The day my dad got 'whacked'

Cousins Malcolm [Left], Philip [Centre]
and my brother, Kenneth [Right]

My granny used to say: "Tinggi tinggi, pendek pendek, slope sikit," when it came to instructing the barber how to cut boys' hair. What her instructions for a close buzz crop meant were to cut "high, short and with a slight slope".

When the three boys -- my cousins and brother -- were younger, they were escorted to the barber for their haircuts by Ah Kong, our grandfather.  I can never forget how they would return looking as bare as shorn sheep and smelling of pungent perfume!

The barbershop, located along Jalan Wong Ah Fook, was just walking distance away from Ah Kong's house in Jalan Ngee Heng. They would exit from his back gate to walk downtown, crossing just one road where a surau still stands at the beginning of Jalan Wong Ah Fook and reach the Indian barber, just a few shops away from where the Rex and Lido movie theatres used to be.

When the boys were older, they were sent out by themselves with this instruction to the barber and the money to pay for their haircuts. After hearing it repeated for many years, how can I forget such an explicit instruction?

As school-going children, we lived in Ah Kong's house and used to walk to our schools. Granny was in charge of us and she took her role very seriously, especially in the boys' personal grooming.  My sisters and I were spared from her regimental zeal to keep us neat and clean because I guess girls would would know how to groom themselves well. After the kitchen renovation in that old house, there was a custom-built dressing table conveniently close to the bathrooms for us to use.

The buzz cut is still popular today!
I can still picture that triangular dressing table and almost smell the Brylcreem hair-cream that Ah Kong used and the distinguishing scent of Tancho, a green, waxy pomade that our uncles preferred for styling and slicking back their hair. As the boys were careless about their hair grooming, granny insisted they kept it short so that they did not even have to comb their hair!

I learnt from her that there's something she calls "head dirt". She would wield a face flannel, threatening the boys that she would go in to scrub their heads if they failed her inspection when they came out of the shower.

We can now laugh about those horrifying threats but at that time, the boys said it was quite nerve-racking if granny carried out her threat.

My cousins and brother are now fathers of sons and I observed with interest that at some stage of their childhood, the sons also sported close-cropped hair. Maybe it's a family tradition for small boys to have buzz cuts, but granny is wise in insisting the boys' have their hair short because it's so easy for lazy boys to manage. I guess this style is making a comeback because many adults are now wearing their hair in a short-crop, but maybe it's also because they don't have much left on top!

Barbershop along Jalan Trus
Recently, while walking along Jalan Trus, I peeked into a barbershop and had a flashback to a time long ago when I first witnessed an Indian barber at work.  I can never forget that day when my dad brought me along for his shave and haircut. I discovered that strange contraption -- the barber's chair -- and the various types of clippers used to trim dad's hair.

While I was supposed to sit on a bench and amuse myself by reading some comics, I could not keep my eyes off the barber when he brandished a blade and started to sharpen it zealously.  When he cranked the chair into a reclining position and covered dad's face with shaving foam, I watched in fascination as he deftly removed the foam stroke by stroke, with the sharp blade.

Of course, I've seen my dad shaving himself at home but it was different watching the barber drag a super big blade across dad's face and down his throat. While I was fearful that the barber would accidentally nick him, dad looked calm and relaxed, lying there with his eyes shut.


But when I saw dad lying so still for so long, I grew anxious. Thankfully, his eyes opened and the barber set the chair to an upright position. I felt a bit silly and relieved that the worse was over. Suddenly, the barber started to whack dad across his back and neck. To my horror, before my eyes dad was being beaten repeatedly!

My instant response was to jump up and yell, "Hey! Stop hitting my daddy!" But as I saw dad smiling and chatting congenially with the barber in Tamil, I realised that it was all right because dad was obviously not hurt. After the "beating" stopped, dad was dusted with some sickly-sweet smelling talc, but he declined being doused by the shop's after shave.

After dad paid the barber, they exchanged a few more jokes before we left the shop with dad clean-shaven and well-groomed, while I came away enriched by my initiation into a barbershop ritual.

This article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 5 December 2010

Update:

Cousins together again [Left to Right]
Malcolm, Kenneth and Philip
Cousins in December 2010
[Left to Right] Malcolm, Philip and Kenneth
/pl


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