China’s demand for human hair turns villages into trading centres

In Mandalay Region, where drought and failed harvests have pushed many farmers out of business, another industry is thriving, as China’s demand for human hair has turned entire villages into centres of trade and repair.

Traders say hair is imported from India and Bangladesh through the border town of Tamu in Sagaing Region, or is collected from villages in Yangon and Mandalay regions.

Villages in Pyawbwe and Thazi townships have been famous for their hair trade for some time, but the nature of the industry is changing quickly, said merchant Ko Aung Ye Thu.

“In the past we travelled from one village to another collecting hair from women, but now we buy it directly from traders in Mandalay,” he said. “We repair it and sell it to wholesale traders, who take it to China.”

Ko Aung Ye Thu, who has been working in the industry for more than three years, said people are increasingly drawn to the trade as a more profitable alternative to farming.

Entire villages have started repairing and selling hair, he said. Hnin Kwet Aing village in Thazi township, for example, has 350 houses and 300 hair sellers.

His business includes 80 staff who sell around 8 viss (13 kilograms) every day. “Depending on their capacity, employers can make between K1800 to K15,000 a day,” he said, adding that most traders make their money from untangling hair and selling it on to wholesalers. Together the villages in the two townships sell around 600 viss (980kg) per day, he said, with prices varying depending on the length of the hair. Shorter hair of around 8 inches sells at around K20,000 per viss while one viss of 38-inch strands can fetch as much as K600,000.

“I once sold 50 inches of hair,” said Ko Aung Ye Thu.

Ko Pyone Mg Mg, who employs 30 workers, said there are five large-scale merchants who travel around the villages, buying from small firms.

“We mostly sell bags weighing 30 viss, which cost us around K5 million to put together, including expenses [such as rent and salaries]. We usually sell them for between K5.2 million and K5.3 million.”

Weakness in China’s currency is a major concern and is impacting business, he said.

The value of the yuan has depreciated since the start of 2014 and was trading at 6.48 to the US dollar yesterday, according to Bloomberg data, while the Central Bank of Myanmar’s reference rate showed 1 yuan costing K188.05.

Waste is also a problem, said Ko Pyone Mg Mg. “If we buy 4 viss of hair, once we have finished repairing it we are usually left with around 3.80 viss.”

In the past, Chinese traders relied on middlemen, but now they buy directly from central Myanmar and sell to China, or buy the raw materials and sell finished products – usually wigs – to shops in Yangon.

The owner of Thiha Hair in Yangon’s Insein township opened her shop in 2006. At first she sold her products to local buyers, and did not ask where the hair ended up.

“I just sold to the traders I did not know where they sent it. Now Chinese traders come directly to my shop, so I know where the hair goes. They buy from me, and also give me finished products to sell,” she said.

For retail customers in Yangon, a tical (0.01 viss, or 16 grams) of short hair is priced at K10,000 and a tical of long hair sells for between K25,000 and K30,000.

As the hot season begins, it is customary for young women to cut off their hair and sell it, said Thiha Hair’s owner.

It is also traditional for women to shave their heads to become nuns during the Thingyan festival. From March 20 the amount of hair in the market is likely to spike, said the owner of Mhwe Mhwe San hair shop in Insein township.

“I have worked in this job for 18 years. For the first three I walked around the streets and bought hair to sell to businesspeople. After three years I opened a shop and I hired other people to buy hair.”

Traders sometimes try to pay in advance, she said. “I don’t accept advance money because they fix the price at less than the market price. I run the shop with my own money which allows me to negotiate. If they’re not satisfied, they don’t have to buy from me.”

A few shop owners travel to China to trade directly with merchants there, but this is not easy because it requires investment. Most prefer to deal with Chinese traders who travel to Myanmar, she said.

Retail buyers in Yangon are beauty salon owners, make-up artists and spirit mediums, she added.

“Many of our local buyers are gay, and use the hair in their salons. I don’t know exactly what it’s used for, I think mostly for wigs.”


Source: Myanmar Times

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