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How Indian barbers cut a monopoly for themselves in farway Brunei

There are two reasons why Haji Abdullah frequents his go-to Indian barber in Brunei’s Kuala Belait town: “because of the price and the service”. Abdullah has been visiting the same barber shop for nearly a decade and cannot think of visiting another. So ubiquitous are these local barber shops in Brunei, known as ‘kedai gunting’ in Malay, that for many in the country, a haircut or a shave would almost certainly mean a visit to an Indian barber.

A barber shop, known as Kedia Gunting in Malay, in Kiulap, Brunei-Muara District, Brunei. Photo credit: Ida

“Everyone I know goes to an Indian barber,” Ida, a Brunei resident, told indianexpress.com. Several decades before Indians became dominant in the country’s barber shop business, it was the discovery of oil that first brought Indians to Brunei in 1929. The pre-World War II immigration of Indians to that region was divided into two groups, write K S Sandhu and A Mani in their book ‘Indian Communities in Southeast Asia’: “The Indians who engaged in trading and commerce came of their own accord and set up their businesses in various urban centers. The second group consisted of labourers in the four rubber plantations of Brunei.”

The labourers who were brought to these rubber plantations were mostly of Tamil origin, writes Sridevi Menon in her research article ‘Narrating Brunei: Travelling histories of Brunei Indians’, published in 2016. Today, they form a majority in the Indian community in the country.

Mohammed Armaan Ahmed stands outside his barber shop in Kuala Belait, Brunei. Photo credit: Mohammed Armaan Ahmed

After the discovery of oil in Seria in 1929, Indian labour participation in the oil industry increased because the petroleum company paid the highest wages, resulting in Indians leaving the plantations for these opportunities, K S Sandhu and A Mani write. In the years that followed, Brunei witnessed rapid development, creating opportunities for Indian citizens in the fields of education and health services. There are approximately 7,500 Indian nationals living in Brunei and more than half of the expatriates today are semi and unskilled workers, who are employed in construction, retail businesses, etc, according to a paper on bilateral relations published by the High Commission of India in Brunei Darussalam.

Izehar Ahmed’s family has been in the haircutting business for at least three generations in their hometown Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, and it was these skills that helped Ahmed’s grandfather first move to Brunei some four decades ago, when few in their community had even heard of the country. Soon after he arrived in Brunei all those years ago, Ahmed’s grandfather had realised that there was a huge market for the skills that Indian barbers possessed, Ahmed told indianexpress.com.

It wasn’t just their mastery at haircutting that set them apart from other communities in the business. Indian barbers quickly became known for the special services that they provided, not usually available elsewhere, like head and shoulder massages, quick shaves and basic skin care, all offered at low prices—services commonly available in local barber shops in north India especially in Uttar Pradesh, where a large percentage of Indian barbers in Brunei are originally from.

Mohammed Armaan Ahmed at work in his barber shop in Kuala Belait, Brunei. Photo credit: Mohammed Armaan Ahmed

There were several domestic factors that helped create space for Indian barbers to grow their businesses and flourish. Prior to Brunei’s independence in January 1984 from the United Kingdom, the business of barber shops and hair salons was dominated by Sarawakian-Chinese from Sarawak, Ida explained. “The Sarawakian-Chinese left after Brunei gained independence, because our currencies were no longer compatible. Pre-independence, the currencies in Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia were interchangeable. This meant that we could use both Singaporean and Malaysian money in addition to our own. Then one day in 1984, the year we gained independence, we were told that shops and businesses would no longer accept Malaysian notes and coins.”

When the Chinese barbers slowly began returning to Sarawak, that space was filled by Indian barbers. “Another thing to remember is that Brunei has a tiny population, which is not conducive to business competition. When the Chinese began losing their customers to Indian barbers, they just shut shop and moved back to Malaysia,” Ida said.

It was curiosity to travel and a desire to see the world that made Mohammed Armaan Ahmed board a flight from Kolkata to Brunei a little over two decades ago. Armed with little else other than haircutting skills, Armaan landed in a country he had known little about, but to one which he would quickly adapt.

Mohammed Armaan Ahmed gives a head massage to one of his most regular customers, Haji Abdullah, in his barber shop in Kuala Belait, Brunei. Photo credit: Mohammed Armaan Ahmed

“Everyone hopes to earn more money. The exchange rate was quite significant and so I was able to send a lot of money back home,” Armaan said. Brunei’s barber shops run by Indians are known for providing quick haircuts that cost anything between BND5-BND7 (approximately Rs. 300 to Rs. 400), with haircuts for children costing even less, sometimes less than BND2; prices that are significantly lower than the BND18 (approximately Rs. 1,000) that a cut at a modern barber shop may cost—almost three times the price.

In the shops run by Indians, customers get a wide range of services at low prices, Indian barbers interviewed for this report told indianexpress.com. “In the modern salons, they will just cut hair for that price. They won’t give you a shave. We cut hair, we shave. We also give a head massage with oil. Bruneians love these head massages,” said Armaan.

Modern barber shops in Brunei charge for every service they provide and on most occasions, there isn’t any of Shah Rukh Khan’s songs playing inside the shop or the scope of discussing Bollywood films with the shop’s Indian employees. “I was not able to earn as much in India. Back there, I used to earn Re. 1-Rs. 2 for a shave, and Rs. 10 for a haircut. When I came here, I found that the people were good. The work conditions weren’t as harsh and I could work in an air- conditioned shop,” said Armaan. A 2020 report by the World Bank marked Brunei as a high-income economy, with a gross national income (GNI) per capita of $32,230, the second highest in Southeast Asia after Singapore.

Until 2013, haircutting in Brunei was limited to barber shops run by Indians and Southeast Asians. But over the past decade, modern barber shops have sprung up that focus on hair styling and treatment, that is frequented by a clientele specifically looking for these services, who are willing to pay three times more.

The growing presence of these modern barber shops however, does not mean that Brunei’s youth are drawn to them or prefer their services over Indian and Southeast Asian-run shops. Since he was a child, Baz, a 19-year-old resident of Bandar Seri Begawan, has only visited Indian barber shops and said that it is the same story with his friends. The reason for his choice is simple: because they are significantly cheaper than modern men’s salons. “Most of them frequent the Indian barber shops in their neighbourhoods or in the shopping district at Serusop, Brunei-Muara District,” said Baz.

Mohammed Armaan Ahmed at work in his barber shop in Kuala Belait, Brunei. This photograph was taken by the customer’s parent and published with their consent. Photo credit: Mohammed Armaan Ahmed

These barber shops, sometimes also called ‘corner shops’ in Brunei, are usually small establishments, enough to fit some five chairs, are scattered across the country and almost every neighbourhood will have at least one barber shop run by Indians. There are no exact figures for how many Indian barbers work in Brunei, but the Indian High Commission had found that the number may be around 500 during an informal survey conducted last year—high numbers for a country that is only slightly larger than the state of Sikkim, where most of the population is concentrated in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan.

“In Brunei, 90% of the barber shops are run by Indians. The remaining shops are run by Chinese and Southeast Asians, but over the past few years, a handful of Bangladeshis have also entered the trade,” said Armaan. As word spread over the years of the success that Indian barbers found and the work conditions in Brunei, it encouraged their relatives in India to travel to the country for employment, resulting in the creation of a subgroup within the Indian community. “The business grew when Indians started coming here and began understanding that there was a demand specifically for Indian barbers,” said Ahmed. “Back home, relatives watching the financial success and prosperity that the barbers found, were inspired to try their own luck here.”

“It’s like this: I came, then I called someone I know. He called someone else,” said Armaan. Most Indian barbers work on employment permits that continuously get renewed till they reach the age of 60, after which they retire and return to India. Their jobs are quickly filled, because there is always someone back in India waiting to replace them. “If I leave Brunei, someone from my family or neighbourhood will pick up my work,” explained Armaan.

The outbreak of Covid-19 suspended the issuance of new work visas for Indians hoping to travel to Brunei. As a result, since 2020, there have been no opportunities for hopefuls wanting to join their relatives and acquaintances in the barber shop business in the country.

A barbershop in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Photo credit: Michael Maxx/Facebook

The services of a specific Indian barber in Brunei is recommended by word of mouth, said Abdullah. “I’ve been coming to Armaan for 10 years now. It’s almost like a friendship. I’ll say, ‘barber A is very nice, very kind, their service is very good,’” Abdullah said, explaining how he recommends Armaan to his friends.

“I just call and say ‘Armaan, I am coming at 2:30 pm’. If I don’t call, I will wait for him. If he is with a customer, he says, ‘give me half an hour’. But I’m willing to wait because the service is good,” said Abdullah. Ten years ago before he found Armaan, Abdullah visited several Chinese barber shops and a few run by Indians. Dissatisfied with their services, he chanced upon Armaan and has never considered going elsewhere.

It isn’t unusual to hear stories of three generations in a family visiting the same barber in the country. “I have been in Brunei for over 20 years. The young boy whose hair I used to cut, got married and is now a father of two children. He brings his children to my shop for haircuts. There have been times when I have cut the hair of four generations in a family—first the nana (grandfather), then the abbu (father), then his son and then the great-grandson. That’s how it is,” Armaan said.

Over the years, hair products and face creams have come and gone in Brunei, but a glass bottle of Axe brand’s Minyak Angin Cap Kapak has been a permanent fixture on barber shop shelves for as long as the community can remember. ‘Axe oil’ as it is often called in the country, is a concoction of menthol, eucalyptus oil, camphor, methyl salicylate, essential oils and other secret ingredients, and is commonly found across Southeast Asia. This oil is used in the region as a home remedy to cure everything from colds to muscle pain. A haircut in an Indian barber shop is finished with a massage using a few drops of this oil, to relieve aching shoulders and stiff necks, and is one of the most popular services among Bruneians above 30, barbers told indianexpress.com.

These days, Abdullah prefers shaving his head entirely every time he comes into Armaan’s shop. After his shave, Abdullah has a set routine with which his barber is well-acquainted: a head massage, followed by a face massage. “The thing about Indian barbers is that they know what style the customer wants. When I come in, Armaan knows what style I want.”

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