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China's wig-trade boom hair to stay
Publication Date : 02-03-2014
Last week, I sold about 25cm of my hair in Beijing for 50 yuan, or about US$8.14.
If my hair had not been thinning and if I had dared to chop all of it off, I might even have earned 200 yuan, according to a recycled materials collector, Zhang Xiaoqin.
She was the one who gave me this "hair-brained" idea when she patrolled my neighbourhood in a minivan blasting this recorded message: "Buying plastic bottles, old electronics… and hair!"
Prices for untreated, undyed locks have been rising in China due to depleting supply and growing local and overseas demand for fake hair products such as wigs, said Ms Zhang, adding that she pays 20 per cent more for hair than she did two years ago.
Growing local demand
Prices are rising because fewer Chinese are willing to sell their hair as incomes increase and vanity becomes more important.
Thus, China now gets raw materials for wigs more from relatively poorer women, and even children, in Vietnam and India - and the occasional eccentric Singaporean like me.
So lucrative is this hair trade that Vietnamese raiders have allegedly mugged school girls of their long tresses to sell across the border to China.
Back in the day, Chinese wig-makers used to source most of their raw material domestically.
For instance, Zheng Youquan, founder of Chinese wig-making giant Henan Rebecca Hair Products, reportedly started off as a "hair collector" roaming the countryside in central Henan, collecting tresses from rural women before setting up his company in 1993.
The drying up of hair supply in China explains why Zhang, the hair-collector, seemed surprised by my interest in pawning my own locks.
"You are strange," she told me. "Most young Chinese women won't even think about selling hair - they are busy spending money on fashionable hair cuts and wigs."
Apart from cosmopolitan youth seeking new - and fake - hair-raising thrills, demand in China is also climbing because its fast-ageing population are buying more gear to cover up their balding patches or receding hairlines.
Chinese synthetic wig firm Yijiali Artistic Products Co, based in the coastal city of Tianjin, claims to make hair pieces donned by celebrities like Hollywood actress Jessica Simpson and pop superstar Beyonce.
It expects to sell 20 million yuan worth of fake hair products this year, up from 16 million last year.
But so lucrative is the natural hair trade that Yijiali's manager, Li Yueyou, told The Sunday Times that the 100-man firm will start production of high-end natural hair wigs soon.
"In future, we are looking to create our own brand to win market share within China," he added.
Growing overseas demand
S&P Consulting analyst Luo Yan forecasts that the domestic market for wigs will expand 30 per cent annually to hit 4.5 billion yuan in three years - twice the 15 per cent rate of the global market.
Still, that will be a relatively small part of the global wig industry, which will be worth $17 billion by 2017, said Luo. And China, which is already the world's biggest and cheapest producer of wigs with a 70-plus per cent market share, is set to claim more ground, say analysts.
Natural hair wigs make up just 46 per cent of the whopping 49,000 tonnes of head pieces that China exported last year, with synthetic ones accounting for the rest, according to Ms Luo.
But since natural hair wigs cost more, their value came up to 83 per cent of the $3 billion worth of hair products the Asian manufacturing giant sold abroad.
Chinese wig-makers' claim to global fame include rainbow wigs sported by legions of football fans at the South African World Cup in 2012 to the straight black bob worn by British celebrity "Posh Spice" Victoria Beckham, who was not shy about tweeting a photo of her hair-do perched on a stuffed bunny in her hotel room in Beijing during a trip there in early 2012.
Some 40,000 made-in-China wigs are sold worldwide every day on AliExpress, the international marketplace chock full of Chinese goods run by e-commerce giant Taobao.com.
Wigs - from multi-coloured clown do's to hair extensions and comb-overs for men - are the third biggest sellers on the site, after clothes and mobile phones, it said late last year.
More than 90 per cent of Chinese wigs are delivered to black people in the United States, reported the China Industry and Commerce News daily in October last year, without giving details of how this information was gathered.
But it's not all rosy for Chinese wig-makers.
Shanghai-listed Rebecca has had to turn its focus to emerging markets like Africa - and now, its home market - following a decline in exports to the crisis-hit US and European economies over the past few years, according to Dongfang Securities analyst Shi Hongmei.
In 2012, Africa overtook Asia and Europe to become the second largest market for Chinese wigs, said Luo.
Indeed, I was struck by the array of made-in-China wigs on sale at the sprawling China Mall in the South African capital city of Johannesburg two years ago.
The emporium of all things cheap and Chinese was so successful that it had put the indigenous market across the street, which sold local bric-a-brac, including African hair beads and feather head-dresses, out of business.
Chinese wigs are such a hot item on the continent that China's top producer, Rebecca - which claims to have a 20 per cent share of the South African market - announced late last year that it would take court action against the dozens of copycats of its design and brand name.
"Every year, the value of fake Rebecca fashion wigs amount to more than 10 million South African rand ($930,540)," Rebecca (South Africa) Co manager Wu Lujun told financial website China Economics Net.
Back home, Rebecca is building up an image as a high-end coiffure retailer.
The company is based in China's "Wig Capital" of Xuchang in Henan province, where Jewish and German merchants were said to have exported black locks during the Qing Dynasty back to their own countries to adorn the heads of stage actors and ladies attending elegant balls.
Since setting up its first store in China in 2007, Rebecca has since expanded to over 200 stores within the country, include in high-end malls like Beijing's Shin Kong Place.
Its loyal customers include Chinese fashionistas like marketing executive Lucy Zhao, 26.
"I treat wigs as another accessory, like my scarf or earrings," she said as she tried on an ebony wig priced at about 150 yuan at the Shin Kong Place outlet.
"I like natural hair pieces better because they are soft and look real," she said, adding, "You should try wearing one too."
That idea intrigued me. Who knows, perhaps I might just end up buying my own hair from a Chinese wig-maker one day.
*US$1 = 6.14 yuan