First, they prepared the eggs. Dai Mo, great-auntie,
the one who chose my Chinese name, reached for the
carton, her hands turned into a careful claw. She
plucked out three oval shapes and placed them in the
small pot filled with water. They added the dye,
bought from a herb store in Chinatown, and lit the
gas stove. The white shell slowly turned pink, then
red, the insides hardened. Dai Mo hit the eggs with
the spoon so the shell would crack and the red colour
would transform the insides as well.
And then they were ready.
I only found this out years later. Mother and I in
our basement, she was opening up the big black safe,
the kind that belongs on movie sets. I have no idea
where my father got it. She was storing away part of
her small collection of jade carvings. Her hand
exiting the safe paused at one of the shelves,
reached into a shallow cardboard box and pulled out
an envelope. It was marked with my name and a date:
August 7, 1969. This is a piece of your hair
from your first haircut, she explained. We open
the envelope gingerly, I dont dare breathe upon
it. Inside, at the bottom of the envelope is a small
clump of black down. You had so much hair when
you were born!
Dai Mo cracked open the eggs and left the shells on a
cloth on the kitchen table. Then she rubbed one of
the rubbery hard-boiled eggs all over my small, soft
head. Why on Earth did she do that? I
Well, it was to get you used to the feeling of
something on your head scissors, hands
it was for your first haircut, it was so you wouldnt
Well, did I?
I dont remember that, said my
mother, and I saw her twenty years younger, not so
different really: a more youthful face, blacker hair,
the same calm pleased look as today, the older
relatives all hovering over her, and over me too
grandfather, days before his death, Dai Mos
husband, probably drunk on Scotch like always, some
of my fathers brothers or sisters. Her youngest
son, his first haircut.
I have always had mixed feelings about my name.
Things could have been worse. Chinese daughters often
get the names of flowers: Peony, Pansy, Jasmine. The
sons get names of odd British men plucked from
history: Winston, Byron, Percival. Growing up I had a
theory about this. However antiquated these names
might sound to Anglo-Canadians, Chinese families had
no mental associations with them at all. They were
simply names, one basically as good as another, so
why not have something a little more flashy and
important sounding than John, they thought, eyes
lighting up with ambition.
I suppose that is how I got the name Samson, which I
tried to hide under the moniker Sam, but which failed
whenever a teacher at school would read out a role
call at the start of the year. The biblical reference
was not so bad, as most kids didnt know who
Samson was anyways, but once it started, it stayed,
and from time to time, my classmates in the
schoolyard would tease, Samson, oh Samson, where is
your long hair? At least it was better than the kids
that called me Samsonite, after the luggage company,
the name with a faint Japanese ring and sounding like
Supermans deadly poison.
People tell me I look different according to each of
my haircuts. If I have it short, I look boyish; if it
is long, I look older. It looks very different in a
ponytail from when it is loose. Just as Ibelieved
others were marked for certain paths, I also felt
that my destiny was linked to my hair due to my name
and my biblical namesake. While I surmised that
Myrons would always be awkward, that Jeffs would
always be friendly, that Louises would tend toward
cigarette-smoking, I knew that I, Samson, and my
strength would always be linked to the long strands
of straight Chinese hair springing out of my scalp
and downward with gravity.
I went through many phases with my hair.
The first was the barbershop, the Greek barbershop
that my father and brothers went to. It smelled of
talcum powder and blue after-shave. There were
mirrors behind the barber chairs and in front. When I
sat down in the worn vinyl, I could see my head
multiplied a million times, the smallest one receding
off into the distance, somewhere too far away to see
the end. Someday, I figured that I would visit that
There were four barbers. Leo would nick my ears, Mike
seemed so sloppy. Con was OK but it was his cousin
Steve who I liked, his large hands cupped around my
head, the warm buzz of the razor against my neck, the
blades of his agile scissors hovering around my scalp
like the wings of a hummingbird. He would always give
me the same haircut, just above the eyebrows, a bit
above the ears. He would ask me each time how long I
wanted my sideburns. He would shave the nape of my
neck up to a precise horizon that curved around just
below my ears.
It was when I was a tender fourteen that my
outrageous friend, Luis, told me about model nights
at Hiros hair salon. Luis was outrageous
because he wore stylish Italian clothes that were
bought during summer visits to his grandmothers
home in Rome, he wore a Speedo bathing suit for
swimming instead of baggy athletic shorts like the
rest of the boys, and he couldnt care less
about the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, the idols
of the neighbourhood kids. He liked English bands
with black dyed spiky hair. Of course, he would know
about these special nights at the hair salon. Call
them up, he advised. I decided it was time to leave
the Greek barbers.
I went in for my first appointment. A young hair
stylist named Chachka greeted me and led me to the
back of the studio, all angles and black plastic and
track lighting. The mirrors here did not reflect each
other but instead other parts of the stylish interior.
I was placed in a chair, my head placed back in a
sink, caressed with sweet-smelling shampoo, massaged
by strong lean fingers, my hair rinsed by a glorious
spray of hot, hot water.
Chachka spent an hour on my hair, trimming single
hairs here and there, consulting with her supervisor,
clipping and unclipping metal clips used to divide my
hair into sections. Instead of the crude equal
lengths of the fluorescent barbershop, here at Hiros
they measured and primped, angled and gelled. She
left my hair a bit long on top, incrementally angled
upwards on the sides from short to longer. She
trimmed off all remnants of sideburns and showed me
to how to gel my hair after shed given me a
second glorious shampoo. Blow-dried it all into
place, and told me to come back in a few weeks. All
for five bucks.
I returned many times. It was those days that I first
became conscious of how I appeared to others: I
started to spend longer in front of the mirror,
squint my eyes to see how I might look differently. I
didnt like my face. The eyes were fine, a
simple almond shape, like Moms. I had heard of
Chinese who had gotten an operation to have their
eyes fixed so they would appear more
Western. A slit here, a tuck there, voila! Eyelids.
But I didnt mind that mine were hidden. The
nose and the jaw were another thing. The former was
flat and tended to sprout pimples right in the middle.
I would have liked something smaller at the time, a
bit more angular and delicate. As for the shape of my
face, I couldnt stand its roundness. No one I
had ever met who was considered handsome had a round
face like mine. They had Superman jaws, angular Vs
or squared Us. Not my round ricebowl face. If I
couldnt change my face, at least I could do
something with my hair, which luckily for me, grew
I went through several variations of the gelled
hairstyles that were popular in those years. I
received them from a series of young, stylish,
ambitious men and women who were at various stages in
their salon careers. I made idle chitchat, asked how
long they had worked there, what they did before the
salon, what kind of hair they liked to cut best. One
of the stylists, a rough-looking fellow Chinese named
Alexander, asked me about high school and studies.
Just as he was finishing a final blow-dry, he asked
if I had a girlfriend. Or girlfriends? It was not
something I had really thought about, although I knew
what answer was expected. Still, I was never good at
lying. No, I mumbled and, when pressed,
said something about being shy. Shy?! he
exclaimed. Cman, you cant be shy about
these things. He continued his pep talk as I
placed a blue five-dollar bill in his hand and moved
towards the door. I didnt return to him.
One of the next stylists, talking with his hands the
way many of them did, described a wave in the air and
said, Your hairs getting long enough. You
know what Id do? Id put a wave in it.
I was starting to feel at the time that all Chinese
hair was the same, and no matter what I did, I would
look like all the other Chinese kids I knew. So I
imagined that shape on top of my head, my hair
sweeping over to one side, an ocean curve. It seemed
daring and original.
Of course, this is not what happened, and I should
have stopped it all when the rollers went in. Samson!
What did you do? Mother asked in mock horror,
although I could tell she thought it was quite funny:
short at the sides but the rest of my straight
Chinese hair bound up into curls on top of my head.
Have you seen Chinese people with perms? I hoped
people wouldnt think I was trying to hide my
cultural roots. How embarrassing! My only consolation
was that it was summer holidays and no one from
school would see me. Also, it was easy to take care
of. Pat it into place each morning; no need even for
a comb. It was, however, a long summer and I decided
then that I would grow my hair long.
Long hair! Long black hair! Silky, shiny, thick. The
girls flock to it, they feel it, they braid it.
I wish I had hair like this, they exclaim.
I reply, I think you might look a bit odd with
Chinese hair. Still, they giggle and flirt. I
am different from the other boys. They are attracted
to how little I care about the masculine requirement
for short hair. However, they cannot seem to guess
that I care nothing at all for masculine requirements.
Thats not entirely true. The masculine
requirement that I truly discard is that I should be
interested in these girls who are interested in me.
On other fronts I do want to be masculine. Or at
least appear masculine rather than effeminate, which
is what Ive heard gay men are supposed to be.
It scares me, this idea, not only that I am supposed
to act a certain way but that Imight be identifiable
and subject to taunts or worse.
I manage to avoid accusations though, and it takes me
some time to understand that as an Asian male, I am
viewed as neither masculine nor feminine, or so I
believe and so I carry myself. This allows me to meet
those flirtatious looks with a completely blank stare
that looks like innocence rather than distaste.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I wonder, how did you know who
you wanted to let your hair down for? Was it really
love that climbed up those locks?
I grew my hair long the same time I left for college.
While my mother thought my perm had been vaguely
amusing, she was horrified by the increasing length
of my hair. Shouldnt you get a haircut?
she asked whenever I would appear home for weekend
visits. The repetition would echo in my ears and off
the walls, and I knew to expect it twice, three, four
times a visit. There was no irony or playfulness in
her voice when she asked the question. She simply
hated that I had long hair.
It was about the same time that I was considering
coming out, and somehow I managed to link the two
issues firmly together in my mind. If mother couldnt
accept my long hair, after my repeated moans and
groans to stop asking me to cut it, how would she
ever accept it if I told her I was gay? I kept my
mouth shut. I kept my hair long.
When the girls would braid my hair, I felt the
strands twist around each other, and I felt them
twisting around myself, tight cords that held me in
all sorts of ways.
I have forgotten the dates when adolescence arrived.
I only remember images. The hair that sprouted above
my penis, all twisty like the shrubbery that grows
next to the ocean, the curves and bends eluding the
sea wind, rooting itself in place. I think I tried
not to look those days, I much preferred to be smooth
and hairless. I thought of my dentists hairy
hands reaching into my mouth, the tufts of chest hair
rising above his unbuttoned collar. I felt nauseous.
I was lucky though, since I never grew much hair,
hardly any on my arms, a bit on my legs. As for other
places, I watched my father cut his nose hairs and
hoped I would never have to do the same. Eventually I
would, that familiar revelation that we all become
our parents one day.
I entered university. I told my parents I was gay, my
father was confused and my mother cried, but she
stopped complaining about my long hair. Within the
year, things were relatively back to normal.
My mother started dyeing her grey hairs black. (I
hoped that my sexuality and her grey hairs were not
linked.) As for me, I discovered my first grey hair
while on a drive in the countryside one sunny fall
with a boyfriend, Paul, who was sweet but who would
only last three weeks. I cant believe it,
I think I have a grey hair, I exclaimed in
panic, holding it up and peering into the side and
Where, where? asked Paul as he lazily
reached over while keeping one hand on the wheel. He
found the hair and plucked it out with a sharp quick
motion and a smirk. Not anymore, he said.
Although I was annoyed, it was an easy solution at
the time to the problems of aging.
I got crabs from the boyfriend after Paul. While I
didnt particularly mind a bit of physical
infidelity here and there (mental infidelity was
another matter), I was dismayed at the physical
consequences it had on me. I was going through an
especially busy time at university and had started
swimming again. I convinced myself that the itch was
due to the chlorine. I almost fainted when I actually
saw what was crawling around. Not only at discovering
the denial of what my body had been telling me but
also at these small horror movie creatures with their
white legs and prehistoric-looking forms. I
considered shaving off my pubic hair, but realised
that the simple powder was an easier solution.
After swimming I took up weights. Not only did I get
to ogle beautiful men, but it also gave me a good
topic of conversation, since it seemed that every gay
man I met was going to the gym as well. It also
appealed to my sense of vanity, and after believing
my skinny Asian body could not gain weight, I was
quite pleased with the results.
I was amused with another discovery that summer.
After admiring innumerable sets of perky, rounded
pectoral muscles, some of which would lead down to an
incredibly ridged abdomen, some of which would perch
on top of a rounded or smooth torso, I started to
wonder why they looked all the same, as if put
through an assembly line to make parts of cars: hub-caps
perhaps, or fenders.
I called my best consultant in the city, Randolph.
Although he knew all the latest trends in the gay
world, he never got too caught up in them. Randolph,
Ive been noticing a disturbing trend lately.
Why do all the men in this city have the same chests?
Ah, he put on his academic voice, which
became more precise daily as he worked on his
doctorate in social anthropology.
Perhaps my dear Samson, it is because not only
are men body-obsessed these days, but they are all
shaving their chests to appear even more masculine
and true to form.
But I thought hair was masculine.
No, no. Where have you been, my boy? Gay men
are dying into a sea of hair and ashes. Now, they all
want to appear boyish and hygienic and hairless. The
boy next door. It seems more healthy that way. Have
you been frolicking with the gym Nazis lately?
Hair. No hair. Shaved hair. Shaved chests. I thought
about all of this with some satisfaction and some
resentment. Resentment since I could never fit into
these gay North American obsessions. I may be a
Chinese neighbour, but I would never be a boy next
door. At the same time, I felt some sort of secret
satisfaction. My chest was smooth, I would never have
to shave it, I would never have razor cuts over my
heart. At least, in a technical sense, according to
the whims and styles of the gay community, I was one
step ahead without having to do anything at all.
I travelled the country and other continents with my
mane of black hair. I revelled in the attention it
brought me. Sometimes, I would be angry that it was
all people could see. Many times I was addressed as
miss or madam and would
answer in my deepest, most resonant voice. Watch them
try to hide their embarrassment and surprise. While
some white male friends with long hair would tell the
same story of people approaching them from behind
mistaking their gender, I dont think theyd
ever been met directly face to face and addressed as
Where have these people been? I thought. Have they
never seen a Chinese face? Can they not tell the
difference between my slanted eyes and Suzie Wongs?
Is my Adams apple shrunken like our cocks are
supposed to be? Are the breasts of Asian women so
flat that they look like a thin mans chest?
Or do people not look? Do they see only a flash of
black hair? A flash of something strange and foreign
and unlikable so they turn their heads, so they speak
with the first word that arrives to their tongues, so
they stand, as in Columbuss supposed encounter
with the indigenous peoples on this continent, awed
by each others strange tones of skin and manner
At the same time, I enjoyed hiding behind that hair.
I could twist it when I was bored, I could cover my
eyes with it when I did not want to see. I could hide
my ethnicity in mystery. It was the Chinese who
arrived in Canada in great numbers, my grandparents
who owned produce stores and bought property, who
raised children who moved step by step further into
society. Yet still they did not understand us, or
they believed that they understood us too well. The
same questions over and over: What do you eat at
home? Do you speak Chinese? Were you born here?
With long hair I could be almost anything. Few
Chinese had long hair. People would ask me if I was
Japanese, Filipino, Thai. They would ask too if I was
Indian, a native Indian, they would not know what
word to use to least offend: Indigenous, First
Nations person, Indian? I could spin stories like
thread, or I could tell them the truth, which was a
long threadlike story since mother and father came
from different generations of immigrations as well as
different countries, even though all of our ancestors
came from villages in the same province of Canton. If
I wanted, I could be the ultimate Chinese. I was
growing my hair, braiding it into a queue, to return
to my roots, to wear my hair as the first Chinese
immigrants to Canada did, if they managed to escape
the white mans scissors.
There was another trend in the gay community that
took me a while to notice. Randolph, of course,
noticed right away, but knowing some of the
background to my long mane of hair and secretly
liking its connection with my name, he kept his mouth
shut. The trend followed the same reasoning as the
shaved chest phenomenon. If a hairless body, at this
point in our history, was somehow more masculine and
hygienic, what about hairless heads?
Gay men were shaving their skulls, their pates
peeking out into daylight. Some had blue veins, some
had razor cuts, others had odd bumps and lumps. If
they were not shiny bald, then at least, hair was
short. Short, short, like crew cuts, a military
allusion. Or short everywhere except for a cowlick
that would rise up from the brow, like the Belgian
comic book character Tintin.
I began thinking seriously about this trend. After
all, it had been four years since I had seen my hair
short, and I was admittedly tired of the long black
hairs that would appear everwhere, thick Asian
strands in the carpet, in the sink, in the shower and
on bathroom tiles. I wasnt tired of the
attention, but I was tired that it only came from
women. There was, I must recount, a crudely drawn
poster outside Torontos Glad Day Bookstore that
advertised a club for long-haired gay men and men who
loved them. But to me, this seemed no different from
the specialty classified ads that appeared in the
back of the community biweekly seeking boot-licking
slaves or water sport fanatics. To the mainstream gay
man, I was definitely out of fashion.
Still, it was not an easy decision to cut my hair.
When I told friends, most lamented what a shame it
would be to lose such hair. Perhaps something clicked
when I spoke with Terry, an actor friend of a friend.
People always told me how intelligent he was but I
had never seen this. He seemed to express only mild
interest in me, and we only made idle chitchat when
we met. Besides, I was envious. I was deeply
attracted to his physical form, a blond boy next door
with a handsome rugged face, a football players
physique a body that somehow avoided looking
too planned and precise, unlike those of so many
others on the gay scene.
Dont listen to that crap, he said,
his eyes elsewhere, sneaking a look at who his ex-boyfriend
was talking to elsewhere in the bar. Why would
you follow some stupid trend? Why would you need to
follow the crowd? Gay people can be so superficial.
His attention altered to watch a tall brunet cross
the floor. Thats not a comment on you, its
just why would you need to?
I adjusted my ponytail, my hair drawn back and held
by a thin black elastic. Its a game, I thought
to myself. Checkers, Parcheesi, Poker. I want to
play, and how can I play if people wont even
let me into the game? I got up to leave and felt a
flash of anger. I swallowed it. Heat bounced uneasily
against my interiors. Ronnie could wear whatever he
wanted, the most out-of-style clothes, the most
garish colours; he could grow his hair into a river
of blond; he could keep his chest unshaved if it wasnt
already: he would still be pursued as he probably had
been pursued all of his life, men buckling at the
knees at first sight of him. And he would never know
that he did not need to play the game because he was
it. He was the game.
When I shaved my head, I felt glorious. It was a nice
surprise to learn my parents had given me a strong,
round skull. I sent my braid to a Chinese-Canadian
artist friend who thought he could work it into his
next piece, a pseudo-museum display on the cultural
artifacts of a composite Chinese-Canadian family. I
showered and felt the hot spray directly on my head.
My hair did not need drying. The number of hairs in
the carpet slowly diminished.
Most important, I walked along sunny Church street
and felt the weather on the very top of my body, and
amazingly, like a miracle predicted but not believed
in, heads swivelled, other eyes caught mine. There is
no way to describe to someone with no experience of
swimming in the ocean how the salt smell rises into
your head to the heights of your senses, how every
inch of what surrounds you feels alive and in motion,
how the salt leaves its traces on your skin as you
leave the water. Ever since I had come out of the
closet, I had had long hair, and I had never known
what it was like to be close-shaven. More accurately,
I had never known what it was like to be recognisably
gay, and to walk on a gay street on a hot summer day.
With all that mess of hair, the denizens of my gay
world saw only an exotic creature with foreign roots.
They could not see my desire through the forest of
hair, could not name me as one of them. For with my
skin already a different colour, they needed another
signal to call me their own. Shaving my head, I had
learned to play the game I wanted to play.
How many of you have ever seen your head bald, seen
the lines and veins and patterns of the skull, to see
how nature has formed that skull without the
adornment of hair? That summer I saw it, and it was a
revelation. Its round form showed me the shape of the
world in which I was learning to take part.
When I arrived in Europe to start my first real job,
in the office of a human rights organization in
Brussels, my hair was fuzzy, thicker than the skin of
a peach but not so thick that the white of my scalp
was hidden from view. Still, it was starting to jut
out from behind my ears, it was losing its clean and
even look. I was far too busy packing my bags before
I left to give myself a quick shave; now I realized
that the shape of the plugs was different here than
in Canada, and before I did anything, I would have to
find an adaptor for my razor.
It took me a few more days to find an electrical shop
and even then the man handed me a small white plug
that to me did not look sturdy enough for anything.
When I tried it out, my plug still wouldnt fit
into it. Oh, thats easy to fix,
said my French co-worker, Jean-Pierre, as a
pocketknife suddenly appeared in his hands and he
deftly enlarged the holes.
That night I was to meet an American friend, Reed,
also new to the city. He had come to work for the
European branch of an American newspaper. We were
ready to explore Belgian gay bars for the first time.
He would meet me here at the apartment where I was
staying, which belonged to a friend, Thomas, who was
away for the weekend. I finished work early and
decided after eating some paté on bread that I would
shave my head, take a bath, and be ready for action.
I stripped off my clothes, plugged in the razor and
knelt in the bathtub, a mirror in one hand, and the
razor in the other. As I pushed this warm buzzing
creature in straight lines back from my forehead, it
reminded me of the Greek barbershop of my childhood.
I started from the centre of my head and moved off to
the right, the razor traversing my scalp like a
sailor across rounded oceans. I could tell something
was wrong, but it all happened so quickly. A small
voice told me that the razor was overheating and that
I must shut it off, but another voice said Just
a few minutes more. As I considered what Id
look like half-shaved, the second voice won. I heard
a tiny pop, everything went dark, and a sweet acrid
burning smell arose from my razor.
A few seconds passed before my eyes adjusted to the
darkness, before I knew that not only had I blown the
electrical circuits, but that I knew no one in the
city who could help me. I stumbled around the
apartment by the glow of the streetlamps outside. I
found a candle and lit it. I found electricians
in the phone book just in case. Then I found the
fusebox in the kitchen. Much to my dismay, despite
fifteen or twenty minutes of flipping the switches
into different formations, the power did not come
back on. I took a bath in the dark and worried and
felt sorry for myself.
I finally found the courage to call Thomas at his
parents home in Britain. Luckily, he was home.
Oh, youve blown the circuits, have you?
Well look, you have to go down to the night store
below the apartment, and ask them to let you into the
basement to look at the circuits there.
It all worked out in the end. I covered my head with
a bandana, Reed and I had a good night on the town,
and the next day I sheepishly removed the cloth from
my head at a hair salon and asked the woman if she
could finish the job. She was more pleasant than the
European boys here, who were shy and hard to approach.
I was the only Asian in the bars that night, and to
me it felt like I was moving backwards in time, to a
place whose cultural homogeneity had not truly been
broken. We learn our lessons in one place, only to
begin anew in the next.
Still, I figured that shaved would be the form in
which I would stay in Europe. I arrived in this world
with a full head of hair. Perhaps now to amuse
myself, I could turn into a bald child, my round
smooth cranium glowing in the light of new days ahead.
A retelling of my entry onto this harsh, strange
planet. If only it wasnt so cold in the
wintertime. If only it wasnt so cold.