Cut to connect
Can a pair of scissors become a tool for empowerment? Can a haircut change the lives of the marginalised?
Lex Low believes so.
Although he is one of Malaysia’s most popular hairdressers, it’s not in Othrs Barbers, his salon in Kuala Lumpur, where we first meet Lex, but in a small room at the back of Pit Stop cafe.
Lex and his team are there to give free haircuts to the homeless. Above the snipping of scissors and the dull buzz of a clipper, the banter and laughter between Lex and his customers for the day fill the air. As their hair falls, their smiles brighten.
It’s these connections with people from marginalised communities that are at the heart of Lex’s social initiatives.
“A pair of scissors is a just a tool. What matters is the conversation within the haircut. You have no idea what that person went through, and a haircut is the first step to open up that door to that relationship.”
Coming from a family of artists, it is easy to see why Lex gravitated towards a creative career. But to his surprise, his ultimate success was what made him feel restless and empty inside. He was looking for something more and he would find it with those who had less.
Lex’s search for a meaningful use of his skills led him out on the streets of Kuala Lumpur where he gave free haircuts to the homeless. He knocked on the doors of orphanages and old aged homes offering his services.
Through this simple act of offering a haircut to uplift others, he was able to find his purpose again. “It’s just amazing when we really put aside money, and you just focus on the people, something magical just happens during the conversation and that’s what makes me excited about it.”
Lex realised that his skills could also be used to empower youth from marginalised communities and began to offering training. He has worked with ex-convicts and ex-addicts, but it is training of the youth from the Orang Asli community that is closest to his heart.
The Orang Asli are the original inhabitants of the Malaysian peninsula, and for thousands of years, they lived off the jungle. But in modern times, development, logging and palm oil plantations have encroached on their lands, and a lack of education and opportunities has made it hard for them to integrate. Poverty levels in this community remain high, according to a 2015 United Nations report.
Lex regularly travels to the village to give free haircuts to the community, and to train some of the youths. When he arrives at the village, he is greeted with warmth, and is soon chatting and laughing as he and his students cut and colour hair.
The village head, Tok Batin, says that jungle work is hard and doesn’t provide a stable income, so Lex’s work in the village brings benefits to the community. “I feel happy the youth here have been studying under Lex because now they know how to cut hair. With their earnings, they will put the money in the bank to save, then they will financially support their parents,” he says.
At the end of the day as Lex shares a cold drink with his team, there is a look of contentment on his face.
“I’m very excited every time I go to their village, it’s a learning process for me about the whole culture, about the people, about the environment,” he says. “This is where I want to really journey with them, empower them, and see what can I do with a pair of scissors, to transform their lives.”