Today, like every day, Gary Teitelbaum is surrounded by hair. Hair sprawls over his desk, lolls on a chair, spills out of boxes. Not wigs or toupees—his dad sold that part of the business 50 years ago, back when the Adorable Hair-Do Corporation was the Harlem-based Howard Tresses Inc. Since the 1970s his family’s deceptively modest West 24th Street workshop has dealt only in 20-inch lengths of virgin Asian hair for extension artists, braiders, and weavers.
He strokes these fat, heavy, black horsetails with love. Turning raw silky stuff into zigzags and spirals is how the Teitelbaums have made their money. In a secret chemical process he says his father developed, ropes of raw hair are acid stripped, twisted around wooden poles, and baked into textures. Then come the color and the polish.
Custom-blended hair is an old New York craft. Besides Teitelbaum’s, there’s the walk-in-friendly Lugo’s in the East Village, the elite Alkinco’s on West 40th and the priced-to-sell Lexy’s on Flatbush, among others. Local hair makers say business is steady, despite the muscle of an international hair-extending system called Great Lengths International. The Italian-based company took Europe by storm in the ’90s, and by 2001 had persuaded over a thousand initially skeptical high-end American salons that extensions aren’t just for strippers and the ghetto fabulous.
Teitelbaum says he’s unconcerned about the competition. About half his business comes from traditional extenders like Shanda Young, who just moved her operation from a spare bedroom in her Harlem apartment to a stylish new work space in Long Island City, Queens. One evening, having cornrowed sections of shoulder-length hair tight to the scalp of a self-described “Jewish girl from the suburbs,” Young sews to the plaits two-foot lengths of voluptuously undulating hair of Chinese origin. An hour later, the 25-year-old’s attitude is transformed as well. She flips her new hair from her neck and lets it fall back forward—long hair can make you feel like a goddess. “I hear they get it from dead people,” jokes the stylist, repeating a persistent but completely unsubstantiated industry myth.
Tales surrounding the origin of donor hair endure—some grisly, some romantic. Teitelbaum, like most in the business, won’t give up the name of his supplier. Instead he speaks of villages in the developing world inhabited by women who, thanks to rich diets and good genes, have grown and sold their exquisite, fast-growing hair “professionally” and as “part of their culture.” But that’s not exactly the case.
In 2002 a grad student from the University of California at Berkeley took a video camera to Shandong—a northeastern Chinese province—to locate a village with an economy centered around the hair harvest. Ly Franshaua Pipkins found entrepreneurs bicycling the countryside in search of hair to sell to traders working for one of China’s hundreds of processing plants. But you can’t say that the short-haired women and girls of the village were actually earning a living from their low-yield crop. The freshly shorn Dong Qi Li told Pipkins she’d bought a pair of pants and a coat with the cash she got for the hair it had taken her years to grow.
The hair she sold was most likely bleached, kinked, and otherwise Occidentalized on-site—most hair that passes through U.S. Customs has been. Only a fraction of what the International Trade Commission calls “unworked” hair is exported to the States, and every year about 95 percent of this fumigated, sorted, and bundled virgin hair is gobbled up by New York’s hair makers. But whether worked or not, whether it’s been shorn from Eastern European, South Asian, or provincial Chinese heads, much of the human hair that enters the U.S. has done a stint in an enormous processing plant human and labor rights organizations are calling illegal and exploitative.
The Hair Kingdom
Whatever its origin, a lot of the hair harvested for export now ends up in Henan, a province southeast of Beijing. Much of Henan’s success can be attributed to an octopus called Henan Rebecca Hair Product Company, which is now reportedly China’s largest hair-processing operation. In 2001 Rebecca airlifted 850 tons of Indian, Southeast Asian, Eastern European, and inland Chinese hair to Xuchang City to be fumigated, sorted, weighed, and bundled by what the Xinhua News Agency calls “Xuchang girls.” According to a 2005 Henan Rebecca quarterly report, sales to North America accounted for almost 70 percent of its annual revenue. There is an ethnic hierarchy, and stylists say relatively coarse Chinese hair is near the bottom. Years ago anything called “European” hair—even if it was Asian hair processed in Europe— was treated like gold. But more recently demand for super-long, wavy, not-too-fine/not-too-thick South Asian hair has skyrocketed, and Indian factory owners should have an advantage. Like China, India has a large supply of poor people to supply hair and do the processing work, but with reports of troublemaking Indian labor unions and comparatively underdeveloped light industries, traders mostly just export the raw stuff. Besides, though Indian workers come cheap, in China the labor’s so cheap it’s sometimes free.Adriana Barrett, proprietress of a cozy East Village salon that bears her name, is a pioneer of “white girl” extensions. She once rode along on an ox cart to buy “village hair” from a Shandong village in 1998. More disturbing, she says, was an earlier trip to Russia, when she and her mother were encouraged to dig through a pillowcase full of filthy blond and reddish ponytails while grinning tough guys stood by. The salon owner is adventurous—few stylists have been to the source.
Henan Rebecca’s website states that the corporation employs “over 1,960 employees including 60 technicians and 80 managing staffs,” some with “master and doctor degrees.” But it’s not the masters of economics who fumigate, acid soak, or bundle; nor, according to activists, do they work the machinery to produce the synthetic hair Rebecca also exports.
Advocacy groups allege that brutally treated detainees from at least three Henan Province work camps take care of that. A 2004 petition to alert the Department of Homeland Security of alleged abuses, put together by the Boston-based World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong (an officially banned religious group that advocates a mixture of Buddhist thought, yoga-like exercise, apocalyptic belief, and very conservative social ideals), offered the following testimony of an escaped detainee. It reads:
“During my time at the No. 3 Labor Camp in Henan Province, I was forced to work as a slave, mostly making hair products for Rebecca Hair Products, Inc. in Xuchang City . . . policemen forced me to work until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., not allowing me to sleep; if I did not finish the quota they would beat me with electronic batons and/or tie me and hang me up with ropes.”
Nothing came of the petition, but activists hope that the ongoing investigative work of Jamil Anderlini, a reporter for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, could make a difference.
Saying he posed as a wig maker, this past summer Anderlini visited Henan Rebecca and slipped into a couple of Henan Province work camps. He tells the Voice he chatted up the work camp guards and a few low-level paid workers who he says “told me proudly that they process hair for Henan Rebecca.” When interro-gated by the higher-ups, he says he got tossed out and fled to Hong Kong out of fear of being detained himself.
Henan Rebecca says Anderlini (whose work on the subject is up for two reporting awards) and the rights group are misrepresenting the facts, and in a phone interview with the Voice, Hu Liping, an administrator in Henan Rebecca’s investor relations department, said she remembers giving Anderlini a tour of the factory. Through a translator she told the Voice that there is no relationship between labor camps
and Henan Rebecca. Describing herself as a “common worker,” she asked rhetorically, “Why would we use prison labor? We have our own workers.” When asked about allegations of torture at the behest of Henan Rebecca, she laughed, then requested that further inquiries be made in writing.
In fact, Henan Rebecca issued a largely repetitive written rebuttal last August. Here is an excerpt:
“Henan Rebecca Hair Products Inc. always abides by national law, rules and also the international law. The report about using inmates to make hair products is not true. Firstly, to produce hair products needs lots of equipments and the working conditions. . . . How can it install the production system in the prison? It cannot!”
Activists say it’s hypocritical for the U.S. to chastise China about human rights while at the same time financing (however indirectly) their infamous prison work camp system. The AFL-CIO (which in 2004 filed an unfair trade practices petition against China with the U.S. Trade Commission) says that allowing these Chinese products—be they machinery, hair extensions, or Christmas tree lights—into the country hurts Chinese and American workers alike, and, in the petition, compares life for the average Chinese factory worker to that of black South Africans under apartheid. The U.S. Trade Commission ultimately rejected the petition, explaining, says Thea Lee, chief international economist of the AFL-CIO, that the Bush administration thinks it better to urge China to change while working with it.
The U.S.-China Security Review Commission, a federal advisory committee, thinks punitive action should be taken against Henan Rebecca if the allegations prove true, and the fact that Anderlini discovered that several international financial institutions—ING, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, and HSBC—are among the publicly traded corporation’s top 10 shareholders has upped the stakes.
Nevertheless, Mila Rosenthal, director of the business and human rights program at Amnesty International, says the banks “risk losing their credibility”—ING and HSBC in particular. The two corporations are signatories to the Equator Principles— a set of environmental and social ideals financial institutions have pledged to consider when making investments. Although the principles, as spelled out by participating banks, don’t apply to third-party investments, Rosenthal thinks it is disingenuous for financial institutions to pledge to consider social goals only when a narrow definition of that commitment is applied.Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and HSBC had no comment, but Deutsche Bank’s Ted Myers told the Voice that his company only acts on behalf of investors.
Dailah Nihot, a spokesperson for ING, said they verbally informed their clients of the controversy when they learned of it, adding that “corporate responsibility is a fundamental part of ING’s strategy” and that “ethical, social, and environmental factors play an integral role in our business decisions.”
The U.S.-China Security Review Commission’s chairman, C. Richard D’Amato, fired off a letter on committee stationery to the commissioner of U.S. customs and border protection when he learned of the allegations against Henan Rebecca. Dissatisfied with what he called a “perfunctory” response, he then sounded off to senators Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, and Bill Frist, citing federal law, chapter and verse, when it comes to imports even suspected of being made with prison labor.
D’Amato hasn’t heard back from the senators yet, and grumbles about these “laws on the books that aren’t being enforced. China, they make a lot of bucks with these wigs. We’re not happy.”
He may never be happy, because an executive of a human rights group (who asked that her name not be used) said the U.S.-China commission is powerless, and that under the present administration there is little use hoping for action on the part of the federal government.
Great Lengths International has bypassed the China controversy by purchasing what’s called “temple” hair. They have a holding facility in Bangalore, India, with a network of employees who travel the subcontinent inspecting hair from thousands of temples and bringing it back if it is suitable, says U.S. program director Brett Butler. In the past two months Great Lengths has bought 13 tons from the world-famous Indian holy site Tirupathi, hair that was shaved from the heads of the pious. At Tirupathi every day, tens of thousands of mostly Hindus elect to give up their vanity to God.
Tirupathi is so flush with money it’s been referred to as the Vatican of India, and there has been some back and forth in blogland about whether or not temple administrators, who openly sell to traders standing by ready to bid when the really good hair comes off, are taking advantage of the faithful. But Dr. V. Narayana Rao of the University of Wisconsin says money earned really does pay for schools, hospitals, and the like. Besides, he says, those who get “tonsured”—as the head-shaving ritual is called—do so with joy. Whatever happens to the chopped-off hair is beside the point.
Great Lengths also says its hair never goes through China—after the hair is collected in India, it goes to Tunisia to be cleaned, sorted according to the various shades of brown, and stitched at the root ends. The finishing work takes place in Italian factories.
Operating in Tunisia is probably a smart business decision. Judging by a 2006 report put out by the Icon Group, a commodities research firm, Tunisia is positioned to be the Henan province of North Africa, importing an enormous amount of virgin hair
from India. Furthermore, the North African country shares several characteristics with China that make them both such reliable suppliers. Besides having a supply of disciplined laborers accustomed to tedious work, Tunisia’s dictatorial ruling party tolerates little worker agitation or public discourse about corruption or human rights.
But wherever the hair is processed, as Great Lengths expands (and Butler says there’s no sign of any slowdown—salesIn its last country report, the U.S. State Department called Tunisia’s human rights record “poor,” and Amnesty International reports that in spite of increasing national wealth and an amicable relationship with the West, life for the average worker has grown more repressive.
have increased 64 percent since 2004), will Tirupathi and the other smaller Indian tem
ples be able to keep up with demand? Butler says they aren’t worried, but in any case, there is no shortage of secular South Asian sources.
There’s always “comb waste,” a cottage industry that depends on strands salvaged from the brushes of long-haired women. Collected into soft, black balls, the hair is later untangled and sorted by length. The trouble with that hair, from a high-end perspective, is that it’s “dead”—which is why it fell out in the first place.
Far more desirable is the freshly cut hair of young girls, finer and softer than adult hair. But M. Krishna Kishore of Gupta Enterprises, India’s largest hair exporter, told
The Economic Times, an Indian financial newspaper, that hair collectors who buy from villages operate with a “modus operandi” he considers “hazy.”
The Starbucks of Extensions
But third-world poverty and Chinese prison camps aren’t things to which hair makers give much thought. Any more than, say, cokeheads do South American militias. Or bag and shoe designers do the factory farms that produce leather. And even though the New York hair makers say they haven’t paid much attention to the sudden ubiquity of Great Lengths, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s moving into fashionable city blocks faster than Whole Foods.
Teitelbaum shrugs it off. His desk is messy, the office chaotic. When big stars come by they sometimes look around the shop—at the two women bent over sewing machines, at the guys with strong grips yanking a made-to-order recipe of auburn “Wet and Wavy” with chestnut “French refined” through a lethal-looking piece of wood covered in metal, at little Cecilia sitting in a corner unwrapping freshly baked tendrils from wooden sticks—and then they walk back out. Doesn’t matter, the hair maker says—he has more orders than he can fill. Who cares about a flashy website and flat-screen TVs in the waiting room when you create a product like this?
But Ivy Roberg, a diminutive woman in a blunt cut, black suit, and pearl earrings, gets a tight jaw and a wild look in her eye at the mention of Great Lengths. She’s worked at Alkinco’s for 20 years, and Teitelbaum has been one of their chief competitors for a generation. With the intensity of a Law & Order actress, Roberg re-enacts what she says is a not atypical scene with a client.
Client: But Ivy, I only have $125 to spend on hair.
Roberg: Then please order from Mr. Teitelbaum. He has an A product. Of course, we carry an A plus!
But it’s the high-end client Great Lengths is after.
They’re all hype, she says, but ever since their marketing blitz took hold in the late ’90s, people have been calling and asking for temple hair. “I want to say to them, ‘You are not a connoisseur of hair! If you were, you wouldn’t ask what I consider such a stupid question. We select the best hair from all over the world.’ ”
She spreads a selection of quarter-pound bundles to illustrate. Their bestseller, a frizzy yet velvety-soft black ponytail, retails for $166. Was it imported from China? Roberg hesitates. The best-quality hair often comes from cold climates, from Europe where people have rich diets. But did it come through China? Roberg looks frustrated.
“It comes from all over. The quality is in the processing. Where it comes from doesn’t matter.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 21, 2006