The Long and Short of a Barber’s Life

Posted by on May 20, 2018 in Campaigns | No Comments

Tanglin Halt resident Mr Kamsari Gari has been working as a barber for close to 50 years, and is showing no signs of stopping. While there are many big, modern shops with computerised catalogs in shopping malls, small shops like Jali Jali Malay Barber, which Mr Kamsari runs with a partner, still hold a special place in our hearts.

The exterior of Jali Jali Malay Barber, its signage pasted on the glassfront. Photo by FJ Sai

Located on a short stretch of two-storey shops at 39 Tanglin Halt, the unassuming shop front of Jali Jali Malay Barber is easy to miss. A bigger, more commanding signboard hangs over the shop, overshadowing the smaller, more informal-looking “Jali Jali Malay Barber” sign pasted unceremoniously on the shop’s windows. The shop’s door is decked out with portraits of male celebrities, from Zac Efron to David Beckham to Joe Jonas.

If anything, the shop felt like just another hair salon run by a silver-haired John Doe, serving the basic hair-trimming needs of primary school students and senior citizens from the neighbouring estates. It is hardly the place one would think of going to for the latest hairdo seen in K-pop music videos.

A peek into the interior of Jali Jali Malay Barber. While some of these items seem like they’ve stayed in the same place for years, they lend a lived-in feel to the shop, and one can’t help but feel right at home in such a cosy environment. Photo by FJ Sai

Behind the shop’s old-fashioned decor, however, is a place that has seen its fair share of changes in the neighbourhood. Long-time resident Mr Kamsari Gari, 67, who runs Jali Jali, has been in the trade since he was 18 years old.

Mr Kamsari picked up the skills of the trade from his father, who used to go house to house with just a kerosene lamp, a chair, and his tools, to cut people’s hair.

“I would just follow him. Back then, haircuts ranged from about 20 to 80 cents,” said Mr Kamsari. “In ringgit, not dollars!”[1]

Mr Kamsari opened his first shop in 1982, in the vicinity of what would later be Redhill MRT, before moving to Meiling Street in 1984. He moved the business to its current premises in 2007 – a larger unit owned by a friend, with which Jali Jali shares the space – but has always been living in Tanglin Halt.

“The railway track used to be here, and Malaysian soil was just three meters beyond the track,” recalled Mr Kamsari. “The Van Houten chocolate factory used to be here, too. There were many, many factories and workshops around.”

While some of these workshops continue to operate in the vicinity, many factories have already relocated to industrial estates to make way for housing estates.

Having worked as a barber for close to 50 years, Mr Kamsari could vividly recall the various hairstyle trends that had swept Singapore by storm over the years.

“In the ’60s, we had the Rock Hudson cut,” said Mr Kamsari, motioning a slick quiff on his head as he spoke. “There was also the Tony Curtis cut, with the curl at the front. Like [in the movie] Grease.”

“Then there was the G.I., which is a crew cut,” continued Mr Kamsari. “Oh, and the punk. The mohawk style.”

“And, of course, there was the hippie style in the ’60s, where you just lightly trim long hair,” said Mr Kamsari, recounting how a ban on men sporting long hair once existed in Singapore.

Believing the hippie movement of the ’60s to be a corruptive influence on the social order, the government introduced a policy prohibiting men from keeping their hair long (as was popularised by hippie culture). On a man, hair which covered the ears or brushed the collar was considered unruly and depraved, and offending individuals risked having their locks forcibly trimmed, or being sent to the back of the queue for public services.

A poster of rock band Led Zeppelin in the shop, reflecting the popular long hair style of that era. Incidentally, due to Singapore’s prohibition on men sporting long hair at the time, Led Zeppelin cancelled a 1972 concert in Singapore as they did not want to conform to the policy. Photo by FJ Sai

“I used to kena (“get caught” in Malay) by the police station opposite for my long hair,” Mr Kamsari said cheekily. “When I walked past the station, they’d call me in and tell me that I needed to get my hair cut.”

“So I just trimmed it,” Mr Kamsari laughed, before adding, “Slightly.” He joked that since he is unable to grow his hair out now, he grows his beard instead.

Mr Kamsari’s jovial personality makes it very easy for people to warm up to him. He revealed that his barber shop is a place for interaction and conversation.

“Apart from coming in for haircuts, a lot of them come in to talk about their lives, their families and their careers,” said Mr Kamsari. “Or just to share ideas.”

That is just one of the few things that Mr Kamsari enjoys about being a barber – the friends and family that surround him, and the new people that he gets to meet and befriend. Other than his regular customers, Mr Kamsari has also served notable dignitaries, such as ministers, presidents and even officials from the Malaysian and Brunei embassies.

“Who else can say that they’ve touched the heads of these people?” Mr Kamsari said with a laugh.

As we discussed the future of the trade in Singapore, Mr Kamsari revealed that he had no worries about its survival in Singapore, even for small shops like his.

A smiley Mr Kamsari seated in front of his shop. Photo by Fann Kaye Linn

“No matter what, people will always need to have their hair cut,” said Mr Kamsari. “I will keep doing this until I cannot stand, or see.”


[1] Singapore and Malaysia shared a common currency for two years after their separation. Subsequently, an agreement allowed Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore to use their currencies interchangeably in all three countries until 1973.


Written by: FJ Sai

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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