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Archive Available Since 1997

Burmese Women's Hair in Big Demand

By Kyi Wai

June 15, 2007—He knows that something is wrong with his wife as soon as he gets home. Her face is somehow different. She’s not angry with him, but she’s unhappy about something.

Is she running short of rice, perhaps? But surely that wouldn’t account for her unhappy mien. Whenever they run out of rice they borrow it from the grocery store at the top of the street. It’s no serious domestic problem.

As he ponders his wife’s mood, their elder daughter comes out of her room. As soon as she sees her father, she breaks down crying. Only then, he notices her hair.

Her long hair, that reached down to her waist, has been shorn to shoulder length. Her eyes are swollen from weeping.

“Our younger two have to be enrolled in school this week, but there’s no money and I can’t borrow any,” explains his wife. “So I had to sell her hair. I had no choice.”

Until now, his wife had sold her own hair whenever they needed money. It fetched about 6,000 kyat (US $4.60), but its value sank as she got older and her hair lost its natural luster. Their daughter’s hair, however, fetched a good price because of its fine quality. She had grown it proudly from the age of 10, and now, six years later, was heartbroken to lose most of it, just when she dreamt of becoming a beautiful young woman.

Her father, Maung Pyone, a 46-year-old laborer at the Bayintnaung warehouse center, told me his story, with a heavy heart.

Buying and selling hair is a profitable business in Rangoon, particularly in times when money is short and bills have to be met. Shops with signs saying “We buy hair” can be seen all over Rangoon.

High quality hair, thickly textured and rich in color, can fetch up to 40,000 kyat ($30) per
kyatthar (16.33 grams).

“Most people who sell their hair need money to eat,” said a hair trader, Ko Mying. Traders can earn 2,000 kyat ($1.60) per kyatthar by buying from needy households and selling the hair to retail outlets.

Hair is in such demand that women risk having their tresses cut in crowded buses or markets, according to a report in a recent issue of 24/7 News Journal. “Although bus passengers used to have to worry about pickpockets they now face the risk of having their hair cut stealthily,” the journal said.

One woman victim told the journal: “My hair was cut on a bus on the way back home from my office. It was stealthily cut from behind. I only knew when I got home.”

Another woman, Aye Aye Maw, who lives in Hlaingtharyar Township, said her hair was cut without her knowing as she was bending over to make purchases at Hlaingtharyar Mee Gwat bazaar.

“When I was bending over to select some onions, it was cut,” she said. “I didn’t notice it at first as I was preoccupied. After I had selected the onions and paid for them I felt something was wrong with my head, and only then did I know that my hair had been cut.”

Not all women who sell their hair do so to meet personal or household expenses or clear debts. Burmese women value their hair as a cultural attribute, and many sacrifice their tresses as a donation to the temple or to a cause. But the majority part with their hair to pay school fees and medical bills.

Khin Thu Zar, 28, from Shwe Pyi Thar, sold her thigh-length hair to a shop near Insein Market to pay for medical treatment for her sick father. She was disappointed with the 30,000 kyats ($23) she received and suspects the shop’s weighing machine was not true.

A dealer confirmed that some shops cheated their customers, but said some sellers also tried to get a better price by give it more substance by applying oil.

The hair goes mostly to China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and India, where demand has grown so much that prices have doubled in the past three years. The Burmese hair goes to make fashionable hairpieces for women. Sometimes it returns—particularly from China—nicely packaged and presented and priced at up to 600,000 kyat ($4,600) for a hairpiece fit for a Burmese beauty queen.

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