When I tell Man Kwi Park, owner of Hair Art salon in downtown Iowa City, that I am travelling to Hong Kong, she tells me that I should stop by Korea on the way there.
“My nephew lives there,” she tells me with a wink. He’s single. She calls her husband from the back and says something in quick Korean. He replies by pulling up a picture on his phone of her nephew and holds it up as proof.
“See how handsome?” she says. “And smart, too.”
Park is allowed to joke about this to me; she has known the men in my family for years. Whenever my brother’s locks grew unruly, he would come to Park. Looking around the room — filled with towering ferns, hair magazines with models still sporting perms, and Park’s own psychedelic paintings on the walls — my brother would point at whoever was in the chair and order a short haircut just like theirs. Park’s cuts, a majority of them variations on a theme, would happen quickly, producing a style as identical as possible to what was requested.
Now, 20 years after opening her hair salon in 1998, Park has a practiced hand, drawing in college students and area residents alike. In recent years, as rent tightens, everyday service prices climb and high rises pop up all around Iowa City, Park’s stalwart and homegrown venue comes as a relief.
Aside from logistical help from her daughter and husband, she runs the place on her own, providing a short menu of cuts, waxes and facial hair trims. Service is walk-in only, and appointments are made simply by asking if Park will “be around in an hour.”
A sign advertising $9.95 cuts glows brightly in Hair Art’s front window.
“I’m going to be [a hairdresser with] a very reasonable price,” Park recalls telling her instructors at La’ James International College in Iowa City, where she earned her associate’s degree in cosmetology. “Then everybody can afford haircuts.”
Park holds a master’s in classical music, and served as a music instructor during her first few years in the U.S. In Korea, she led the large choir of her Presbyterian church, working with a congregation of 2,000. When her husband, a doctor of medicine, was hired by the University of Iowa, Park followed him to Iowa City with the promise she could work on her chamber choir career.
But in 1997, South Korea was hit by the IMF Crisis, the worst financial catastrophe in the country’s history. Park and her husband’s assets were more than halved. She had to find work quickly. Becoming a licensed cosmetologist, she decided, would be the fastest route to a stable job.
Park had always appreciated the business model of the budget salon chain Cost Cutters over high-end, French-style, minimalist salons. Park got her start at Cost Cutters, cutting the hair of 30 people per day. When she hit 10,000 clients, she decided to open her own business.
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Punctuality and affordability were her two priorities. Prices of $45 or $60 for a haircut astonished her and instigated her pride in practicality. Housed in the rented venue of a La James teacher, Park’s first Hair Art salon was down on Clinton Street, by the river. Her rate of $9.95, radiating from that same neon sign, undercut competitors’ prices in the same complex and that of Cost Cutters by 75 cents (they offered haircuts at $11.45 after tax, while hers remained at $10.70).
It was her best marketing tool. Hair Art presented an alternative to the salon scene as it existed in Iowa City, offering commercial industriousness, convenience-store reliability and no-nonsense delivery of service — though with a sincere face and a single operator. Her flexible hours didn’t hurt, either: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.
“I was so nervous. So, so, so nervous and my hands trembled, nervous. Everything is nervous,” Park said, describing the opening of her shop while clenching her fists and closing her eyes, as if finding the strength to revisit the vulnerability she felt at the time. It wasn’t like cutting the mannequins at school. “Dolls don’t complain. That’s different, that’s easy,” she joked.
She was still working off of Clinton Street when a tornado struck Iowa City in 2006. Cliff Missen, an information science instructor at the UI and Park’s best friend, sent her a photo he had taken the day after the tornado. In it, she’s sweeping up the debris in front of her shop which was — unsurprisingly — still open.
“That building has no roof. Except my roof,” she gestures, tracing out where the roof should have been in the photo, which she had printed as a two-foot poster by the entrance of her current shop. “We thought the windows were expensive, so we are praying ‘don’t hit the window, please.’”
Park waited out the storm, crouching on the floor with her daughter and husband before attempting to hold the door shut against heavy winds.
“We were pulling and pulling,” she told us, planting her feet and miming as if she were towing a ship.
After a while, she heard screams next door. Her neighbor was trapped in a room, frightened by toppling structures. Park and her husband went over and pulled the woman out. When Missen sent her the photo just last month, 12 years later, the memory made her feel restless.
“Cliff was there,” Park said, “because he was wondering if I died or not. So he bring his son to check me, [if I was] alive. But I still alive and sweeping.”
She really loved that shop, she says, although she feels settled in her new spot; this time as an owner, not a renter. Today, the photo is a conversation-starter in her new shop on South Linn Street — as is her painting of a giant eagle on the wall, soaring across a purple arid sky; her exhaustive gallery of international currency; yellowed newspaper clippings featuring her chamber choir; a collection of all 50 state quarters; and a Dum Dums candy tree perched on a coffee table.
Her decor implies a loud life, busy, colorful, inventive.
Running a shop without appointments requires a high degree of uncertainty. Waiting for the next source of income to walk through the door during their lunch break or evening walk was like leaving her livelihood subject to the weather.
Though at first Park worried about the unpredictability of clients — indeed, some days she had none at all — she found that each day presented its own intrigue.
One day, a regular client might come in. Missen was one, and he would later invite Park to join his drum circle that gathered outside in the Pedestrian Mall. After closing shop every Monday, she’d run over to join, her specialty being the conga drums.
On another day, she might get a UI student. Once a young blonde woman came in for a cut. Once Park had finished, the woman said she had forgotten her money. She’d have to run back and get it, she told Park. As a promise to return, the woman left her driver’s license. She never came back. Upon looking up her name, Park found the license was fraudulent. The fake ID still sits on the on ridge of the mirror.
It’s not the only one. Having taken her chances in good faith, Park has since amassed a number of forgotten IDs, forming a cursory “wanted list” similar to those found at the front door of college bars.
These days, she feels a tiredness she is not yet willing to confess. For 20 years, she relied on routine to keep her going. She works Monday through Sunday, with Sunday morning being left for church.
She’s afraid to count the hours she’s put into her work.
“I don’t want to know,” she says. “If I don’t work one day, holiday, the next day I’m sick because I [don’t] keep my routine. Keep going, keep going, keep going and encourage my body and life. Routine is easier for me.”
Her husband, now retired, brings her lunch in brightly colored Tupperware and walks the dog at home when she is working. He passed a cosmology test last month, and will soon use his certification to help run the shop. Park’s handsome nephew, she hopes, will return with the same grandiose business plans he had brought with him when he last visited the U.S.
Marked by daily inconsistencies, Park developed a hobby of painting in the back room in between hours, sometimes emerging to greet clients while wiping paint streaks from her palms. Music, art and painting, she says, keep her going these days. Every morning at 8:45, an alarm goes off to remind her to pause her artistic pursuits and open shop.
It’s a Friday morning when we talk to her, one of her busiest days. Before we leave Hair Art, Park gives me a hug, while pounding me on the back and making me laugh. It’s a goodbye that comes as one of the benefits of knowing Park.
“Punctual, honest and hardworking is my ethic,” she says. “I really want to keep that three things and for all my life. Everything. So artwork, music, everything — need that. I try to keep going.”