'Grief Barbershop' fixes hair and hearts of cancer patients

Updated 2018-01-30 09:55:02 Xinhua

A staff member works in a barbershop in Zhejiang Province.

Wearing a hat and a face mask, Wu Lingmei wraps herself deeper inside her thick coat as she exits a cancer hospital before slipping into a nearby salon.

Wu, 55, has her sparse hair shaved and selects a stylish brown wig at the "Grief Barbershop."

Over the past two decades, the 20-square-meter salon around the corner from Zhejiang Cancer Hospital in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, has become a beacon for cancer patients.

The customers only ask for one hair style -- a close shave of the head. Then they pick out a suitable wig from more than 120 choices to hide the hair loss that accompanies chemotherapy.

Unlike many hairdressers who talk non-stop or deliver sales pitches for styling products or memberships, the shop's owner, Guan Tangqin, speaks gently and respects the customers' privacy.

"I've seen many stories of life and death," said the 44-year-old. "Most of the time, I just listen."

Guan spends much of her time just waiting for customers to choose a favorite wig, comforting them from time to time.

"It won't take long for the new hair to grow. Then you won't need this wig anymore," Guan said to one.

Wu, the customer, comes from a mountainous county in Zhejiang. She was diagnosed with cancer last year and started getting her hair cut at Guan's barbershop after she underwent chemotherapy in August.

"Even taking off my hat would scare me in other barbershops. I am afraid to let others know I am a cancer patient," said Wu. "But here, everyone is the same."

Data released by Zhejiang Cancer Hospital showed that nearly 60,000 people were treated with chemotherapy in 2017, 13,000 of whom were breast cancer patients.

Cancer patients often face financial difficulties since they have to receive long-term treatment.

Guan's shop charges 15 yuan (2.4 U.S. dollars) for a haircut, and the price of wigs ranges from tens to hundreds of yuan. Customers who purchase a wig at the shop often get their heads shaved for free.

Patients visit her shop not only for hair cuts but also to chat and confide.

"Sometimes patients dare not weep or show weakness in front of their families, and they bury their sorrow. But they need to release the pressure, so they come to me," said Guan.

Chinese netizens have nicknamed her shop the "Grief Barbershop" for its parallels to the Japanese novel "Grief Grocery Store." The book tells the story of a small grocery store where characters place their grief-filled letters in a letter box at the front door, then receive replies in the milkbox at the back door the next day.

"Some customers will visit me every two or three months when they undergo physical check-ups at the hospital," said Guan. "But some others I've never seen since they left. Hopefully all of them can recover."

Guan gently washes Wu's bald head with fingers covered in band-aids -- necessary after years of working with wet hands. She puts a brand new wig on her head, fixes it with hairpins and combs her new hair.

"I have had enough of it since I was diagnosed with cancer," Wu said. Looking at herself in the mirror, she touches her thick, shiny hair with satisfaction.

Then she leaves and soon disappears into the crowd.

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