Buying A Wig
By Clara Chow
"Hi, do you have a long, red wig?"
Jane pauses in mid-chew, looks up from her packet of char kuay teow, and sizes up the customer. Plump, middle-aged, female, thinning hair. The hair: earlobe-length, limp, flat on top, tucked behind the ears.
"Ne-eh," she says, pointing her chin and eyeballs up at the row of coloured wigs on the high shelf, lit from underneath by harsh fluorescent tubes. "Colour ones all there. For party or daily wear?"
The customer considers, then replies: "Costume party."
Nodding, Jane pushes away her late dinner and bustles around the shop. She kicks a stool under the shelf and stands on it, reaching for the plastic mannequin head on which the maroon straight wig was perched. Fetches it and shakes it out a little, fluffing it with a steel-bristled brush, as though she was grooming a mutant vermillion pomeranian.
"You sit here," she tells the customer, pointing at a step ladder placed in front of a bank of mirrors on the opposite wall of the dinky little shop. It is 7.40pm, 20 minutes to closing time, and the wig-seller had been on the verge of closing shop, not expecting any more business for the day.
She heaves a little sigh inwardly, but the perky smile on her face does not budge. The wig, hanging down from her hand, looks like a giant fish that has swallowed her arm. She stretches the wig's netted crown on three fingers of each hand, like a piece of flimsy knitting, and fits it over the customer's head, then pulls the top this way and that, so that the thing sits properly. With a flick of the wrist, she brushes the long synthetic locks so that they settled like two tentacles on the front of each shoulder.
The customer looks at herself critically in the mirror, turning her head from side to side to check out all angles, and plucking at the fringe to arrange it over the black strands of her own hair. Jane can tell she is not quite pleased with it.
"$50 only, special discount," she pipes up cheerily, trying to interrupt the doubts that were no doubt clomping through the woman's head right this moment. Appeal to the auntie's instincts for a good bargain. Still, the customer's eyes do not light up.
"I have brighter red," Jane goes on, moving to the rows of plastic packets hung in the display window, each a condom for a limp covering of artificial hair, waiting patiently for a human head to fill and complete them. "Darker. A lot of colours. Curly also have."
"Ah...okay. Er, how about, try a curly one."
Jane crosses the room again, to some drawers under the shelves. All day, she does this: criss-crossing the small, confined space, like a squash ball in a game between a very stressed banker and his amoral boss. She has worked in this wig store for more than 10 years now, starting as a secondary school girl, helping her mother out there in the abominably hot afternoons after her classes. Her mum had set up the wig store six months after her gambler dad had run away with all their money and lured the loansharks wolves following the scent of bleeding prey - to their door. A distant cousin had been in the fashion merchandising business and had stumbled upon a wholesale shipment of dirt-cheap wigs on a buying trip to China, and snapped it up.
Not knowing what to do with it later, she had offered it to Jane's mum, and the desperate housewife had taken it, selling them out of blue-red-and-white striped canvas bags at their neighbourhood wet market. Paying off one's no-good husband's debts and putting up with rude messages scrawled in chicken blood on your doorstep proved a huge motivator, and Jane's mum was a natural saleswoman.
She flattered the ma-jie doing the marketing (for their rich tycoon employers in their villa-style mansions, with the rotundas and verandahs, surrounded by iron fences wrought in a pattern of Chinese characters which spelt out the family surname "Chow's garden", "Lee clan", "Wong's double happiness") to buy jet-black hairpieces to disguise their receding hairlines, caused by years of combing their hair straight back and trussing everything up into a single, chaste plait.
She sold frizzy, poodle-perm replicas to working mothers. She sold afros and tight-Buddha-curled 'dos to ageing playboys. Nightclub hostesses and pub singers sashayed blearily over to her on their mornings off to stock up on costumes or battle gear that would hopefully bring some sizzle back into the bedroom and stop their sugar daddies from looking for honey elsewhere.
And so the wig stall slowly turned into this cramped shop unit, cluttered with boxes everywhere, with cigarette-butt-scarred carpeting and the strange aroma of years of bad ventilation, in this ageing shopping mall in City Hall with the name that alluded to how the island is the mole embellishing the tip of a long, narrow land mass, Peninsula Plaza (say it with the "Ah" drawn out, like the locals do, the rhyme like a chant that has not changed for decades that only skateboarders, metal bands in search of guitars and equipment (the music shops formed a cartel in the basement), old-timers looking for specialist watch shops, and American sailors on shore leave frequented. Of course, the wig shop did its part to bring a younger, hipper demographic to the building. A vintage fashion store was one floor down, next to the escalators, and the teenaged girls enamoured by their own youth and beauty would drift up like snowflakes after shopping there, to try on 11 wigs and buy none.
A white plastic sign bearing an icon of a camera in a red circle, with a red line staking it diagonally through its flashy heart, is stuck smack in the middle of the mirrored wall, pre-empting the Instagram-Happy, the Low-In-Funds, the Tight-In-Wad, the Clowners-Around, that this is a retail establishment, not a free dress-up attraction. This store had made enough money to keep Jane and her mother alive, all through her teens and into her 20s.
To that end, Jane has sat in it every spare hour she had, for half her life. While wealthier classmates had tuition after school, or hung out at glitzier shopping malls than hers and frittered away their hefty allowances, Jane fussed around with people's heads. She took care of her army of mannequin heads, changing their wigs every week when new shipments came in from their suppliers in China, and giving haircuts to those poor wallflowers she felt needed help to 'pop' to grab a customer's eye and find a good home. On particularly slow days, she tried on one wig after another, asking her mother to take pictures of her with a digital camera when she was younger, and printing them out on the shop's beat-up ink-jet printer to paste on the glass door as look-book-cum-advertisements; then later snapping selfies with her smartphone and uploading them onto the shop's Facebook page to update regular clients about new stock.
Resentment rarely reared its head. Wigs were what filled their bellies, so it stood to reason that wigs were what she spent her time with. Sometimes, however, a group of gorgeous party girls would come in, each with an 'it' bag dangling from their charm-braceleted arm, svelte legs in designer denim, often with a fair-skinned, chiselled jaw trophy boyfriend in their midst. They would giggle as they pawed her merchandise carelessly, and tried on blonde plaited wigs, black spiky rock-chick mullets, kawaii anime brown ringlet curls for their 21st birthday bashes at five-star hotel ballrooms or champagne bottle-service clubs, or hen's nights at Bali resorts. And Jane would wonder what it was like to be them, to just slip into their lives as easily as they slipped into her wigs.
"Have you ever tried religion?" a friend once asked Jane when the pushing-30 wig-seller had raged to her about feeling trapped in her circumstances, fed up with spending most of her waking hours putting fake hair on people's heads and taking it off again. "It might help you to let go."
Watching her mum do it day in and day out, Jane knew how to sell, with no problems letting her wares go. The art of wig-selling, she is fond of telling herself, is also a form of succour for the soul. Just as a person could tell one's hairdresser one's deep dark secrets or most embarrassing problems, one could also confide in the wig-seller things that no one else would understand. Chattering on lightly when a customer is in the mood is an under-rated talent, Jane thinks; and so is offering firm but motherly advice to women twice her age, who needs to be reassured that they too are attractive, that they are not beyond the pale. Most importantly, she could always tell which customers were only browsing, and which would swipe their credit card until sparks flew for the most expensive, human-hair wigs. This customer is the latter.
"Why you come so late, ah?" she asks brightly. "Working, issit?"
The customer looks a tad confused. She has on a sleeveless chambray dress that flares out into a circle skirt, and a African-looking patterned scarf wrapped around her neck. A big gold statement ring with a green druzy stone glitters on one hand; another of three lilac-hued gems twinkles on the other. "Work? Er, no " she replies. Ah, a bored tai tai, Jane decides. She suddenly remembers her: the same woman had come in about a year ago, and she had a buzz cut then. Jane had deduced that she was going through radiation or chemotherapy treatment for cancer, and had gently pressed a few short, sassy and natural-looking styles upon her. She sold her four that night, for about $400 in total, and she and mum had treated themselves to pork ribs soup for supper after closing shop.
Now, the customer's hair has grown back, but there is still a mildly haunted look about her; something raw and tender in the way she carries herself.
"Okay, okay, try this one," coos Jane, pulling out a fringed burgundy number from the drawer she had been rummaging in. She bounces back to the customer, puts her hands to the woman's temples and peels the wig off her scalp. With the precision of a surgeon, she snaps out a wig cap, a little black nylon piece that looked like a small section of fishnet stockings, loops it over the customer's head and pulls the wig cap up while simultaneously turning it inside out, so that all the hair is secured underneath. Suitably flattened and strangely instant face-lifted, the customer puts the other wig on herself and eyeballs her reflection. She cracks a smile. Success.
Jane sneaks a look at the clock: 8.15pm. Mum is waiting for her at home so they could start watching the 9pm drama serial on the Chinese channel together. And, quite frankly, her feet are killing her.
For a while, the two women look at each other's image in the mirror. Jane, with her own hair halfway down her back, charred by too many chemical treatments, the colour and texture of straw, wearing a tight black dress with mesh cut-outs in front over an electric blue bandeau bra; the customer, with her sad eyes and lips that turn down a little on the left corner, the parting on the right side of her head widening, and a kind of defeated air that emanate from her in waves.
The woman pays. Her credit card is blue, with the Singapore skyline on it. "Thank you!" chirps Jane. "Next time, come earlier okay? Then you can try on many different types of wigs." A nod of grateful assent from the customer. "You know," the older woman says. "You really remind me of someone I used to know."
Jane waits for her to elaborate, but that is all.
As the customer turns to walk out the door, Jane calls after her, gesturing to some accessories hanging like garlands near the door: "I give you one of those clips to clip in your wig, want? Choose colour." The other woman flushes with pleasure.
"Yah. Take one!"
"Uh, okay then. Uh, blue? Thank you."
Brandishing a pair of scissors, Jane cuts out from the garland a packet containing a turquoise-coloured hair clip in the shape of a bow fashioned from the same synthetic material as the wig she had just sold. As she hands the little gift to the customer, Jane thinks of slow, swimming manatees she had seen at the River Safari section of the zoo recently. Their placid expressions, yet pained eyes, had moved her inexplicably, and she sat for hours in front of their tank-enclosure, with its submerged tree stumps, underwater giant weeds and the occasional keeper-feeder-diver, staring at them. While crazy kids belonging to tired parents ran rings around the bench she was sitting on, kicking her accidentally in the back, as they climbed up onto the ledge behind her, she had kept her eyes on the silent animals, drifting like pieces of soft stone in the water. The manatees slept underwater, in a position resembling prayer, frontal fins placed together.
Sometimes, people can have very little when they have a lot, flashes in Jane's brain. In the next moment, she wonders where all these disparate thoughts are coming from. The women smile at each other. "Next time, come earlier, okay," reminds Jane again. The customer smiles and nods, and opens her mouth to say something. For a second, Jane thinks she is going to ask her a question, chit-chat, as so many of her regulars do. But this one just finally says, "Okay."
A few weeks pass, and Jane is eating her evening char kway teow again when she grabs the newspaper her mum had left behind to line the mahjong table she had opened up at the back of the shop, jostling with the piled up stock for space. She pulls out a page at random and spreads it on the table. Something catches her eye. The obituaries page. She recognises the manatee eyes belonging to the last-minute customer in the colour photo against a blue-washed background, evoking the blue skies of heaven and eternal rest as best as newsprint can. It is a studio-taken portrait and she is wearing the long red wig she had bought from Jane. She looks happy, or as close to happy as those eyes would allow. The red of the wig comes over as more garnet than burgundy in the picture, but it somehow pops. There is a brightness about the image, a certain kind of hypnotic energy. The woman looks straight at the camera, and you can see laughter bubbling within her, about to spill over onto her lips. The angle of her arms indicate that it is a self-portrait. She is in disguise, Jane thinks.
Just above the woman's left ear is Jane squints a little to confirm what she is seeing yes, a little turquoise bow.
That night, the wig-seller turns out the lights and locks the wig shop an hour after the usual closing time. No customers come in during that extended opening hour.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014