Like all business owners, Cheung Ng didn't see it coming. How could he? How could anyone? The veteran hair stylist's business, Elan Hair Salon, was buzzing with five hair stations and eight stylists cutting and styling five floors above San Francisco's famous Union Square neighborhood. The location, hovering over Grant Street seemed to symbolize Ng's ascent in the styling world.
Then came the pandemic. As San Francisco shut down in March of 2020, Ng's business joined other personal service businesses shuttering in the face of COVID-19. His room full of sleek hair washing and styling chairs sat vacant, the bareness reflected in the ubiquitous mirrors where just weeks earlier, customers monitored their personal transformations. Now, the shop's bird's-eye view faced out on empty streets -- the only activity was the boarding up of storefronts.
"It was tough, we can’t operate, the landlord still wants rent during that time," Ng said recently, sitting in his still-empty salon. "There’s no way, no way, I could afford the rent here."
With his business in a free-fall, it would seem Ng would need to rely on his history as a man of re-starts.
Ng's first great upheaval in life came when he was six-and-a-half years old and his family moved from Canton, China to San Francisco. He arrived at his new home in the city's Chinatown speaking not a word of English. He began to absorb the tongue of his new nation at his elementary school in the tight-knit Chinatown neighborhood, while also making a few new-world friends. But then the family uprooted once again and moved to Daly City. He had to begin anew.
In junior high, while other kids were finding themselves on the gridiron or the baseball diamond, Ng found a new thrill cutting friends' hair in the family garage. It started with the fade and moved to the cut. The garage saw a steady clientele.
"I’ve gotta say the first twenty or thirty haircuts were horrific," Ng laughed. "But I enjoyed doing it."
Ng's parents held visions of their son heading off to law or medical school so it didn't go over well when he announced he wanted to try beauty school. He went anyway.
"After beauty school they see how passionate I am about it," he said. "And they’re super, super supportive."
Ng leaned against the salon window looking down out on the barren Union Square streets, with only a smattering of people in view. A bit of life has returned to the streets since the vaccinations began, but not much.
Like other hair professionals, Ng began doing clandestine house calls while his studio was closed to attend to customers desperate for a haircut. But even now that he's allowed to reopen for inside business, his salon remains as barren as the streets below with customers only trickling in and stylists unwilling to return to rent chairs.
"They’re independent contractors, they don’t want to rent from me full-time right now -- everybody’s doing house calls," Ng said. "And house calls, everything goes to themselves and they don’t need to come here and pay me rent for it. And I understand that."
As much as it hurts that his business sits in economic purgatory -- it's when he's asked for his reaction to the recent spate of attacks on the Asian community that he visibly recoils in pain. With elderly parents, he has done much thinking, much agonizing about the subject. He tells his parents not to make their weekly visits to Chinatown to see friends and patronize familiar shops.
"Most of the attacks are on elderly Asians," he said, posing a rhetorical question. "And to be honest, what have the elderly Asians every done to anyone?"
Ng's head slumped as his words ran out, and his eyes glanced toward the bay of windows filled with the life of afternoon sun above dead streets where no one walks -- especially anyone willing to take a five-flight elevator ride for a haircut. Ng is a man who, for now, can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. He believes business will return, but not to the point before the pandemic. How can his business survive he wonders, when few customers arrive but the bill for the rent never relents?
So on the occasion when a customer does step into the pillbox elevator to make the five-flight climb to Ng's salon, and leans back in the chair to get their hair washed and scalp massaged, and has Ng sized-up their hair with laser-like focus while they follow in the mirror as he contorts, bends and finely clips their hair into something refined -- they are getting the full passion of an artist doing the thing he was born to do -- escaping into his craft as a buffer from the emptiness somewhere below the salon windows.
"When you’re done you can see your work," he said leaning back in his stylist chair, "it’s an art form."