Inside China’s global wig capital
"Xu Mengge's long black hair is a goldmine in her father's eyes."
Today is the last day of the year 2022. I hope you're having a good time so far on your vacation. Today's story is what I promised to send you during the holiday. I hope you enjoy it.
Happy New Year!
In Central China's Henan Province, a city called Xuchang made its name in the world through the hair business. Xuchang produces over 50 percent of the world's wigs and hair extensions and has over 300,000 local residents working in the industry. The city thus gained a nickname, the wig capital. Since the 1990s, the expanding local population has provided labor and human hair sources for the wig industry, and at one time, it was a common scene for girls there to sell their hair to hair collectors in exchange for money to help their families.
But in recent years, hair collectors have found it increasingly hard to get quality real hair sources, and wig manufacturing is undergoing some big changes at its roots. Through a snapshot of a girl's experience, we will see how the changes happen and how education, people's mindsets, and economic development cast a great impact on the rise and fall of an industry.
Today's newsletter was first published by Micro story 显微故事, a WeChat blog focusing on telling stories of ordinary people in China. The original title was A bunch of girls sell their hair in Xuchang, Henan 河南许昌，有一群卖头发的小女孩. The following is a translation of the story.
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Growing corn on one mu (one mu equivalent to 667 square meters) of land is worth less than a girl's long hair
In her father Xu Hai's eyes, 11-year-old Xu Mengge's long black hair is a goldmine.
Xu Mengge had never been to a hair salon, and she used to cut her hair on her own, with a scissor at home. She never permed or dyed her hair. Her long hair reached her waist, and was about three fingers wide when tied together. Though there were problems of lice and flakes, the hair color was even, and there were no split ends. Xu's hair was as lustrous as satin, and it weighed a lot.
The hair collector who wanders in villages to buy girls' hair looked carefully at Xu and then offered 600 yuan (about 86 U.S. dollars) for her hair.
Seeing that Xu's father was somewhat hesitant, the hair collector opened his backpack and showed him bundles of hair he collected elsewhere."See, the hair I just collected. I'm an honest businessman. Her hair is neither permed nor dyed, and the length is acceptable. I'll pay 600 yuan," he said in a seasoned tone.
The father agreed. Xu Mengge and her father live in a rural village in Xincai County, Henan Province, where women selling their hair to help their families has become a tradition. Some of Xu's classmates have sold hair before, and "one even sold her hair for 1,600 yuan."
What does 1,600 yuan mean to local people?
Xu's mother passed away a few years back while working as a dishwasher in the county town. The family's burden, including raising three young kids, fell on the father alone, and he only finished elementary school. As his parents had died long ago, there is no one to help him look after his children. Due to a major surgery he got a huge scar on the abdomen, the father is unable to do heavy physical labor. And the only income for the family is about two mu of land. He grows corn and the crops mature once a year. Every mu of land yields about 500 kilograms of corn. He sells corn at the price of 0.6 yuan per kilogram.
Corn in Xu Hai's yard. Corn kernels peeled off cobs will be sold by weight
One mu of land can bring in about 1,200 yuan a year at most. deducting seeds costs, fertilizers costs, and other costs, the annual income is merely a few hundred yuan. In other words, a mu of corn is not as valuable as a girl's hair.
However, Xu Mengge is reluctant to sell her hair. While hair collectors buy hair at fixed prices in rural areas, factories buy hair from hair collectors according to different standards, such as hair weight and length. A few centimeters longer would push the price higher by hundreds of yuan. Therefore, when hair collectors cut a girl's hair, they would use the "inverted combing" method. [The method is to cut hair at the root, near the scalp] It ensures that hair collectors get the longest and best hair.
Illustration of the "inverted combing" method. The image from the Internet
Therefore, girls wear a similar hairstyle after selling their hair: shaggy, and some parts of the scalp can be seen, "as if it was gnawed by a dog." Because of this eccentric hairstyle, the girls who sold hair got nicknames like "scabby head," and became a laughing stock to all.
Xu Hai thought nothing of it. "Looking good doesn't bring us money. I can get you a hat if you want."
The father felt that Xu Mengge's beautiful hair was troublesome. "It's a waste of time and money, long hair needs more shampoo than short hair, not to mention others." As winter approached, he thought it was better to sell useless hair in exchange for clothes for the three kids in the family.
The photo was taken Xu Hai's home in early October. Because families are short of money, many kids don't have proper clothes when seasons change.
The father and the daughter couldn't reach an agreement. The hair collector got anxious and raised the price to 650 yuan, which is about the net income of one mu of land.
They didn't make a deal anyway. The hair collector needed to rush to another village to collect hair. Before leaving, he asked Xu Hai to persuade his daughter. "If she comes around, please sell it to me."
What the father and daughter don't know is that the hair collector is eager to get a deal because in Xuchang, 230 kilometers from Xincai County where they live, Xu's hair is worth over 1,000 yuan, and there is still a shortage there.
The crisis facing Xuchang, the world's wig capital
Xuchang is the world's largest wig production base, producing about 50 percent of the world's wigs.
Hair-related businesses are ubiquitous in the streets of the city: hairdressers' banners write "High price for long hair." And on the walls, there are advertisements like "selling hair to the factory."
The hair business in Xuchang can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). According to local county annals, the Xuchang people started making wigs for theatrical troupes during the Jiajing Emperor's reign (1522-1567). Later, a local named Bai Xi 白锡 made acquaintance with a hair collection businessman from Germany and opened Xuchang's first "Dexingyi Hair Shop" 德兴义发庄. The shop bought hair from rural peddlers, cleared it up, and bundled it before selling it abroad.
The farmers nearby followed suit, and gradually laid the foundation for the wig business. In Xuchang, hair is also called "black gold."
"It's easy to earn black gold. Anyone with a pair of scissors can enter this industry," said Zhou, an old man who has been in the wig business for 13 years. He said that all he had was a pair of scissors and a sack when he followed his uncle into this business.
Zhou is a native of Xuchang, and he is mainly engaged in the business of hair collection and preliminary processing. To put it another way, after collecting hair from residents and peddlers, he roughly washed the hair, sorted it out, tied up the hair, and then sold it to deep processing factories for a higher price. This job let Zhou feed his family, and pay education fees for his two kids.
With a simple and easy-to-copy model, large numbers of wig factories and villages specializing in hair recycling emerged in Xuchang in the 1990s. At that time, many wig companies in South Korea relocated to China due to rising labor costs and industrial upgrading. Xuchang undertook the transferred business by virtue of its geographical location, Henan Province's large population and rich raw materials, cheap labor, etc.
Finally, Xuchang took over the crown of wig manufacturing. The first hair products company to go public, Henan Rebecca Hairproducts, was also born in Xuchang, as reported by ChinaDaily.
However, Xuchang faces great challenges.
The biggest challenge comes from hair collection. As Xuchang's wig industry grew in scale, the locals have found that local hair cannot meet the factory demand, and they begin to go all over the country and even the world in search of hair materials.
Zhou recalled, "At that time, there were almost no young men in the town." In order to collect more hair, young men go all over the country. One may be in Anhui Province in the morning, and then in Jiangxi Province in the afternoon. They were on the hunt for hair throughout the year except for the New Year holidays.
The revenue from the hair business was vast. "In prime time, the profit margin reached about 70 percent," said Zhou. The low threshold and huge profits have attracted a lot of people to join the industry in Xuchang.
Left-behind children phenomenon is common in Henan's rural areas as the parents go away from home for work. Usually, bigger kids need to take care of their younger siblings.
In the peak period, according to statistics, about 20,000 Xuchang people collected hair all over the world, and transported over thousands of tons of hair back to hometown every year for processing before selling the hair products to the world. A wig industry chain integrating overseas hair collection, processing and selling has taken shape. Xuchang people thus called themselves "hair porters" half jokingly.
But then COVID-19 hit China's foreign trade industry hard. As overseas hair materials cannot come in, Xuchang's wig companies once underwent a supply crisis.
Besides, Xuchang also faced fierce competition at home and abroad.
As the threshold for hair collection and processing is low, many "hair villages" have sprung up in Xuchang, and in some villages, every household engages in hair business. By 2020, there were more than 300,000 people engaged in wig-related work. Considering that the population of Xuchang is only 4.38 million, it means that one in every 14 people is in wig-related business.
Too many practitioners result in keen internal competition.
"To fight for the materials for wigs, people are offering higher prices to collect hair." However, e-commerce has made the industry’s profits transparent. As a result, some little-known small workshops that lack regular customer resources can only focus on marketing and lowering product prices. Accordingly, many Xuchang people left the city and went to other cities with lower costs and cheaper labor. They also take the successful Xuchang model with them.
And populous provinces and municipalities such as Sichuan, Hunan, and Chongqing have gradually expanded in this industry thanks to their abundant and cheap labor, threatening Xuchang's position as the wig capital.
Ligezhuang Town in eastern China's Shandong Province is one of Xuchang’s biggest competitors. Geographically adjacent to the South Korean market, Ligezhuang has been making wigs, with a focus on high-end wigs, since the 1980s, and has formed an about 2.8 billion yuan market.
Although Xuchang is still the wig capital, local people feel that "business gets harder."
However, as volunteer teacher Liu Qing sees it, factors mentioned above are just external ones.
A hard blow to the wig industry
Liu Qing is Xu Mengge's teacher. This is her fifth year as a volunteer teacher in rural areas.
In her view, "the underlying reason for a dwindling hair business has something to do with the decrease in the number of people selling hair."
Moreover, fewer women selling hair is inseparable from economic and educational development in China's rural areas.
Liu Qing was born in a rural village in Henan in the 1980s, and there are four people in her family, all supported by a small piece of land owned by Liu's father. They barely made ends meet. In her childhood memory, her mother, aunt and big sister all sold hair. Her sister's hair was sold at the highest price. There is an unwritten rule in the hair collection trade: young girls' hair is of the best quality and can be the most expensive.
Many of her classmates also sold their hair.
However, when Liu came back home after graduation to serve as a volunteer teacher, she found that few girls sell their hair now." Now that the rural economy has become better, parents place a higher value on education and are more eager to send their kids outside villages through education. So parents won't allow girls to grow such long hair in case it distracts them from studying," said Liu.
Besides, urbanization and rural population loss also make it difficult to collect hair.
As flexible employment grows in cities, and job opportunities like express delivery and takeaway delivery increase, many kids follow their parents to county towns for education. But schools in county towns generally have dress codes on students' hairstyles and clothing. Therefore, the number of people who sell hair naturally decreases.
Zhou also feels that "the village population is dwindling." He recalled that when he entered the business, China had just abolished the agricultural tax, [China's agricultural tax was scrapped in 2006] and most farming households in Henan earned meagre income from farming. Most women didn't dye their hair in the village. Their hair was dark and shiny, and "there was no worry of a lack of hair at all."
But in the next decade, urbanization speeds up. Especially after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, China has doubled down on infrastructure construction, and a wealth of migrant workers went to cities to fill the need. The flow of people gradually drained rural areas of young people year by year, making it increasingly difficult to collect hair. Because those remaining in villages are mostly middle-aged and elderly women. And many begin to have their hair permed or dyed under the influence of the internet. "Since then, collecting hair has become difficult, and people began to go overseas to collect hair," according to Zhou.
Rural areas in Henan, quiet and empty
Zhou cannot go overseas, he stayed and collected hair in his hometown. He noted that "suitable hair is harder to find," and sometimes he cannot even collect a bag of hair in a day.
The decreasing supply has compelled various practitioners at different steps of the wig industry to transform.
The transformation first occurs to the hair collectors. They are the most important hub, connecting rural areas and factories. Hair collectors are also the first to perceive the changes in the market.
"We don't use the inverted combing method anymore, and we also offer hair styling services," said Yang Cheng, presenting the changes in his hair salon. Yang Cheng is a 37-year-old local, and he has been operating a hair salon specializing in hair collection in Yuzhou, a county level city in Xuchang. Unlike other hair salons, his shop only provides the most basic service of "hair cutting."
Today, the salon still keeps the decorations of the 1990s. The white wall is a bit dusty, and on the wall the hairdresser taped a row of hair of different lengths. The setting is for comparing hair length, quality and color. What gives it a modern touch are more scissors on the table and several hairstyle posters hanging on the wall.
"Now many people are still collecting hair, but few people are selling it. Customers will go elsewhere if I don’t provide hairstyling service," explained Yang Cheng.
It takes time to grow hair, and Yang Cheng is unable to get a steady income by relying only on residents nearby coming to him. Therefore, Yang started to extend his business onto the internet. Yang and Zhou are not good at smartphones, but they learn to attract customers on social media platforms such as Xiaohongshu, Zhihu, and Xianyu.
But this doesn't turn the tide
Due to information transparency on the Internet, every social media user who has suitable hair to sell can easily contact several buyers and compare prices. In the past, people like Zhou earned a lot with information asymmetry. Right now, they are at a disadvantage.
Furthermore, because the industry is now a "seller's market," potential hair sellers send videos of their hair for an assessment. But it's hard to accurately assess the hair quality, weight, and length through videos. The valuation is more often than not inaccurate, and usually higher than the real value.
What if they don't provide a prior assessment? Potential hair seller could simply walk away and turn to other buyers. Thus, people like Zhou have no choice but to adapt to the rules of the Internet age.
What makes Zhou more concerned is that many big factories with Research and Development strengths in Xuchang have begun to innovate and use synthetic materials to replace real hair. In this way, companies could reduce their reliance on raw materials. The wig made of synthetic materials already looks pretty much the same as real human hair. If given time, it may replace real hair wigs.
"We will be out of business at that time, I guess" Yang Cheng shrugged.
At present, he has no time to worry about the budding future.
Xu Mengge didn't sell her hair in the end.
While she confronted her father's order to sell her hair with silence, her teacher Liu Qing happened to be on a home visit and learned about the father and daughter's dispute.
Photo of Xu Mengge and the teacher
Her father didn't know how to speak Putonghua [standard Mandarin], he said with a heavy Henan accent, "Why do girls grow such long hair? You need to spend time taking care of it. Why not sell it and save time for studying?"
Liu Qing incisively captured the essence in the father's words. He wanted to persuade his daughter to cut her hair short, so she would have more time to study, and he didn't mean to sell her hair.
The father nodded. Liu was a left-behind child herself. She changed her life by pursuing university education, which is the most anticipated by rural parents for their kids.
Finally, at the persuasion of Liu, the father agreed to let Liu take his daughter to the barbershop and cut her hair to shoulder-length.
For the father, the decision means a loss of several hundred yuan, equal to a few months of net income for his family.
But for the daughter, this is a huge step toward living a life of freedom.
(At the request of interviewees, all names in the article are pseudonyms.)