Chinatown Hair Maven Offers Comfort Through Language

By Yanshu Li and Nikita Sampath
BU News Service

When Zhang MeiHuai came to America in 2002, she had been a hairdresser in her native China for six years. Despite struggling with the difficult language barrier, thirteen years later, she’s become something of a hair savior for her Chinatown community here in Boston.

Zhang, who also goes by her “American” name Eva, left her southern Chinese home city of Fuzhou to join her siblings here in Boston.

“They thought it would be a good idea if I came to the states and set shop in Chinatown,” she said.

She started out working at a small shop in Chinatown, then opened her own salon on Harrison Avenue five year ago. She named it Mei Ge, which translates to “beauty” and “qualification,” and attracts a large clientele of Chinese  — Zhang said that 6 out of 10 of her customers are Chinese. She said her shop is especially popular among Boston’s Chinese student population.

What makes Zhang’s salon such a draw for Boston’s Chinese residents? Zhang attributes it to her knowledge of a unique dialect spoken in her home city.

Statistics Chinese in Boston

Boston has the largest Chinese population in Massachusetts.

She said that when Fuzhou natives first moved to Boston, they spoke neither English nor Cantonese, the dominant language spoken in Chinatown. The Fuzhou transplants felt desperately lost, particularly when trying to communicate simple, everyday needs like asking for a haircut.

“My being here would be a better service for them,” Zhang said.

Once people learned she was from Fuzhou, news spread in the community, and many flocked to Zhang’s salon because she spoke their dialect and could provide a bit of understanding.

“They were all introducing the shop to each other,” said Zhang.

Yan Gong, a Chinese immigrant who moved to Boston three years ago after living in Maine for five years, said he gets his hair cut by Zhang whenever he shops for groceries in Chinatown.

“There’s no Chinese barber shop in Portland, Maine,” Gong said.

For Gong, being able to communicate the kind of style he wants for his hair brings a level of comfort that can’t be found anywhere else.

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