I happened to meet Ôn Thí ( Mr. Thí) on an afternoon roaming around Chi Lang Gia Hoi ancient town. I lovingly called him “the Chi Lang barber”.
His hairdresser shop is a small blue tent by Dieu De Pagoda. His neat shop and smiley face were what caught my eyes. After a few greetings, I found out that he was my grandma’s friend who are both in their 90th.
While my grandma is sometimes absent-minded that I have to repeat from which of her daughter I came, ôn Thí has no problem remembering people and history events.
So I sat with him in his pavement shop. While he was telling me stories from nearly a century ago, his hands were sharply moving around his client’s head.
He was born in 1930 when Vietnam was still colonized by France. Hué was under the name of An Nam ruled by Bao Dai Emperor. Growing up, he spent his youth helping his family to earn living by learning to be a barber at the age of 15.
In 1945 when Nguyen Dynasty was no longer gaining trust from their peasants, Japan ousted France in Vietnam and the Revolution party was rising as a symbol of freedom and equality, it was a history-changing year for all of us.
On the afternoon of 30th August 1945, Emperor Bao Dai made an abdication speech at Ngo Mon square, thousands of Hue people gathered up to witness the event. Our 15-year-old young man was one of the people in the crowd.
In Bao Dai’s speech, Ôn Thí recalled, the Emperor said “Trẫm muốn được làm Dân một nước tự do, hơn làm Vua một nước bị trị” ( translated: “I’d rather be a normal citizen of a free country than Emperor of a slaved one!“).
There were cheering in the crowd, there was also sobbing. I asked Ôn: What about you? Did you cry or did you cheer?
He stopped cutting hair for a few seconds, looked at me and said:
– Neither I was cheering nor crying! I should be quiet as you never knew what would happen after that.
Turned out he was right about not cheering or crying, French did come back to Indochina and Hué was suffering a battle which we called the Seige of Hue and starvation in 1946.
Fast forward to Vietnam war when Diem President and his family regime ruling South Vietnam, he attended a short course to become a police man.
In 1968 when the Tet Offensive surprisingly broke out in South Republic of Vietnam, he was “luckily” ordered by his chief to attend another course in Saigon. Thus he went to Saigon just a few days before Tet.
“I would not be standing here, had I not have gone to Saigon for the training!” – Mr. Thí said.
War ended in 1975. He was not hired anymore due to the fact that he used to be a police of an old regime. Our man started to set up his shop on Bach Dang street by Dieu De Pagoda and worked as a barber ever since. Now our Chi Lang barber is 90 year old!
His day starts early at 07:00 and finishes at 17:00, just like any state officer. He takes pride in his job which is making other looking good.
For him, dressing up nicely for work is respecting his clients, thus, you’ll see him in his bright shirt with no wrinkles and tidy pants everyday.
His son brings him lunch in a neat “package”.
And Mr. Thí keeps up with world’s news with newspaper whenever he has no clients.
“When do you plan to retire, Ôn?” – I asked.
“I don’t think so. I like working here. It’s fun you know”. – said our 90-year-old Chi Lang barber.
When people like him and grandma are gone, who will tell us prince and war stories?…