A cut above the rest: The 26-year-old barber for the underprivileged
“Don’t come in first, it’s a mess!” yells Chu Yin, as she rushes into her little studio to clean up.
A Bangladeshi man follows her in. Wordlessly, he picks up a broom and begins to sweep the floor. He seems to know where things should go, deftly picking up random tools and arranging them in the shop.
After the dust settles, Chu Yin ushers me into her cosy workspace – it’s a one-chair concept barbershop. She sits the man down in front of a huge mirror, as she gently fastens the cutting cape over him. “The usual?”
His name is Mahmud. He nods to his friend Chu Yin, who has been giving him free haircuts here at Telja Studios for half a year now.
In December 2016, Chu Yin founded Telja Studios to positively impact people’s lives.
It started with picking up barbering as a hobby. “I used to have really short hair and so, I was able to appreciate a good short haircut,” she tells me.
But she began to wonder how could she benefit the community through the skills she had acquired. Apprenticing under Lex Low – a Malaysian barber who gives free haircuts to refugees and the underprivileged – Chu Yin improved her skills and saw how barbering could help people.
“Basically Lex was doing everything I yearned to do. That gave me a lot of hope and encouragement.”
Despite family opposition and the risks behind starting a business, Chu Yin opened her barbershop as a tangible way to help others. While she is passionate about barbering, Chu Yin admits that the relational aspect of her job is what she enjoys most.
I’m not here to make a big impact at this point – but to transform the life of one person. When you’re transformed, you’ll live for something greater than yourself.
“To me, haircuts are almost secondary. If I’m just cutting hair without intentionally connecting to the person, it will get very boring after a while because how many variations can a guy’s hair have?”
“It’s the relationships that I value most.”
As a barber, Chu Yin has many opportunities to engage with her customers. And as Telja Studios is a one-chair barbershop concept, both parties can converse without worrying about being overheard.
“You don’t have a choice. You sit here, you’ve got to listen to me talk, or talk to me,” she laughs, “Over time you meet your barber more than you meet your friends. You have to come almost every month. With that, you get to know a person and you get to speak life over them.”
It’s a business philosophy which is evident from her friendship with Mahmud. Their friendship started with a simple hello.
“I try to get to know people around here,” Chu Yin explains, “I literally say ‘Hi’, but that’s it. It was Mahmud who went beyond the ‘Hi’ and asked about the haircut.”
Because Mahmud only gets off work at 9pm, Chu Yin waited past her normal opening hours just to serve him. And at the end of the haircut, she didn’t take the money he offered because she just wanted to know Mahmud better.
That was how a friendship blossomed between the 26-year-old and 48-year-old. Today, they are even able to share their worries with each other.
Mahmud recounts one instance when he was deeply worried about a personal issue. He turned up at Telja Studios’ doorstep, distressed and dishevelled.
“She said: ‘Come in, and I shave for you.'”
It was an act of service which touched Mahmud greatly. Chu Yin also offered to keep his situation in her prayers, and texted him from time to time to make sure he was doing alright.
“Sister is very kind,” Mahmud tells me.
I see a genuine two-way friendship between Chu Yin and Mahmud: While he receives free haircuts, Mahmud occasionally brings sugarcane drinks to her studio.
Chu Yin nods, “That to me is a blessing. Because sometimes the distilled water tank outside is empty, and I can’t run down to get a drink even though it’s just one staircase away because I’m cutting hair back to back. He just magically appears at the right time.”
He laughs: “Sister shares many things with her customers. So sometimes I go down and buy sugarcane!”
Chu Yin tells me she has bigger plans: To mentor youths-at-risk and equip them with her skillset.
It’s why she started a barber academy at Telja Studios.
“Young people are very vain. They love to know how the hair works, how they can ask their barber to cut,” Chu Yin laughs.
Chu Yin has been volunteering at New Hope Community Services (NHCS), a charity centre for displaced families in Singapore. Beyond volunteering, she reaches out to the youths she meets at NHCS by offering them free haircuts.
“They will be like, ‘You’re a barber? Don’t bluff – show me!’ and I would be like, ‘Ya, I’ll show you. It’s so near anyway,” she says.
“Helping them find satisfaction through what they can do in the future is my way of reaching out. We believe in the potential of young people.”
It’s why she named her barbershop “Telja” – the Icelandic word for “belief”.
When asked why she doesn’t simply work with NGOs (non-governmental organisations), Chu Yin tells me that while NGOs meet the basic needs of underprivileged families – there’s still more to do.
“It’s not just about giving them the job. It’s helping them pull out all their other roots first. This is why I want to take my time to get to know these people personally. I’m not here to make a big impact at this point – but to transform the life of one person.”
“When you’re transformed, you’ll live for something greater than yourself.”
That afternoon, I left Chu Yin’s little barbershop in wide-eyed wonder.
Here is a woman, not much older than I am, who refuses to conform to societal standards – forging a more meaningful path instead. And all it took was deep passion and purpose.
Chu Yin’s friendship with Mahmud made me see that you can bless anyone anytime and anywhere. It doesn’t need to be at a volunteering organisation – it could even be in my workspace or neighbourhood!
“I hope people will realise there’s more they can do with their time. Go and do that which will bless the community and find satisfaction through it,” she told me.
The world really becomes our mission field when our heart is touched for God’s people.
Let’s ask Him to help us care like He does. Then let’s start with what we have.
Telja Studios is a barbershop with a heart for communities. If you would like to be involved in what they do – consider joining the team.
You can also sponsor someone to take up barbering course under Chu Yin. He/she will eventually be given a job at Telja Studios. For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.