By Mariam Mokhtar
As soon as you enter "90's Classic", a sign on the wall greets you with, "Happiness is not a destination. It is a way of life". Posters like these give a hint to the nature and character of the business owner, and this sign did not disappoint.
I was there to find out the secret behind the "90's Classic" barbershop. We are often told that , many young Perakians have deserted Ipoh and the other towns, to work in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore or further; however, one young man, 27-year-old Clement Kong, has done the opposite. He has returned to Ipoh and is part of the young crowd which wants to contribute to the state, and make Ipoh a vibrant city again.
On the day I entered Clement's barber shop, he was busy clipping away at the back of his client's head. His face was deep in concentration and his eyes were fixed on the tuft of hair in between his fingers. The tattoos on his arms and legs, appeared to come alive, with the movement of his muscles. The only sounds were the snip, snip, snip of his scissors and the soft deep breathing of his client, who must have been totally relaxed and had probably fallen asleep.
I waited for him to finish attending to his client's hair, so we could talk.
You can guess from the wooden panelling, wooden floors, the wooden trunk which doubles as a seat, the wooden artefacts, and the wooden picture frames, that Clement feels close to nature.
Black and white photos of Clement at work, or of his clients, adorn the walls. Beside the glass window, T-shirts hang from a rack, and are for sale. Some are his own designs, others are imported.
Coloured, miniature glass bottles sit on the wooden shelves. By the entrance, light bulbs hang from a piece of driftwood.
Clement was born in Sungai Siput, and attended Shing Chung school. Today, he still lives with his sister and their parents in the town.
Ever since his secondary school days, young Clement has nursed a life-long ambition to become a barber. He said, "I know what I am interested in doing, but I forced myself to study at university, after secondary school, because getting a degree – the certificate, was important.
"I read banking and finance at university, but after one year of study, I realised that university was not for me. I only managed to complete the foundation course. It was not what I wanted in my life. I knew where my real interests lay."
Although he was anxious not to upset his parents, he nevertheless plucked up the courage to discuss his aspirations and convince them of his dream, which was to open his own barbershop in town.
He charted his plans and enrolled himself on a hairdressing course in Penang, which was nine months long. He then worked for one year, in a Penang salon.
By this time, Clement was ready to pursue the next stage of his life. He was ready for a new challenge and left for Taiwan, to learn some new techniques in haircutting.
Whilst working in a Taiwan salon, he expanded his knowledge and skills, by entering various hair shows, like the Asia Hair Master Associated 2104 (AHMA).
He said, "One day, I was at a hair show, when I saw some barbers from England doing techniques on the model's hair, as well as beard trimming.
"I was interested in pursuing these further, so I collected a lot of information about this barbershop culture. It took me over two years of working and learning these techniques, before I put my next plan into action.
"I decided to work as a barber in Singapore, so I could gain more experience, and also save some money. The money to finance my business came purely from my own effort."
He walked up to the glass window and watched a crowd of people heading for Concubine Lane, which is on the Heritage Trail in Ipoh old town.
He added, "I am very focussed and my childhood ambition has always been to open my own barbershop in Ipoh.
"I want to bring this culture to the town. It has taken me a lot of time and effort, to learn new fading work, to excel in razor work and learn how to trim a big beard.
"Although I am kept very busy, I do not feel at all tired, because it is something which interests me, and is something which I love doing."
Clement returned to Ipoh last October and opened "90's Classic" on January 31. His parents have supported his ambition and contributed some useful ideas.
Recalling the inspiration for the name of his business, he said, "I named my barbershop, "90's Classic Barbershop" because I was born in the 1990s.
"Although I have only been open for business for nine months, I have been kept busy most days, at least five or six days of the week, so it is better for clients to make appointments.
"For now, I am open seven days a week, and have no days off. I may take one of two days off at the end of the month, but I always notify potential clients on Facebook or Instagram."
"90's Classic Barbershop" specialises in the Old School hairstyle (Pompadour, Executive contour). It is all about the cuts from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Clement also does the traditional shave (hot towel shave), beard trim and eyebrow trimming.
He slides his hands on the wooden panelling and said, "As you can see from the interior, that I love wood. I specified only wood for the interior, and I want people to feel as comfortable as me, when they enter this shop."
His clients are a cross section of Malaysian society. He said, "My customers are Chinese, Malay, Singhs, Indians and also Europeans. They range from young boys of four years, to middle-aged men and the elderly. My hairstyles will make a man of any age look smart.
"I am proud of what I do, because I can meet many different races and nationalities from all over the world. I do not consider it a job, but it is more like a lifestyle which I think people should experience. People come here for social interaction and public discourse. "90’s Classic" is more than just a barbershop. It is a place where friendships are forged and where we discuss all the men's issues."
Whilst most young people have left for other places, where they claim the opportunities are greater, Clement disagreed with this view and said, "Many people claim that Ipoh is a sleepy town, where it is very hard to earn a living and make money. They say it is a town only for old people, where the salaries are very low.
"That is just negative talk, which was common before I left for overseas, and also when I returned. Most people just want to take advantage of Ipoh, but I ignored all their negativity and asked myself, ‘How can I contribute to Ipoh, so that it can become a place with more energy and vitality?
"That is why I have chosen to set up shop in a heritage area, because of its vintage and classic feel. Ipoh is a city that is very close to nature and is surrounded by mountains. You can breathe the fresh air, every morning, when you wake up."
Clement plans to open more branches in the future. When asked how the local council, or people in authority, could assist young entrepreneurs like him, he said, "The first priority is to improve the safety and security of Ipoh, so that people are not afraid to walk on the streets.
"Parking is another big problem. The local council should provide more parking lots, to make it easier for businesses and their clients.
"The government should organise more night-time cultural activities, in the old town. Such activities will encourage more people to visit the old town and rejuvenate the place."
Did he have a message for other young Perakians who yearn to open a business, or fulfil their ambition?
He said, "Persistence is the key which will enable you to pursue your dreams and get things done. What you give, is what you get. Do not follow others. Do what you think is best!"
Note: "90's Classic Barbershop" is at 53D, Jalan Sultan Iskandar, 30000 Ipoh.