Despite his father having an “m-shaped” hairline, Alex Han from northeast China never thought he’d experience hair loss in his 20s.
“I was prepping my masters entrance examinations and there was a lot of pressure, so I probably didn’t sleep very well,” Han said in a phone interview. “At that time, (my receding hairline) was under control, but after three years in Beijing getting my masters, I moved to Germany for PHD study … and not only me, but other Asian students there, had a problem with hair loss.”
Commuters crowd the subway in Beijing in July 2008. China has traditionally had some of the world’s lowest rates of baldness, though changes to people’s lifestyles are contributing to an increase in hair loss. Credit: Guang Niu/Getty Images
Han opted to travel to Thailand for the transplant, which sees thousands of hair follicles grafted from other parts of the body — such as the chest, or back of the neck — onto the head. The eight- to 10-hour procedure cost him around $9,000, though he found clinics in China quoting “a sixth of that.” The transplant may take months to take effect, though Han expressed hope that he will “see the results and see my hair return to normal in the next two or three months,” adding, “then I’ll behave as if nothing has happened.”
Han’s fears mirror those experienced by men with receding hairlines around the world, namely the impact on his confidence, professional prospects and first impressions. “Hairstyles, for me, are critically important for men’s first impressions,” he said.
But losing your hair may be especially difficult in countries where it’s less common. The male beauty standards in East Asian popular culture — from Korean K-pop to Hong Kong’s movie industry — often favor big hair and boyish looks. “In Asian cultures the younger generation really like idols like (Chinese pop band) TFBoys,” Han said, adding that standards for white or black men are often different.
“Whenever there is a precedent, people tend to feel (more confident) to follow,” he said in an email interview.
A man looks at a robotic hair transplant machine at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai in 2019. Credit: China News Service/Visual China Group/Getty Images
Chinese American entrepreneur Saul Trejo, who has lived in various cities around Asia since 2011, began losing his hair while studying in Beijing. The 30-year-old said he “definitely noticed” the lower proportion of bald men in the city, compared to the US, and “it probably bothered me, but I tried to not let it.” He also found that people were more comfortable than those in the West to pass comment — even if in an entirely observational way.
“People will tell you straight out,” he said in a phone interview from Taipei, recounting instances when his loss of hair was casually pointed out to him. “Normally when they’re saying it they’re not trying to be mean, they’re just commenting, so I can’t be mad. But you remember.
“I tried to shave my head, but I didn’t think it was suitable for my head and body shape,” he added, naming Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and actor Jason Statham as non-Asians who can pull off the look. “I think Asian people, including myself, tend to be a little slimmer, so if I had to choose between bald and slim versus bald and athletic, or even muscular, then I think it looks better with the more size you have.”
In 2018, Trejo underwent a hair transplant in Bangkok, where he was based at the time. While it took almost a year to see the final results, Trejo said his new hairline is “a major blessing,” that “massively improved my dating life.” Before-and-after images shared with CNN show a remarkable amount of hair restoration at the top and sides of his head.
Chinese American Saul Trejo, pictured before and after undergoing a hair transplant in Thailand. Credit: Saul Trejo
The doctor behind Trejo’s procedure, Damkerng Pathomvanich, is a leading researcher into hair loss. He said that the number of hair transplant clinics in Asia is “skyrocketing,” and that business among Chinese patients at his clinic is “booming.”
A judge examines finalists at a 1957 baldness competition in Japan, where rates of hair loss have historically been among the world’s lowest. Credit: Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
In Korea, meanwhile, houttuynia cordata — also known as fish mint, or chameleon plant — can be brewed into a black liquid that is applied to the scalp, according to the journalist, David Ko, who received some from his concerned mother-in-law.
“I used it like a shampoo whenever I washed my hair,” he said. “After wetting my hair, I poured a handful of the plant-steeped water on my scalp, finger-massaged my scalp for about one minute, then rinsed it off with fresh water.
“But as time went by without seeing any clear sign of improvement, I got so tired of the remedy that I dumped more of (it) on my hair each time to finish the jar faster and get the practice over with.” He then tried other suggested home remedies. “My wife also nudged me to sprinkle some sea salts over my scalp instead of the plant water, and one of my co-workers told me her balding father benefitted from eating lots of black sesame seeds as a snack.”
Related video: Beauty is protest for young North Korean women
While New York dermatologist Norman Orentreich is widely known as the father of hair transplants, Japanese doctor Shoji Okuda is believed to have performed the very first procedure in 1937 (though the breakout of World War II meant that his research was largely overlooked). With baldness on the rise in Asia, it’s perhaps no surprise that the continent’s scientists — Japan’s and South Korea’s in particular — are again leading some of the field’s most promising research.
Like ‘a triad’
But, still, Asia poses unique challenges for receding men. Undergoing the scalp tattoo procedure requires patients to permanently sport a shaved-head look, which, as the Korean study suggested, may be “stereotyped in Asian cultures as (being like) a gangster or criminal.” According to Ko, however, such labels are a thing of the past.
“Back in the day, when young males shaved their heads, seniors would mildly chide them with a totally unproven and absurd hypothesis,” he said, suggesting that elders once saw a skinhead as a sign that someone was a rebel, or had “a problem with society.”
“Nowadays (these attitudes) almost never exist, but it is still true people look at bald males with a certain awe.”
A model with a shaved head walks the runway at China Fashion Week in 2017. The rise of street style may be helping popularize the skinhead look. Credit: Visual China Group / Getty Images
Eric But of Synergy Model Management, which has offices in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, said that clients are still often looking for Asian models to be “cute (with) long hair — that Korean drama, perfect boyfriend kind of look.” But while he distinguishes between shaved and bald heads, the modeling agent said that the rise of street fashion is gradually normalizing the skinhead look in Asia.
“For our parents’ generation, a skinhead in Asia is kind of like a gangster — if you want to be a triad, or if you go to prison, you have to shave your head,” he said over the phone. “But now, for people born in the ’90s or later, they see having a skinhead as a streetwear trend. And streetwear is massive in Asia.”
Even in the home of coiffed K-pop, visibility may be growing gradually. Ko cited restaurateur Hong Seok-cheon (below), rapper Gill and actor Kim Kwang-kyu as examples of a slowly-growing number of high-profile bald celebrities in South Korea.
“It would be more helpful if there were more Koreans with hair loss — if there were more cases (people) could look up to and think they are not alone out there.”
Top image: Chinese artist Fang Lijun pictured with one of his paintings, which since the 1990s have often featured bald-headed protagonists. The artist uses the hairless figures as symbols of disillusionment and rebellion in modern China.