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Controversy Over Hair in Asia: Part 1

by Tarryn Lua

Is Black People’s Hair Sacred?

Asia has seen a rise in black hairstyles over the years. In this three part series, we look at black hair and black hairstyles in Asia. 

Meet Ashlee Zhan, a hairdresser in Taipei City. I met up with her at her hair salon, Little Ladies Vintage. It has a unique flair. A mix of classic 50’s pin-up posters, heavy metal clothing on sale and a tattoo parlor in the back make up the decor of the establishment. Ashlee is delightful, warm and has a deep love for her craft. Her presence is welcoming and open. She was very happy to speak to us.

One day, while aimlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed, something caught my eye. A young Taiwanese man, with an afro. As I investigate, I see more photos of people with black hairstyles. Afros, dreadlocks, braids, coils and curls. All of them are Asian.

Controversy Over Hair in Asia: Part 1 1
photo cred: ashlee zhan

This is not the first time BAM has interviewed a hairdresser. Prior to this post we interviewed a woman by the name of Jackie Hamilton where she talks about her business doing hair and make up in Hong Kong (Hair in Hong Kong). She explains how being a hairdresser in Hong Kong “is a place to call home for the expat community”, a place where people can get their braids and dreads and make connections. When I stumbled across Ashlee’s posts, I wondered whether she catered for the same values and how she came about doing Afro textured hairstyles.

I was most surprised by how ‘natural’ they made these hairstyles. Most Asian people have natural jet black, sheet straight hair. I was surprised to see a young Asian man with ‘afro-textured’ hair. It baffled me as to how they made this possible.

I had mixed emotions when I saw this. On the one hand, I am happy to see black hair being celebrated, on the other hand, I wonder about cultural appropriation. Is this acceptable?

We have seen people of different races dread or braid their hair over the years. But what about making your hair ‘afro-textured’ as a hairstyle?  Is it crossing a boundary?

It’s safe to say that hip-hop has also had a major contribution to black culture and style, particularly hairstyles. In Asia, the hip-hop community has grown because of more international exposure via the ever changing digital world. Ashlee had mentioned seeing black hairstyles on a show called Rap China, a YouTube hip-hop reality show competition, where people vote for the best rapper.

She also mentioned having clients come in and wanting to look like one of the “Higher Brothers”, a hip-hop group from China, who sport dreads.  She mentions that most of her clients see these hairstyles via the media, particularly from basketball players in the NBA and hip hop stars such as Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott, to name a few.

Controversy Over Hair in Asia: Part 1 2
photo cred: ashlee zhan

Historically, black hair or “afro-textured hair”  has been discriminated against. We know the history. We were made to believe that our natural hair is ‘ugly’ or not ‘professional’ because it is not straight. We have gone through hair relaxers, chemical straighteners and home remedies in attempts to straighten out curls, because it is ‘not beautiful’. Over recent years, we have seen more celebration of our natural hair in the media and it has since become a trend among all racial groups to have these hairstyles.

Ashlee shares why she started doing ‘black hair and hairstyles’ and how she learned to do this. She explains that she respects black people and their culture and that as a professional hairdresser, she tries her best to tend to her client’s needs. She loves to give people confidence and make them feel beautiful. However, she has also faced some backlash from people on social media who called her out for cultural appropriation. Interestingly, these people were mostly Asian or Caucasian. She explains that she has not received any negative comments from black people via social media and that her husband has quite a few black clients who look to get their locks and coils touched up.

How do you feel? Is this acceptable? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

photo cred: @ashleezhan.littleladiesvintage

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