“It hurts at this spot, right?” the Malay assistant at the hair salon asked as she pressed her fingers on my shoulder. She seemed to have a knack for identifying problem spots. Her skillful kneads got rid of all the culprit aches.
No, I wasn’t at a massage session at a spa but at a hair salon in Kuala Lumpur. I realized she had spent a good 15 minutes giving me a shoulder massage. No wonder the hair stylist had said earlier on that a wash and blow would take an hour. This is one of the things that I like about hair salons in Malaysia and China – they give you a thorough and relaxing experience – something that you can’t get in Singapore.
That hair salon wasn’t a high end one either. In fact, it was a home-based salon. Basic, yet meets its needs.
I had spotted the signage on the ground floor earlier on when I was along Jalan Imbi.
There is a whole block of old flat in the area. Huge, drab, grey boxes they are. A flight of steep stairs zipping up its side. Capped off by the balconies, jutting out proudly of each front room – the main highlight.
A wall of metal grills wrap round these balconies. The grills are minimalist at their best. Small metallic squares skewered on vertical metal rods. They showcase the local architectural design of the 1960s.
Some creative owners had added a ledge on top of the wall so they could place potted plants on them. Geometric shapes like trapeze or simply patterns of S-shaped curves are embroidered onto these ledges.
Besides making the balcony higher, some functional owners had added awnings, probably to prevent the rain from coming in. Given the heavy monsoon rains coupled with strong winds over here, it is a practical necessity. The ultimate is those who cage up their entire balcony, building additional metal grills on the second top half of the balcony, all the way to the ceiling. These owners obviously favour living in mid-air cages.
Before retro became chic, I had long fallen in love with the balconies of these old flats. These balconies are also the windows to each household’s lives. They tell the stories of their inhabitants.
Do they hang their laundry in the balcony? Or do they have chairs and a table there? Potted plants on the ledge? Or old junk thrown out there?
After admiring these unique windows to each unit’s lives, I then climbed up the steep stairs in the rather dark stairwell. Such stairs are common in these old flats. When I press the doorbell, I realized that the proprietor had created another entrance to the flat. The door to the hair salon was on the right, perpendicular to the original entrance to the flat. It was a wooden framed door with a fan-shaped pattern at the top and four rows by three columns of squares filled with glass panels.
The left entrance was locked by a retractable metal gate. The retractable parts looked like two rows of giant X-shaped metal arms at the top and bottom. This type of gate is typical in many old houses of that era. I noticed three rows of small rectangular openings at the top of the wall, each one extended from the gate to the ceiling. Wow! These old houses think of everything!
Before stepping in, I managed to steal a glance of the other side of the flat on the far left through the gates. A very long corridor connecting the first half of the flat with the second surprised me.
When the door opened, I was ushered to a row of chairs on the right, for waiting customers. The hall area housed the hair salon. There were 6 salon chairs in there with all the usual equipment like steamers and heaters. In fact, it looked like any other hair salons in town.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. When I was finally seated on the salon chair, I happened to turn my head to the left and a door from the salon leading to the area near the original entrance, caught my eye. I wondered if customers are allowed to use the washroom. Then I could take a look at how the flat looks like.
The assistant gave me a good hair shampoo and led me to the hair washing area, in the front room. As I lay there with my eyes closed, I was very curious what was in the balcony. Towels from the salon drying on racks? Pots of flowers?
I opened my eyes a little but all I saw through my eyelashes was the louvres of the windows and the door towards the balcony.
“Did you colour your hair?” the Malay assistant asked in Malay.
I was jolted out of my thoughts.
“Yes, I did.”
“Oh, I thought you didn’t. It looks so natural,” She smiled.
I was glad I could still speak some basic Malay though hardly fluent at all. And I’ve forgotten many words by now, not having spoken it for ages. Hmn, I should really brush up on it.
When I visited different cities in Malaysia this few years, I was surprised to see many Malays being employed in different business establishments owned by the Chinese. This is especially prevalent in coffee shops, where I thought non-Halal food items would be a problem for them. But I must be wrong as I see many Malays working in these coffee shops.
This is rather surprising given the worsened race relations in Malaysia in recent years. So it seems race relations are not that bad after all and it could be just the politicians who are making it up for their own political gain. Or is it a matter of survival that triumphs over religious inconveniences? Or we should all take a leaf from the grassroots for religious harmony – they just find a way of working together, in spite of whatever differences.
That’s ironical really, for I’ve never seen Malays working at Chinese businesses in the past, when relations between the races were good. This is indeed an interesting phenomenon.
“Is this right for you or do you want it to be harder?” the Malay assistant asked if she was using the right amount of strength to scratch and massage my scalp.
“Yes, it is. Thanks.”
After I was whisked back to my seat at the main hall and had my hair towelled dried, the Malay assistant started on my shoulder massage. She would have continued if she didn’t have to help the hair stylist with preparations for another customer’s hair colour. She deftly mixed the colours and wrapped the customer’s coloured hair with those plastic wrap that one uses for covering food.
I see that they work in perfect rhythm, she handing the utensil-in-need to the hair stylist at just the right time. Like a chef’s assistant who can anticipate what the chef needs at the next step in their dance of creation. Indeed, it’s important to have an able assistant.
While waiting for the hair stylist to attend to me, I overheard her talking to the customer who was colouring her hair.
“So how’s Ho Jie? I heard she had a stroke.”
“Oh, she’s better now. I think she should be up and running soon.”
That’s what I like about such neighbourhood shops, everyone knows everyone and are friends with each other.
When the hair stylist finally came over, I had to ask her about the layout of the unusual flat.
“I see a super long corridor connecting the first half of the flat with the second. Seems you have a huge flat here.”
“Yeah, it is. You know, these old flats are really deep. The second half behind has 2 other rooms, a small dining area and a kitchen. There are 2 toilets and a dry kitchen in the corridor. In fact this front section also has 2 rooms besides a main hall. I had broken down the walls of one of the rooms to maximize space.”
“Wow! Amazing! Very practical layout too.” OMG! This is even bigger than I thought!
“Ya, many have 2 families staying under one roof.”
“Seemed to be custom-made for that, isn’t it?”
I love this salon, it has so much character. I will definitely be back.
I don’t mind staying at this type of apartment too and renting the other half out. The long corridor act as a bridge. It serves the dual function of being both a link and a buffer, affording both privacy and separation at the same time. Whenever I wish to chat with someone, I could go over to the front of the house and speak to the tenant. If not, I could have my own space at the back of the house.
It reminded me of the dual key concept apartment of recent years, except this doesn’t come with a separate entrance. It shows that back in the 60’s the developer already had this concept in mind. Ideas from this era aren’t as new as we thought.
Perhaps I should buy an apartment like this and create a dual entrance on my own. Something to dream about…