Qin Kang works on a wig in his salon, Pinqin Wig, in Shanghai. （HE QI/CHINA DAILY）
Barber helps cancer patients keep dignity intact
On a recent rainy afternoon in downtown Shanghai, a 50-something female customer entered a hair salon, removed and handed her wig to the shop owner, Qin Kang, 35, and began to chat with him like an old friend.
After Qin cleaned the client's wig and put it back on her head, she examined it carefully to make sure it fully covered her baldness and resembled her natural hair.
The salon, Pinqin Wig, which is across from Fudan University's Shanghai Cancer Center, mainly caters to patients from the hospital. As hair loss is almost inevitable after 15 days of chemotherapy and for some receiving radiation treatment, many patients choose to have their head shaved and wear a wig before their cancer therapy gets underway.
The salon not only sells wigs, but also offers shaving services for those who opt to go bald before their cancer treatment, while also providing aftersales services such as wig cleaning, styling and trimming. It also provides luggage deposit options, hospital examination report pickups and refrigerated medicine storage for customers.
"Compared with healthy customers who just want to stay stylish, these cancer patients need more care," Qin said.
Qin was a regular hair stylist until 2014, when he decided to open a wig salon for cancer patients, and thus chose to locate near the hospital.
"Most of the patients are desperate when they first come here," Qin said. "I can only try my best to make them feel satisfied and calm when they leave."
Qin's cousin, Zhang Dandan, also works at the salon and said most visitors are sensitive and emotional. She helps customers shave their heads, which most experience with tears.
"It was really hard for me in the beginning," she said, adding that it was even harder for the patients.
She recalled a woman in her 40s with a stylish hairdo "like a supermodel". But she could hardly afford the cheapest wig the salon offered, one made of synthetic material and costing 360 yuan (). She offered to exchange her real hair for a 200 yuan discount.
She said as the shaving started, along with the falling of her hair, the woman's tears rolled down her face. She said she used to pay at least 1,000 yuan to have her hair permed and styled, but years of treatment had stripped her of almost every penny - and her dignity.
After more than three years of business, Qin said they have learned to be as empathetic as possible. To him, behind each purchase or in some rare cases, each rented-out hairpiece, is a story of life and death.
Qin recalled a father coming into the store in July 2016, hoping to borrow a wig for his daughter for her middle school graduation ceremony. As the family had spent all their savings on the daughter's medical treatment, they couldn't afford a wig, so he promised to return it quickly.
Even though the store doesn't offer rental services, Qin still agreed to the father's request. The grateful father soon brought his 16-year-old daughter in.
Emaciated after months of cancer treatment, the girl picked a dark wig, put it on and smiled, Qin recalled. He remembered the father, tears in his eyes, showing him photos of the girl before she was diagnosed with cancer.
"Sunny smiles, with straight and dark hair like that of the wig," the stylist said.
When the girl returned the wig three days later as promised, Qin decided to make her a customized hairpiece. But he said he hasn't seen her for a long time and is not sure if she beat the disease or not.
In general, he explained, most of his customers would come to the store to have their wigs cleaned regularly as long as their health allowed.
Cancer remains a leading killer in China with some 10,000 confirmed diagnoses daily. Less than one in three - 30.9 percent of them to be exact - survive five years after diagnosis. Qin said if he doesn't see customers for a period of time, he often assumes the worst.
For Qin, a wig means more than keeping up appearances for his customers, most of whom are women.
"It's not rare to see that some, who have planned to buy a cheap wig at first, eventually decide on an expensive one that's made of real hair," he said. "The reason is that hair is more than just image, but it's also about dignity."