Photos: Angela Leung
Two months under the razor. Looking sharp!
Barber shops have become a major thing in the last two years, more or less. There are dozens and dozens of places around Shanghai now with a folding razor and a hot towel, and not all of them are so good or so experienced.
So I spent the past two months letting my beard grow out and then getting it trimmed, letting it grow out and getting it trimmed, letting it grow out and... to see how much of this trend was worthwhile and how much was just so much frothy shaving cream.
And surprise! Out of the eight places I went, only one was so bad — uneven lines, a small but bloody errant cut on my cheek and a clearly over-it vibe — that it deserved a personal talking-to with the owner instead of a spot on this list.
The others varied considerably, from slow, deliberate and stoic shaves to quick but professional trims, and from towels hot enough to steam the first layer of skin on my face to towels so cold I almost jumped out of the seat, from relaxed places playing '50s doo-wop to aggressively "street" places blasting trap like a nightclub.
Really a universe unto itself, and an important one to understand if you, like me, enjoy a professional fix-up every now and then. Lean back!
595 is a tiny shoebox of a space immediately behind IAPM on Nanchang Lu. They split the difference between a full-on period vibe like His and a more functional place like Alize, with red-brick wallpaper and some vintage lights, but also track lighting and top 40 hip-hop on the soundsystem. Qiangzi did my beard on a Wednesday afternoon, as random customers without appointments just dropped in. I was less than impressed at the start, mostly for how cramped the space was, but eased into it as the shave went on. And on. And on.
Qiangzi was slow and deliberate, obvs not pressured at all by the other customers lounging in the chairs waiting for him. I counted five different sets of clippers and that was before he even got to the straight-razor shave. In all, there were THREE towels, two hot ones before the shave and one warm one after, and two or three different kinds of moisturizer and/or aftershave, some mentholated and rubbed on, and some perfumed and sprayed out of an old time perfume pump.
Of all the barbers I met, Qiangzi was the only one who mixed up his shaving cream the old-fashioned way, beating it with a brush, and then applied the lather to my beard with the same brush. Felt fantastic, as did the resulting shave. No cuts, no redness, no irritation. Just smooth, smooth, smooth. The only downsides were that he was the super stoic and silent type, and that it took forty minutes from start to finish. Everything else, including the 128rmb
price, was a plus. Value.
Jin was my favorite of all the barbers, in terms of personality. He was a gentle, nice dude who laughed and talked to me about his other barber friends around Shanghai, and asked if I had tried this one or that one.
He spent a decade at Toni & Guy doing hair and switched to men's cuts and beards last year, setting up this little two-chair operation on the ground floor of an Alize Salon real close to Jing'an Temple. It's a little cramped and there's not a lot of style to it — more function than form — but after visiting shops that spent so much effort on image, I found his lack of pretense refreshing. I mean, the guy was playing 50's doo-wop on speaker. He's not trying to be too cool.
The shave itself (150rmb
) was nice, with the particularly nice touch of putting a hot, rolled towel behind my neck to support my head, and misting cool water on my face at various points through the shave. Also left the hot towel extra-long for that extra soaking time and checked in with me halfway to make sure he was doing what I wanted (a basic courtesy many barbers didn't bother with).
So it embarrasses me a little to say that the shave left a good amount of red bumps and irritation for maybe two hours afterward — I guess technically, it wasn't perfect. But I liked the guy and the I liked the place and when this article is finally out and I have to start paying for my own shaves again (thanks SmSh!), I'll give him another chance.
Doc Guthrie's was a pioneer in men's salons in Shanghai and probably provided more than a little inspiration for other places on this list. I was looking forward to a place with a few years of experience under their belt and an expat-friendly environment. What I got was a totally competent buzz-cut and a close, no-irritation shave (148rmb for shave only
), all set to a soundtrack of cool indie pop electronic stuff. With the white subway tiles, the shelf of empty Jameson bottles and the mosaic tile floor, it all felt very 2015.
Unfortunately, and I don't know why exactly, the overall experience was kind of a downer. On a Sunday at 3pm, I was the only customer in the shop for most of the time; the barber didn't say a word to me (in Chinese or English); and the rest of the staff were on their phones.
a) the effect of Covid-19 on an expat-focused business?
b) the natural decline of a pioneer who eventually gets outpaced by new upstarts?
c) a freak off-day?
I put that question to a Doc Guthrie's regular, who said it's A and C. So there you go. Maybe you'll have my experience, and maybe you won't, and maybe you prefer the total silence from the staff, anyway. But I didn't, so once was enough for me.
Fade Room 83 goes for the urban vibe as well, with whisky and PlayStation on offer, but they don't over do it, and the atmosphere is friendly and international. The owner of funk and jazz clubs Shake
is a partner here, which you can tell by the posters on the walls. Kim did a very nice job on keeping my beard shape natural, fixing the overzealous work of another, unnamed barbershop, and the whole thing ended with a surprising cold towel. A very cold towel. Left on for what felt like a year. Great stuff. This trim (120rmb
) wasn't complicated but I was still in and out of the place in less than fifteen minutes.
His is a throwback-themed barbershop with strong Prohibition and vintage vibes, from the glass lighting fixtures to the suspenders on the barbers. The feel is residential, with a dark cranberry wallpaper, which is fitting, since it's on the ground floor of that big villa at Changle Lu and Shaanxi Nan Lu. I had Li, who did a bang-up job on my beard lines and a super-close straight razor shave (128rmb
), but I did miss the requisite hot towel. Where's the hot towel? Still, it felt like a good antidote to the hyper-urban barber trope and no one was too hip; the customer before me (they have three chairs) was a dad in shorts and Tevas with white socks. Will return.
I went to Homie on Saturday over the May holiday. I was the oldest person there by 15 years. My barber was named Gucci. He cut all the curved hairlines on my head into straight lines and then cut the straight lines on my beard into curves. He sliced my widow's peak into a sharp arrow. Looked ridiculous. Cost 150rmb
. Took 45 minutes. Loved it. Hated it. Loved it again. Extra points for the blasting hip-hop soundtrack. They mostly do fades and fancy beard work. Make a reservation on weekends.
Red Rose is one of just a handful of old-school beauty shops hanging on in Shanghai (there was also a famous White Rose on Nanjing Xi Lu, long devoured by the malls). It was opened in 1936, though who opened it seems to be lost to time. Like other private businesses, it was taken over by the state after 1949, and really peaked in the 1980s and 1990s when there were dozens of Red Roses all over Shanghai. This was the original though, and now it's the only one left. It's still state-owned, which explains the cheap cheap prices (40rmb for a shave, CASH ONLY
) and sometimes gruff service (friendlier to regulars), and the barbers are getting up there in age themselves. How long can this place hold on after they retire?
Getting a shave here is more about the atmosphere and the barbers in black slacks and white shirts, and the fellow middle-aged and old customers, and the super-hot steaming towels they use. The shave itself is no-frills, not always so smooth or close, but as a real throwback to an older era in Shanghai, it can't be beat.
See all the barber shops listed on SmartShanghai by clicking here