming to south East Asia into this up market establishment, endorsed by the Duke of Edinburgh.
It’s great to see real growth in the barber business around the world and great to be part of spreading the word about this unique culture.
Story Sean Edwards
Photography Annette Dutton