Published in The Bangkok Post on 25 August 2013
The human hair trade in Myanmar nets a fluctuating, albeit lucrative, profit in the country’s commercial capital, but changing fashions and a lack of trust between dealers threatens the business
Daw Yin Thein can sell up to 40 kilograms of human hair in just one month. While standing under the drizzle at her roadside shop, smoking a cheroot and with a flannel shirt draped across her graying hair, she told The Bangkok Post, “I’ve been in this business four years. Chinese people come here to buy hair from me, and I go there twice a year to sell it.”
After the middle men representing wig companies outside Myanmar take their cut of sales, Daw Yin Thein makes about US$154 (4,882 baht) a month. She has no complaints about her line of work: she earns more than a teacher at a state school.
In Yangon’s bustling periphery township of Insein (pronounced “insane”), there are seven other shops along Hlaing River Road that buy and sell hair near the market – it’s considered the hub for commercial hair sales in Yangon.
However despite the proximity of the tiny, open air shops that lie between others selling fruit, fabrics and plastic ware, Daw Yin Thein said that competition and arguments among the women who run the ventures are uncommon. Several shop owners said they are unaware of the prices other shops are asking and receiving.
Daw Aye Aye Thein, who opened Ba Than hair shop a decade ago, agreed: “There’s almost no competition – we just sit here and wait for customers.”
And customers there are: She said that between 30 and 50 women come to her shop to sell their hair every day. Although this seems a high figure, long hair remains incredibly popular in Myanmar, as it is considered the natural complement to women’s traditional dress, which consists of a long, wrap-around skirt and a buttoned blouse. It’s not at all uncommon to see women with waist or knee length hair, which is worn in a ponytail, a plait or a bun. Up until the British colonisation of Myanmar in the 19th century, Myanmar men also had long hair, which was worn in a side bun. In fact, the Myanmar term for men’s short hair, bo kay means “the style of Caucasian people.”
Despite her long experience in the hair trade, Daw Aye Aye Thein knows virtually nothing about what happens to the hair after she sells it.
She said, “I only know that the people buying the hair are foreigners – I don’t know where they’re from or where it goes.”
Most of the women she buys hair from are about to become nuns for the first time in their lives. In keeping with Buddhist custom, nuns are required to shave their heads before entering the monastery. The busiest time of the year for the hair trade is during the New Year’s festival of Thingyan, which takes place during April, as that’s when most nuns enter the monasteries. Daw Aye Aye Thein said that the nuns donate the money they receive to monasteries.
“Sometimes women come here because they are poor and need to support their family through a tough time, such as needing medicine. But I don’t usually ask the women why they’re selling their hair,” she added.
Other sellers insisted that poor women are not selling their hair.
An elderly woman walks up to a shop on the road side corner and places a plastic bag containing a fistful of hair on the counter. The quantity is so small that the buyer hands over a 500 kyat note (15 baht) without putting it on the scales.
Daw Tin Ohn, who runs a small food store out the front of her house, explains that for the past six months she has been collecting the hairs that were left in her comb – she will donate the money she’s been given to a monastery.
“This is the third time I’ve sold my hair,” she said.
“I don’t know where my hair is going from here but I just feel really happy that I’ll be able to make a donation.”
Meanwhile, Daw Aye Aye Thein said that the price she is offered for larger quantities of hair depends on the quality, but usually ranges from $30 (976 baht) – $80 (2,604 baht).
“For the best quality hair, I can sell 400 grams for $100,” she said.
U San Hlaing, 38, is a wholesale hair trader in Yangon’s Thaketa township. He made the switch from farming in Mandalay’s Shwe Bo region in 2000 after several of his friends told him there was a lot of money to be made in the hair trade. He employs four people to search for potential customers in and around Yangon – mostly by calling out, “Cash for hair,” in the proximity of monasteries and busy townships.
“Most of the hair I sell goes to Mandalay and Muse [a city close to the Chinese border] – sometimes the buyers come here. I don’t know any wig makers – there are a lot of middle men in this business,” he said.
Like others in the hair trade, U San Hlaing sells hair by the viss, a traditional unit of measurement that is equivalent to 1.6 kilogrammes. Although it depends on the usual factors of quality, quantity (bulk earns more) and length of the hair (shorter hair has a lower value), he said he receives approximately US$412 (13,000 baht) for 1.6kg.
“Sometimes girls come here and sell their hair, but that doesn’t happen very often because I’m a wholesaler,” he said.
In his open shop front that doubles as a kitchen and family living area, almost 20kg of hair lies in bunches of similar lengths on the worn timber floor. It has been accumulated over the past two days. Grey hair and assorted shades of red and orange are mixed with the more common dark browns and black. Although grey hair is more brittle and fetches a lower price, U San Hlaing said there’s no obstacle to buying it. His wife examines the bunches affectionately; her gold bangles jingling as she runs her hands along the best quality bunches.
When asked what sort of procedure the hair goes through once it’s been delivered to him, U San Hlaing said, “The hair is already clean. I just comb it, remove the short pieces and then leave it out under the sun for a couple of hours so that it smells nice.”
A buyer turns up and following a surprisingly cursory glance at the hair, it is shovelled into a bag that looks like it once stored chaff or grain. He puts it in the boot of his car and returns with several wads of kyat the size of bricks. He hands over the equivalent of $3660 (116,406 baht). As the transaction is taking place, another man arrives, holding an extremely long, shorn ponytail in a manner not dissimilar to a hunter displaying a prized carcass. Despite the evident value of the hair, he is turned down and makes a swift exit for the shops in Insein. The Bangkok Post later learns that due to infighting among the bigger fish in the hair trade, U San Hlaing felt it unwise to do a deal with this man in the presence of the buyer in his shop.
In an average month, U San Hlaing sells about 650kg of hair, which he said he believes is exported to China, Korea, India, Turkey and the United States.
When asked whether he’s heard about occasional reports in the media describing hair theft, he and his partner shake their heads vigorously.
“Never heard of such a thing,” he says.
With the exception of one person in the industry who was interviewed, each of the hair sellers’ responses was identical to U San Hlaing’s.
Daw Aye Aye Thein said that she has heard stories of women’s ponytails being chopped off by hair thieves while walking along the streets of Yangon, but said she has never witnessed such a crime herself.
To survive in this business, Daw Aye Aye Thein has developed a knowledge of hair that borders on the forensic.
“People have tried to sell me synthetic and animal hair, but I don’t usually get cheated. Animal hair is rough and when a strand of synthetic hair is burnt, it doesn’t turn to ash, unlike human hair.”
Up until 2006, U San Hlaing said that business was steady, but that it has dipped by around 40 percent in recent years, due to the increasing popularity of having shorter hair.
“Women’s hair styles are changing and it’s not good for business. Fewer women have long hair to sell and there’s more competition among hair sellers.”
U San Hlaing hasn’t forged any business relationships with hair dressers, who could reasonably be presumed to be a source of revenue, albeit somewhat unethical.
Ko Saw Htoo from Top Star Hair Salon in Yangon’s Botahtaung township said, “Unless the customer wants their hair back, I just throw it away.” Likewise, a hair stylist from the well known Tony Tun Tun Hair Salon franchise in Lanmadaw township said, “We don’t sell our customers’ hair.”
Only one hair shop owner, Ma Zin Mar, has contacts with hairdressers, however she said that they come to buy hair from her to make extensions rather than to sell it.
“It’s hard to find enough people willing to sell their hair. Some days I don’t make any profit,” she said.
U San Hlaing said that although his business allows him to support his family “well enough” he intends on starting a new business to earn a better income.
“The problem is that I only know about hair,” he said.
Mya Kay Khine, 31, has been growing her hair for 16 years and is now 31.
“I went to the hairdresser to get it cut when it grew past my bottom,” she said.
She is a journalist at a local newspaper and maintains a strong belief in local traditions. She told The Bangkok Post that long hair is an “important part of Myanmar culture.” She wears traditional dress every day and has only ever worn trousers once (“For safety on a night train to Mandalay.”)
Her mother’s hair is knee length, while her 34-year-old sister is something of an anomaly. Her hair is shoulder length and she regularly changes hairstyles – once she dyed a portion of it red.
“I don’t like my sister’s hairstyles,” Mya Kay Khine said.
“Long hair is more beautiful. My sister prays that I’ll continue to have the patience to care for my hair. She doesn’t know how to plait her hair, which is why it’s not long like mine – it would end up all tangled.”
Mya Kay Khine’s hair takes five hours to dry after its weekly wash. She wears it in a plait to bed and combs it every morning to keep it in good health.
She said, “I would never, ever sell my hair. I have a lot of loose hairs that I could sell but I wouldn’t even consider selling those. I don’t want to put a price tag on my hair.”