My old friend, Thiru
Thirunavu Karusu a/l Krishnan
New Star Salon at Sekeping Kong Heng, Ipoh
When I walked past Star Hair Dressing Saloon in 2010 during the early part of my project, I only remembered it as the place where I used to cut my hair as a schoolboy. I did not know of the history of the shop; that it was established in 1927. I remember at least 10 barbers happily trimming away when my father used to bring me there after school.
That early morning when I walked into the saloon, I experienced a sense of déjà vu. The smells were familiar: that of hair cream, Singer machine oil for the electric clippers and the oils they apply on your head. On the table were the familiar bottles with coloured oil, talcum powder, brushes and scissors. Sadly, the sounds were not the same. There was a silence broken only by the sound of the one functioning air-conditioner working overtime to cool what was once a busy saloon. There was not a single customer there as it was still early.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the saloon, I saw Thiru seated at the back of the shop with his old friend. Thirunavu Karusu a/l Krishan is the 4th generation owner of the saloon. The saloon was started by Thiru’s father’s brother-in-law in 1927 with just two barbers. Two years later, Thiru’s father joined the business. Then in 1953, as a young boy of 13, Thiru was brought into the business as an apprentice barber.
I introduced myself as being a former customer and we were soon talking like old friends. There were such memories to share as the last time I was in the saloon was a good number of years ago when the place used to be packed with customers and barbers.
Thiru told me his shop will soon close. I sensed sadness in his voice but being a proud man, he said that there wasn’t anything to be sad about. Life is such and he wants to move on.
In 2010, the entire row of shophouses where Star Hairdressing Saloon is located was sold for redevelopment.
He asked me if I wanted to see the 1st floor where all the barbers used to live. We went upstairs and he showed me where he used to sleep with the rest of the barbers. There was a little kitchen where they cooked. Linoleum covered the floors. There was a wooden cabinet that was about to collapse and in it were ledgers recording what each barber contributed to the saloon’s takings every day. In one corner sat an old suitcase; probably to carry one of the barber’s belongings from India.
I photographed him there and more of him and his friend, sitting on the old Japanese Takata barber chairs.
After that session, I always made it a point to walk past the saloon whenever I was in Ipoh.
I met Thiru again in 2012. It was such a coincidence as I literally bumped into him on the street near where his saloon used to be located. I did not have his old phone number and photos of him in hand, had hoped to somehow, well, bump into him. He now lives with his son, quite close to where he had spent a lifetime plying his trade. He told me he had moved most of the salvageable items to his son’s barber shop.
We both walked to what was left of his shop. It was under renovation. In one corner were a pile of items, among which were old Indian calendars and others items accrued over a lifetime. We both just stood there. There wasn’t anything to be said.
I thought of photographing Thiru in the rubble of what was once his shop but I put my camera down. Thiru deserved better respect than that.
Thiru did say that after the contractor left, there were a few missing items including the glass window panels and the only photograph he had left of the barbers taken in 1965. I knew that I had taken a photograph of that photograph on the wall. I surprised him a few months later with an enlargement of that photograph. It now sits proudly in his small one-chair barber shop at Sekeping Kong Heng.
Such are the relationships built with my subjects. Wherever I travel in Malaysia, I always make it a point to visit past subjects. What a great way to travel.