Brigitte Bardot was still an unknown when she had her one-and-only encounter with Marilyn Monroe – the latter was already world-famous when the two ran into each other in a dressing room in the early 1950s. Neither their disparity in stature nor the fact that no words were exchanged, however, stopped them from seeing through each other’s artifice and gaining instant rapport. Judging from the way Marilyn looked at her, Bardot (in her words) “knew that Marilyn knew, the two of them were in the same boat” – both recognized each other as woman in the business of pretending to be a sex siren.
I, too, have had the uncanny experience of forging kinship with female strangers on the spot: once, I stumbled across an old photo featuring four well-coiffed young women of Asian descent. They may look cheerful, but the photo caption states they’re not out on a picnic: “even Japanese American woman in internment camps combed and pinned their hair into basic rolls.” So, these ladies were among the Japanese-Americans the US government summarily detained in camps after Pearl Harbour. Some may wonder, why did these girls bother to style their hair when they were robbed of their freedom? As a Hong Kong-based writer grappling with censorship and self-censorship who also happens to be a hairstyle enthusiast, however, I’m no stranger to their motivations. Now that the former British colony is degenerating into a Beijing stronghold, the act of tending to my hair is the only block of time in my day when I can forget about the pressure that’s part of the package of trying to be an independent writer here. I therefore can’t help but see those Japanese-American female prisoners as kindred spirits; their hair rituals, too, were their refuge from their upended existence.
The gratification a woman gets from styling her hair, you see, are two fold: first, combing, curling and crimping require such a degree of concentration that no other thoughts can intrude and she is quickly induced into a state of tranquility. The second injection of joy occurs when she removes her curlers one by one and waits for a cascade of sculpted waves to frame her face. At this point, however, looking good holds different meanings for different women. On one end of the extreme, you have someone like Nora Ephron, who so took for granted the civil liberties her society bestowed on her that she once quipped “everything is copy” – someone like her could afford to say in jest that a beautiful hairdo is“cheaper by far than psychoanalysis, and much more uplifting.”On the other extreme, you have women whose lives have been disrupted by politics. To them, personal grooming is a somber affair: the ability to summon up the energy to maintain a polished image is an act of triumph, a signal to the world that, for this woman at least, complete disaster is still being kept at bay. It was this connection between personal appearance and public morale that British Vogue grasped in 1941 when it exhorted readers who were coping with The Blitz “now, if ever, beauty is your duty.”
Here and now in Hong Kong, I’ve come to develop a high regard for Vogue’s time-tested tactic for weathering tough times. I completed my secondary school years in the city before Beijing took over in 1997; back then, teachers prized eccentricity in personality and originality in thought. My heart therefore sinks these days whenever I hear about schools dictating to students what they should think. Not only do I feel for the students – I also feel for myself, for the feeling that I’m a relic intensifies every time I gain fresh awareness of how much times have changed.
Hong Kong students will only be allowed freedom of thought and I will only not be considered a curiousity from the past when Beijing relaxes its grip on Hong Kong. But Beijing will only let go only if China itself liberalizes. When will this happen? Chinese law expert and long-time China watcher Jerome Cohen predicts this day “will possibly come sooner than we imagine.” Cohen thinks he’s earned the right to make this prediction: back in 1968, when China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, he was already on the record for saying Mao’s reign would end. “I feel the same about President Xi Jinping today,” he added. It must be remembered, though, that Cohen is 88 years old, and people who have lived this long have a different sense of time – to them, 10 years is considered brief. Yet I still find Cohen’s words soothing. After all, I have taught myself how to do hairstyles from the 1920s to the 1950s, so I have at my disposal almost half a century’s worth of looks to see me through the days when it seems that Hong Kong will be forever hijacked by those representing Beijing’s interests. I may lack Nora Ephron’s good fortune of living in a society where everything can be copy, but I have my “beauty as duty” credo, so it’s not like I have nothing.