From Gangster to Barber for Taipei's Homeless

From Gangster to Barber for Taipei's Homeless
Photo Credit: Pilgrim Barber
What you need to know

Wu Ting, a former gang member, reconciles with his past by giving free haircuts at Taipei Main Station.

Yu Da-qing was a construction worker in Nantou before the accident. One rainy afternoon high up on the scaffolding, he slipped through his harness and fell three floors. He survived, but his leg was so deformed by the accident that he could no longer be the bread-winner for the family; he abandoned his wife and daughter out of shame.

You can now find Yu outside Taipei main station, where he lives on a cardboard plot with his wife.

Wu Ting, 28, is a barber at the acclaimed Sculptor Barber salon. His clients are usually wealthy businessmen who wouldn’t turn a hair at an NT$3,000 trim. But on days off, Wu fashions himself a different persona, calling himself, “the Pilgrim Barber.”

On the day that the Pilgrim Barber goes to Taipei Main Station clasping his neat, black, barber’s bag, Yu just so happens to be in need of a trim. Wu asks for nothing in return, wrapping up Yu in his immaculate barber's cape. He then begins to softly comb Yu’s hair away from his forehead, pulling on it gently as he makes quick snips with his gentlemen’s scissors.

Free luxury haircuts were always just a channel for Wu to accomplish something more meaningful. The intimacy of a barber’s work and the stroking of the scalp, he says, can be a powerful act of care. It’s a bestowal of dignity.

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Photo Credit: Pilgrim Barber

“When I started my job in hairdressing I told my boss that I wanted to change the world. He told me I would never be able to change the world by cutting hair. I am proving him wrong,” Wu says.

His personal mission led to a movement. Not long after he began, a friend said he would help him create a video for his Facebook page where he shares his homeless clients’ stories. This video has now hit half a million views.

When the video went viral, Wu was overwhelmed with offers for assistance. Even his boss offered to join him at the pop-up barbershop at Taipei Main.

Most of the time though Wu works alone. He prefers it this way. For him, the streets of Taipei are his church — it is here that he finds peace and a sense of reconciliation with his past life.

Wu only found out that his father was a gangster when he entered the gangs himself. At 16 years old he was notorious for his ruthlessness.

“One time I went to buy drugs from a dealer. Instead, I shocked him with a police baton, took the drugs and ran off,” he says.

Everything changed after an accident. A serious scooter crash meant he had no choice but to hole up at home for a few weeks. This was when then the doubting began. As Wu distanced himself from the group, one his gang members got involved in a murder. Everyone in the gang was arrested—except Wu, who was safely ensconced in his bed at home.

In the aftermath of the murder, Wu absconded to Australia, thinking he could make easy cash running drugs back to Taiwan. Here Wu’s life changed again—this time by a providential encounter. He was approached by a stranger who asked him to join his evening church service. Motivated only by the prospect of making friends, Wu went along with the stranger. It wasn’t long before he felt the scriptures start to resonate with him.

He wondered whether it was possible for him to start his life anew. This searching led him to find work as a trainee barber, but he recalled that he still felt a lack of meaning.

barber_4_(boss)
Photo Credit: Pilgrim Barber
The Sculptor Barber team joins Wu Ting on his haircut mission.

That’s when he came up with his big idea; an idea that took him back to the streets of Taipei where it all began. But instead of a police baton, this time he brandished a comb and barber scissors.

“I want to show people trapped in gangs, stuck in a circle of violence like I was, that there is another way to live,” he says. “I want people to see that if they have something to give—food, clothes, or a skill, they should just give it.”

The wind is picking up. A pile of black hair swirls around in the dust outside Taipei Main Station. For Wu it’s the end of a long day. But for his final customer, this haircut marks a day that is just beginning. “Looking good builds confidence,” the last client says. “I feel like today is going to be a great day—luck and fortune are in the air.”

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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