Of Barbers, Bulbs, Badminton, and Buddhism,
A Shaggy Beard Story Gives Tristram Shandy Some Healthy Competition

by Clement Kent

January 1996

How did I find myself in the nervous hands of a hair stylist in a women's hair parlour in Taiwan trying to communicate in sign language how long I wanted my beard to be? And why are bulbs to blame for this adventure? And last but not least, what possible relationship does all of this have to Buddhist monks in a temple on a mountainside singing and burning incense in front of an altar crowned by three gigantic gilded Buddhas while elderly badminton fanatics beat their birdies unmercifully?

Horticulture, that's what! Yes, gentle reader, somehow all of these events are tied together by a slender thread of plant mania, as I shall attempt to explain to you. All shall be revealed, if somewhat slowly and in a roundabout way...

Those of you who live in my neighbourhood may have noticed my barber, Jimmy the Greek, in his shop just down from the Delaware entrance to the Ossington subway station. Jimmy is a wonderful man but perhaps just a tad eccentric. For over 30 years, ever since immigrating from Greece, he has clipped and snipped in his little 2 chair shop near Bloor Street. He is interesting and amusing and always greets me with a loud "Tekanis!" as I walk by him to the subway. If I don't shout back "Kala!" he will abandon his customer in the chair and run out onto the sidewalk to find out why I haven't answered.

In fact, if Jimmy has any particular fault in the eyes of the hirsute, barber-patronizing author, it is just this tendency to abandon the customer in the chair. After 3 decades, Jimmy feels he owns the corner of Delaware and Bloor and all that there transpires. Heaven forbid that a friend or patron should pass by without a kind word from Jinuny - and if they will not stop in for a chat, he'll go out to them. Should a Green Hornet come by and try to ticket Jimmy's illegally parked Jimmy, out he goes in his hair-covered smock, all outrage and bluster, to put things straight. Through the 8-10 a.m. towaway period Jimmy has a variety of schemes for parking his Jimmy in other people's drives and up on the sidewalk. Of course, if one of his neighbours should need to use the driveway the customer will be left, literally in a lather, while Jimmy runs out to move his car.

In the interests of cordial relations with the street people, he is always willing to make a small donation to one of the local bums, which usually necessitates a long depilatory delay while the size of the offering ("No, already I gave you 1 dollar last week - enough!) is discussed and the often redolent wreck is escorted out of the shop. Sometimes the escorting takes quite a while, as in the sad case of the outpatient who believes she is married to Jimmy - at least until another man she fancies walks by the barber shop window, whereupon it's "Bye Jimmy! I see my husband - we just get marry last night!" and off she goes.

However, none of these are as important in determining the ultimate duration of the haircut as Jimmy's gift of gab. Barbers of course are supposed to be able to chat with their customers, but Jimmy over fufills his five year quota of chat with each customer. This garrulousness is even more pronounced with me because (a) Jimmy knows I am a gardener; (b) I was once in the Peloponnesus; (c) I speak (badly) some foreign languages; and (d) I like ethnic music. Each of these adds at least 5 minutes to my stints in Jimmy's chair.

You see, Jimmy is a gardener, a Greek, and a linguist of sorts. These often combine in weird ways. Once I arrived in his shop in fall to discover half a dozen pots of small fig trees adorning the window. Jimmy is passionate about figs and tomatoes and his Scarborough back yard is dedicated to these in season. He views my flower growing with some suspicion, but is always willing to discuss ways of getting more tomatoes more early in the season. Now once, talking about this with Jimmy I incautiously mentioned the figs my wife and I had seen during our visit to the Peloponnesus. On my uttering these fateful words Jimmy announced portentously "But my sister-in-law is from Kalamata in Peloponnesus - surely you have met her?"

There is no misconception more encountered by travellers than the assertion that , because you once passed within a hundred kilometres of some spot on Earth, you must have met every friend and relation of your interlocutor thereupon residing. How could I possibly have met Jimmy's sister-in-law - my wife and I never even got nearer Kalamata than Mycene and Corinth!

Relying on rational methods with Jimmy is a tactical error. It turns out I did know his sister-in-law. She is the hot dog lady at the corner of Church and Bloor, just across from my office! Not only that, but I had met Jimmy's brother and nephew at the hot dog stand and now I had to hear their life histories...

Jimmy loves to greet each customer in their own language. To my certain knowledge, he manages 5 or 6 stock phrases in English, Greek, Serbian, Croatian, Portugese, Italian, Cantonese, Urdu, Hindi, Russian, and others I don't know. Oddly his French is execrable and I was able to stump him with both Latin and Estonian, but that's another story.... I don't suppose he shaves too many Legionnaires, although he has not a few Legion members in his clientele.

As the final means of setting me at ease and ensuring I enjoy my interminable haircut, Jimmy is sure to tune his radio to to one of the multicultural stations so I can get a good earful of bouzouki music in one ear while he regales me with politics, gardening, and family doings in the other ear. Of course, each station only plays one hour of Greek music, which makes it counterproductive to arrive for a snip at ten to the hour, for then you know Jimmy will abandon you on the hour to cruise the dial, searching for another source of bouzoukis.

When I first started going to Jimmy's shop I worked only 9 hours a day on a flex-time schedule, so I could afford to have the occasional 80 minute haircut, especially as I learned so much about tomatoes each time. But recently I was promoted and now work long hours, have many meetings, and travel a lot. You may have noticed that I didn't manage to make it to any of the Hort's excellent fall meetings, twice through being overseas and once through exhaustion. All of this limits the time I can spend in Jimmy's chair. However in November I was in real need of Jimmy's services, but couldn't get there because of the bulbs.

You see, this spring I was disturbed to notice some bare soil in my garden for a few weeks. There were actually a few places without crocuses, daffodils, alliums or tulips! All through the summer I pondered what to do about this .... then came my promotion.

Now I would have even less time for horticulture but more money. Thoughts of growing flat after flat of pansies in my basement had to be dismissed. But, a friend of ours who is a landscape designer had just found a wholesale importer of bulbs who dealt only with the landscaping trade. Now our friend has a small business and couldn't get the quantity discounts by herself ... but was I interested in looking at the catalogue?

Suffice to say that 1900 bulbs later I drew the line - enough! no more! As it turned out, 1900 was just about right, although I fear I didn't order quite enough crocus - I only got 600 in 3 different colours.

Some people might think 1900 bulbs a bit much, perhaps even excessive for a downtown lot. Some people are simply unambitious! Since most of the bulbs I bought - species crocus, chionodoxa, snowdrops, puschkinia, species tulips, miniature narcissus - were small, it was easy to cram a dozen or two into the space between two daylilies. Most of these bulbs went into spots that will be overgrown by late June with perennials. However, I expect to have moments of delirious joy in April and May.

My only problem when the boxes of bulbs arrived was finding the time to plant them. They didn't come until October, already too late for snowdrops and narcissus and hyacinths. Wife and child were pressed into duty any fair October weekend day until the first 400 bulbs were planted.

Then a bout with bronchitis and pneumonia intervened. It didn't help that I was working 12 hours a day at the office preparing for a big bid in Asia. In fact, as the trip to Taiwan came closer and closer I began to panic about both the bulbs and more minor details like finding my passport, getting tickets, and having my hair cut.

The key to being a good manager is always having your priorities straight. That's why on a cool intermittently rainy Monday morning in mid-November, just finishing my anti-pneumonia antibiotics and with a ton of proposal preparation work to do in the office, I realised that I would have to decide between work, a haircut at Jimmy's, or planting the last few hundred bulbs. Needless to say, the bulbs won.

So it was that I found myself in the offices of a major computer company in downtown Taipei asking my partners in the bid team where I could get a haircut late in the day, before our visit to the customer's premises the next morning. Oddly, this question provoked gales of laughter from the all-male Taiwanese bid team members, accompanied by various crude comments in fractured English.

It turns out that in Taiwan, "barber shop" is a euphemism for an entirely different kind of clip joint, just as "massage parlour" used to be on Yonge street. Much ribaldry ensued, until the (female) salesperson for our company finally offered to help me find a place where I could get my hair cut and beard trimmed without unwanted auxiliary services.

Thus it was that I found myself in a ladies salon in downtown Taipei, confronted by a hair stylist who stared fixedly at my luxuriant beard and refused to start until she had told our salesperson (in Chinese, of course) that the results could not be guaranteed, and was I willing to continue? (Although Taiwanese men do get their hair cut in salons, very, very few of them have luxuriant beards.) After translation, I assured her I would accept her best efforts, closed my eyes, and hoped for the best. I passed the time thinking about Taiwanese flower arranging, while a haircut and beard trim lasting even longer than Jimmy's took place in blissful silence...

I had a chance to observe Taiwanese flower arranging at close range in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Taipei. This glorious building is decorated in traditional Chinese styles - the lobby is like being on the set of Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor". Huge meter-wide vases arrayed in rows are filled with 2 meter tall arrangements which, in my week of residence, were based on a backbone of fascinating driftwood shapes, upon which were laid juniper branches and sprays of a red berry. The only flowers were stalks of pale pink Phalaenopsis orchids secreted here and there amongst the juniper.

It was late December, so outside in the formal garden the beds had been filled with upwards of 500 potted poinsettias, while the ornamental fountain was covered over with a 3-story framework of bamboo, to which a very busy team spent 2 days attaching large pine branches. When they were done they had a very creditable, if rather cone-shaped Christmas tree on which several thousand lights were mounted. Christmas, you see, is a big deal in Taiwan. Approximately 10-15% of the population is Christian, but the real reason for the season's popularity is that Taiwanese love two things in life (after family and money): eating and shopping. Thus, the secular side of Christmas has been a big hit in Taiwan and all the hotels are fully booked for their Christmas banquets. Even the Buddhists are all busy planning their Christmas festivities.

As I sat in the Grand Restaurant having my buffet breakfast I was amused to notice the arrival of a delegation of monks, their shaven heads and sandalled feet contrasting with the rich tints of their saffron and purple robes. They proceeded to the buffet, forming an interesting arrangement: an organic bouquet of colours and flowing forms surrounded by a severe and formal border of businessmen in drab suits - but they got attentive service from the tea ladies.

After breakfast I took a constitutional up the mountain behind the hotel. Taipei is sited in a river valley between ranges of hills and low mountains, which contributes greatly to the smog problems with which the city is plagued. According to the best principles of traditional feng shui, or geomancy, the Grand Hotel has been placed at the most auspicious site on the lowest slopes of the mountain just above the river, facing south, where the harmonious influences of earth, water and sky intersect.

I had been curious about the numbers of elderly people in jogging suits carrying rackets, and umbrellas against the ubiquitous drizzle, who passed by my windows every morning. Were they all going to the hotel health club? As it turns out, none of them were.

The slopes of the mountain behind the hotel appear quite wild at first glance, until you notice the occasional patch of vivid colour due to a tree buried under bougainvillea. This vine can go wild, just like the blue morning glories that cloak half of Taiwan's forests. But on this fine damp morning I resolved my constitutional would take me where the old people went. Off I went, dodging umbrellas and suffering the pitying looks of the Taiwanese. It was winter and here was I, clad in a t-shirt and shorts, obviously freezing to death in the 23 degree Centigrade "chill". The elderly were all garbed quite snugly for their outing.

The path from the hotel led to a short dead-end stretch of road which became an open-air market. Vegetables, 8-foot stalks of purple sugar cane, fish surrounded by buzzing hornets, and live eels swimming in shallow pans were hawked to the Adidas-clad crowd. At the end of the road brick stairways go up the mountain to parts unknown. Since the others were going up, I followed.

Although the trees hide it from a distance, the mountainside is covered with small social clubs and temples, each on its own little terrace. Hibiscus bushes, bougainvillea, sunflowers. and other plants I didn't recognise were planted along the stairways and terrace edges. Pink impatiens grew nearly wild in the shade and in gutters. On the steeper slopes, one of the Evansia group of irises, Iris formosanum, had been extensively planted to slow erosion. This odd plant sends long stalks out of the tips of its leaves, at the end of which grow whole new plantlets, much like a spider plant.

Many of the clubs are higher than the hotel, which puts them at least 10 stories up. After climbing to this height, the average elderly Taiwanese does his or her tai chi exercises, lights an incense stick at the small temple in the club and offers morning prayers, plays some badminton, then sits down to breakfast with her or his peers, or perhaps reads a newspaper on the terrace overlooking all of Taipei. After a while, down the mountain they go again to their waiting cars and off to life in the metropolis.

Aside from the bougainvillea and hibiscus, there didn't seem to be much formal gardening. I wandered the maze of twisting, intersecting stairways, often getting lost and then finding the way again. On my way down to the hotel I noticed a monk in a large vegetable garden, in which new seedlings were just coming up. A path led down to the right, away from the hotel, and I could not resist peeking...

There I found a large temple in 5 terraces. The top held an altar to a very Confucian looking gentleman. The next level down had 3 very fat and jolly looking Buddhas, all covered in gold. They looked out over a terrace with 100 flower pots (yes, I counted) in all different sizes, arranged in rows. The most impressive were the bonsai bougainvilleas, in various contorted shapes. On the lowest level a group of ladies sat under an awning reading in unison from a sacred text under the supervision of a monk.

Traditional music, with its gongs, strings, and wailing voices played on a loudspeaker somewhere. Adjoining the temple was a steep slope which had been terraced and gardened - but what an odd garden! The beautiful tall grass Miscanthus sinensis which grows wild all over Taiwan had been rigorously excluded, and instead of grass an undercover of Ophiopogon had been planted. Above this were Croton bushes, whose leaves provided the only contrast to green in the garden. Parts of the garden could not be seen from the path, so I can't report on these - but all I can say was that the overall effect was curious. I hope to be able to return some day in another season to see the garden of the monks again.

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t