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my shanghai:
Talking to: Joe Leong

More than a decade ago, Joe Leong arrived in Shanghai with a pair of scissors in hand and elevated the idea of a simple haircut to a salon experience. He’s imported cutting and styling techniques from Europe, turned legions of Chinese students into professional stylists and created a city-wide salon service empire. As the director of Toni & Guy Shanghai and the principal of the international company’s academy, Joe has made a home for his family here. He sat down with TALK to discuss how the city has grown up over the past decade, why he likes cutting China's hair and where he spends his time when he’s not thinking about follicles and split ends.

Back in 1998, Joe was working at Toni & Guy in his native Singapore when he got a call from a friend who told him to pack his bags. “He said, 'Come to Shanghai and take a look' – that the city was the future and it would be good for business. But back then, I wasn’t thinking about business, I just wanted to have fun!” he laughs.

It turns out Shanghai was the place to do both, so the gregarious stylist boarded a plane and lopped off the last of Shanghai’s Mao-era bowl cuts at a local salon. After two years in the Pearl of the Orient, he headed back to Singapore and Toni & Guy, spending a year languishing his talent in his hometown. Joe longed for the challenge that Shanghai presented and Singapore’s one-dimensional tropical climate made styling hair too easy. With four seasons to work with, Joe could test himself, and he also appreciated the daredevil fashion of Shanghainese women; Singapore’s conservative style was no match for his creativity.

Thus, Joe planned a more permanent move to Shanghai and this time, he was bringing more than a suitcase – he was bringing a franchise. The first Toni & Guy opened in 2001 at Times Square back when people danced all night at the only disco in town (Park 97), finding lemongrass was an impossible feat and Pudong was barely more than a village.

He laughs when he reminisces about the first days of Toni & Guy Shanghai, working 14 hours a day on his feet. “We were trying to introduce a culture of service around hair treatments. Then people would come in for a perm at 10pm,” he says. “But when you’re starting your own business, you have to be the one to take it seriously.” After six months of hard work, training and idea sharing, he passed the keys along to the local staff and started thinking about expansion.

Now you can often find him in Pudong, which has transformed from a quiet farming hamlet into a thriving metropolis during his tenure in Shanghai. The Toni & Guy academy is located in Superbrand Mall, a shopping centre that he jokes used to be a ghost town, while the company’s Jinqiao branch, which partnered with Comfort Zone to create the ultimate in spa and beautification, is another bustling salon.

And Pudong’s flourish into the commercial big time isn’t the only thing to change in Joe’s Shanghai over the past decade. You definitely won’t find the family man stumbling out of Park 97 in the wee hours of the morning anymore. If he does paint the town red, he’ll probably head to Vue Bar where he can enjoy the skyline and the quiet atmosphere that allows for easy conversation. But truth be told, he’s more likely practicing his photography craft on old buildings around the French Concession or having an adventurous day with Justin, his five year old son.

Joe likes to bring Justin to places with natural beauty, one thing he worries that Shanghai lacks, but for now he’s happy to spend as much time with his son as possible. “After kids are about nine, they don’t want to play with their parents anymore,” he says, a touch of melancholy creeping into his otherwise cheerful tenor.

So for now, he makes sure he’s home for dinner most nights to whip up classic Singaporean dishes and share a meal with his family. And with Shanghai’s influx of foreign ingredients over the past decade, finding lemongrass for laksa is no longer a problem.




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