The scene inside Phat’s Barber Shop on a Wednesday afternoon almost feels like a scripted comedy.
Three men wait their turn, occasionally glancing up from their newspapers to join the conversation between Phat and his current customer. Another man walks into the shop and becomes part of the show.
“This guy here,” Phat Luong gestures to his current customer, “he’s a plumber.”
Luong pauses and glances in the mirror at the new man. “You know how I know?” He stifles a smile. “Because he smells like shit!”
“Don’t listen to him,” the plumber says with a head shake.
“He’s right. Don’t listen to me,” laughs Luong. “I’m the bullshit barber.”
Luong was born in Vietnam in 1966. He recalls looking through the windows of a barbershop near his home when he was five. He watched the elderly barber and his rotating cast of customers. Every day he saw the barber conversing and laughing with the men inside his shop. Luong saw his future. “That’s all I do,” he says. “That’s all I want to be.”
He and his parents left Vietnam for Canada when he was 16. His destination was Arichat, a tiny village on Isle Madame in Cape Breton. His arrival in Arichat would be a reunion. His four brothers immigrated to Canada years before and hadn’t seen Luong or their parents since.
But although family surrounded him, Luong missed his home. His first day in Arichat was rough. “I was crying and crying,” he recalls. “I was in a country village: no jobs, no money, no nothing. It was very isolated.”
He left his girlfriend, Thuy, behind in Vietnam. The two attended school together since they were 12 and became a couple at 16, mere months before Luong left the country.
Luong’s first decade in Canada was hard. At 20, he moved from Arichat to Halifax for work. Over the next seven years he would work as a cleaner, a dishwasher, and even as a security guard.
During this period Luong and Thuy never stopped talking. They sent letters across the ocean for 10 years. There were love letters, of course, but also letters concerning the banalities of life, and pictures so that neither would forget what the other looked like.
Thuy immigrated to Canada when Luong was 26. They married the same year.
At 27, Luong enrolled in a barber school in Pictou County. After graduation, he found his first job, working under a barber named Ralph Miller, who owned a business on Halifax’s Windsor Street. He fondly remembers his old boss’s sense of humour, and feels grateful that Miller gave him a chance.
“Without him I don’t have anything today,” he says.
When Miller retired Luong bought the shop and made it his own. The “Phat’s Barber Shop” sign barely hints at a customer experience that goes beyond a regular haircut. Luong rarely misses a joke. The sign listing the $18 price tag for a haircut has a second entry: “One Side Only—$10.”
“You know people and you build relationships. You know the families. You cut [for] the father and the grandfather and the sons. Generation to generation.”—Phat Luong
He says this joke was aimed at students, who place haircuts behind “weed and cold beer” in their budgets. It was good for a laugh, but it wasn’t a service Luong thought anyone would ever ask for. However, in the past few years a few people have come in asking for asymmetrical haircuts that can make use of the joke discount. “It used to be a joke, but now it’s a fashion,” says Luong.
The stories and the bonds that Luong builds with his customers are his favourite things about his job. The shop is open year-round except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. When he’s not in the barbershop, Luong says he feels physically sick. There’s nowhere he’d rather be than in his shop, joking with his customers, and building the relationships that are central to his business and his enjoyment.
“[As a barber] you meet all different people,” he says. “You know people and you build relationships. You know the families. You cut [for] the father and the grandfather and the sons. Generation to generation.”
Phat’s Barber Shop has a homey feel. A cart holds a microwave on the bottom shelf and a flat-screen TV on the top. An orange, carbon fibre racing bike leans against the coat rack. Luong stands in the middle of the shop brushing his teeth after he finishes his lunch.
A father and his bushy haired son enter the barber shop. Luong stands and greets the two returning customers. He motions for the boy to sit in the barber chair and immediately begins his stream of consciousness banter.
“I haven’t seen you in a while buddy, you make me cry,” he laughs. “I lost some business, now you look like a scumbag, long hair. I think I have to give you a coffee cup so you can stand on the corner.”
Blake Richards and his 11-year-old son, Nate, have been coming to Phat’s Barber Shop ever since they moved to the neighborhood seven years ago. Phat’s was close to their home and offered cheap, no-frills men’s haircuts. But they soon learned to look forward to more than just a haircut when they walked into the shop.
“We come in for the bullshit,” said Richards. “We get a haircut as a bonus.”