Crowning Glory: Western hair / Chinese hair – not same thing!

Tania McCartney is an editor, presenter and book-obsessed author of both children’s and adult books. As an ACT Ambassador for the National Year of Reading 2012, she is passionate about literacy and children’s literature. Tania runs literary site Kids Book Review, writes for several online sites and loves paper, travel, marshmallows and laughing. Her latest book, Beijing Tai Tai, $24.99 is available from Tania blogs at

Tania is currently on a virtual tour promoting Beijing Tai Tai and we were thrilled to hear she wanted to stop by and write a guest post for us at Beauty and Lace, an amusing teaser to let us know what to expect from the book.

Warning: Be prepared to swoon.

Of all the myriad divine experiences a Western woman can enjoy whilst living in China’s capital, it surprised no one more than me that getting my hair washed would be in the Top Five.

After living in Beijing for four years with my young family, there was many a superlative experience to be had. Great Wall of China? Tick. Food food and more food? Tick. Cultural experiences beyond belief (just you try stacking 16 girls on a bicycle or twisting your body into the shape of a pretzel)? Tick. Purchasing your body weight in bling and silk every time you left the house? Tick.

Tania McCartney
McCartney bursts into tears at her final Beijing book reading, unable to reconcile the fact that she's sporting her final Beijing blow-dry

Hair washing? Oh my, tickety tick tick tick. Let me explain.

Having your hair cut, washed and blow-dried in a Chinese hair salon is a seriously otherworldly experience. There is simply nothing like a Chinese head-washing. Nothing.

They’re onto something, these people.

There’s none of this sitting upright and twisting your neck into yoga contortions before wedging it into a headache-inducing basin, no no. You get to lay down, yes you do. And you have a hot towel for the back of your neck and your head rests on something soft but firm in the basin, so there’s no strain at all. Why didn’t the West think of this?

Then comes the water, then the deliciously fragrant shampoo… then the finger tips. Oh Lord. Your hair-washing mistress begins by pressing into scalp pressure points that release little whispers of delight (from you, not the stylist). She then launches into strong, sweeping, skin-shifting tingles all over your head and down your neck, where the sides will be compressed and kneaded along with the slippery aid of conditioner. I challenge any goosebump to lay flat during this experience.

She will then use her nails to vigorously scratch the scalp, then pull hair by the roots, sending blood rushing to the skin, and the grand finalé will be an earlobe massage that really belongs in a parlour of things far less savoury, for its tendency to curl toes and flush faces pink.

I love a Chinese head-washing so much, I’m even over the ‘staring’ thing. Every eyelash, every freckle, every stray dot of mascara, every open pore is under intense scrutiny. When under the fingertips of my master head-masseuse, my Western face––upside down to their point of view––must surely resemble the Swiss Alps––white and angular, all mountains and valleys, peaks of cheeks and troughs of deep-set eyes, high ridges of nose bridges and temple plains, with my Roman schnoz rising clear and proud like the Matterhorn. But I let my Matterhorn paranoia go for this singularly divine experience.

Tania McCartney
McCartney at her final Beijing book reading, moments before breaking down over the fact that she's sporting her final Beijing blow-dry

When the washing and kneading is done, my neck and ears are lovingly dried and then my head is wrapped, Smurf-like, in a tight towel with my ears sticking out like a four-year-old boy. I’m then kindly escorted, in a semi-delirious state, to a waiting chair and if my stylist is not ready, I’m given a hand, arm or shoulder massage.

On top of all this (if you can believe there could possibly be more), a Chinese blow-dry is truly something to behold. My regular doyen is such a perfectionist, he’s been known to finalise my blow-dry with a ten-minute fine-tooth-combing––coaxing, quite literally, each strand into place. By the time he’s done, I look like my hair has been cast in a blonde mould––a Polly Pocket plastic dome. I absolutely forbid him to hairspray, lest it never move again.

Then, when I finally stand and flick my head, that plastic dome separates like the strands on a fringed lampshade and falls into a flickable sheath that weights onto my shoulders like silk tassels. Sleek, shiny, frizz-free, gorgeous hair on a head that is usually inhabited by a Brillo pad.

Brillo pads, however, do not stop the Chinese from using their outstanding talents to turn frizz into silk. In fact, I think it’s a challenge for them. You see, the difference between Chinese hair and Caucasian hair is vast. Coarse versus fine, sheeny versus arid, straight versus loopy, thick versus sparse, liquid versus fluffy. A generalisation maybe, but this is the ultimate difference between what a hairdresser will find growing on the head of a Beijing native and that found on the head of a several-generational-Caucasian-Australian, especially one who has fairy floss for hair.

Like me.


I have to be honest. It actually took me months to muster the courage to walk into my first Beijing salon––mainly because I feared they would completely fluff my fine, arid fluff. What struck me when I first went into a salon, however, was not the hairdressing skills. It was the staring. The being inspected, assessed and blatantly gawped at like a Parisian haute couture shop assistant, only without the hoity attitude––just childlike curiosity.

They look at your hands and the rings on your hands. They look at your nails, your watch, your clothes, shoes, bag, skin, hair and finally your face, which they will stare as though caught in hypnotic swirl. Persons with low self-esteem, paranoia or agoraphobia––enter at own risk.

To dodge the stares, I usually read, which I’m convinced is considered the height of rudeness because I have never seen Beijing natives do this. Ever. They just sit there, patiently, for hours and hours––even under the perming machine––staring. Amazing. Who’s got the time and patience to do that?

I also buck the system when it comes to the handbag handover. I want it with me––it contains my phone, my magazine, my vital bottle of water; it stays with me. Each time, nonetheless, I am asked for it––and each time I politely refuse––but God forbid if I place it on the floor. “No! Tai zang le! Too dirty!” they will cry and my bag will be offered its own chair, like a pet. I’m sure they would shampoo it if they could.

Pet bags aside––nothing beats a Chinese wash and blow dry, especially when it costs around three dollars from first rinse to head-flick. When I return to Australia, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do with my Brillo mop. I guess I won’t need to buy a toilet brush.

Toe-curling great hair. It’s a Chinese thing.

Beijing Tai Tai can be purchased for $24.99 paperback or $9.99 as an ebook:

You can find the Beijing Tai Tai Virtual Tour Schedule at:

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