For almost an hour, I've been sitting in an antique barber chair at Son & Dad on the tropical island of Penang in Malaysia.
This shop was the first vintage barbershop here on the island. Elyas Bin Yunoos started it, but he never went to barber school. Everything he knows, he learned from YouTube.
“I watched these barbers on YouTube,” Elyas says. “They're the Schorem Barbers from the Netherlands.”
In the videos, burly men with fully-tattooed arms gently finesse men's hair. Eylas studied these videos online from the other side of the globe. “I felt like I had found myself,” says Elyas. “Yeah, I found the real me.”
Before his YouTube transformation, Elyas worked at a factory. His dad had worked at a unisex hair salon in the 1990s, but Elyas didn't like what he saw as a kid — the straightening, the coloring. Besides that, there were already so many hair salons in Penang. “I wanted to do something different, yeah, unique!”
After finding his vintage passion, Elyas found a location and bought some old barber chairs. “I had people who believed in me, so I took a chance to change my life, to become more successful. I was afraid, but I had to take the risk.”
Penang is an island full of risk takers. Originally, the British set up Penang as a trading port when they colonized Malaysia. Later, people from India, China and all over Asia came to Penang to chase their dreams.
Today's Penang is thoroughly multicultural and one of the wealthiest economies in all of Asia, according to statistics from the IMF and Malaysian Department of Statistics.
Elyas's old-school barbershop is located on a skinny street in the shadow of the old Aceh mosque. One block over, an old Chinese woman sells fried char kuey teow. Walk down an alleyway, and you'll see Indians cracking coconuts open before a Hindu shrine.
Outside of Elyas's shop, shaggy men of all ethnicities wait their turn. Inside, air conditioning cools razor-scraped heads. On lime-green walls there are displays illustrating classic men's cuts. There's also a picture of James Dean, a cut out of the famous Malaysian movie star, P. Ramlee and several prints of Eylas posing with his barber crew.
Glam metal is blasting on the stereo while Elyas's two assistant barbers, Faizal and Fazil, bob their heads in beat.
Growing up in Penang and seeing how different groups of people eat, pray and work made Elyas open-minded enough to try and open a vintage barbershop in the first place.
Then his family gave him the day-to-day encouragement to start his own business. That's why he named his barbershop "Son & Dad," to honor his father.
His Muslim faith is also a central part of his life. “Every day after prayers, I call on Allah for his blessing. Thanks be to Allah.”
Elyas stands in front of my barber chair and I think he's finished, but then he continues nicking here and there. I'm happy to wait. I know Elyas is just striving to snip me the perfect haircut.
He's wearing a clean, white jacket and his face is focused. Elyas takes his craft very seriously. Every head gets the same determined attention — it doesn't matter if the hair is stiff and black or soft and blond.
When Elyas is finished, he gives up a big grin. I look at my haircut in the mirror, and the first word that comes to mind is harmony. The sidewalls are in balance with the top. My sideburns trimmed evenly.
Unfortunately, I know that in a few weeks, my hair will grow out again — unevenly, unruly. I have to leave Penang, and Elyas will, obviously, not be there for that next haircut.
I just hope that wherever I am in the world, there will be an Elyas — balanced, brave, and able to keep my scumbag boogie alive and well.
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