Street barber carries on lifelong trade at clipping pace

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Street barber carries on lifelong trade at clipping pace

Like any other hardworking barber, Hwang Young-guk starts his day by cleaning his shop. He sweeps the floor and makes sure his tools are spic-and-span.
But for this 76-year-old, it takes less than a minute to get everything set before his customers start dropping by. His “shop” is actually just the spot he’s chosen to stop at while strolling in a small park in the Guro-dong neighborhood of southwestern Seoul.
Though their numbers have declined, street barbers like Mr. Hwang can still be spotted in parks in central areas of the city like Jongno. District police officers often shoo them away, or have them sign a written promise that they’ll never come back.
But Mr. Hwang, a 30-year resident of Guro-dong, didn’t seem concerned about law enforcement. He greeted people walking past; a patrol guard even offered him a cup of vending machine coffee.
As soon as he took out his portable chair, with the Korean word “yibal,” meaning haircut, scrawled in black ink on the back, his first customer of the day walked up and took a seat. Mr. Hwang pulled out a white vinyl cloth, put it around the customer’s neck and started to trim.
“He has been one of my best customers for years. He always wants only a trim,” Mr. Hwang said, without taking his eyes off the man’s hair. “Besides he is too weak and tired now to find another barber as good as me for 3,000 won ($2.70).”
He has been working in the park since 2000, when officials closed the barbershop at a community center in Guro where he worked. Mr. Hwang was paid 880,000 won (about $800) per month at the center, which offered bargain 1,000 won haircuts to residents of the district.
He said that when he first took up the trade, there weren’t as many barbers as there are now. It was just after the Korean War in 1954 that he found a part-time job at the Osan U.S. Air Force base. He said he washed dishes there until he asked a Korean barber inside the camp whether he could help out.
He’d grown up near the base; while working there, he earned a license to cut hair from the Gyeonggi provincial government.
It was after the student uprising against then-President Syngman Rhee in 1960 that he left the camp and started work at a barbershop near Yongsan station. In 1966, he finally opened his own shop in Guro-dong, which he called Shinjin. The name meant “new and progressive.”
“Life was good back then,” he said. “I had a lady assistant to give customers a shave using real shaving cream and shoulder and scalp massages.”
As he was talking, two more customers stopped by. It was already lunchtime, but rather than go somewhere and eat, he took a seat on a bench, making it clear that he was still open for business. “I’ll just close the shop early in the evening and eat later,” he said. “I am not that hungry anyway.”
By the end of the day, Mr. Hwang had earned 18,000 won. Six people had visited him.


by Lee Min-a
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