A Small Hair Salon Amidst Covid

by Renelaine B. Pfister

Norma Agsalda

It is an inconspicuous hair salon in Kalihi: a building painted pink, connected to Jimmy’s Produce and Filipino Store, with a rusty white metal door, a red, white and blue barber’s pole and a sign above it saying: Norie’s Hairstyling & Barber Shop For Men & Women.

A disembodied voice from inside the door spoke in Tagalog. “Are you from the paper?”

Norie opened the white metal door and invited me into her salon. Norie is a petite older woman with silver-gray and black hair cut short (I wonder if she cut if herself), with eye shadow and penciled eyebrows evident above her mask.

She was in the middle of cutting the hair of a woman her age, who was sitting in a salon chair facing a mirror on the wall. There were another woman and a man sitting by the entrance, and I had to squeeze by them to sit in a chair draped with a faded pink bath towel. The room was about 140 square feet, and it was dominated by a large altar covered with religious statues (it reminded me of my mother’s house in Cebu), a TV tuned in to the Filipino channel blaring news from the Philippines, and a large dog crate in front of the TV. Fake flowers and potted plants decorated the humble room.

The eldest of four girls, Norma Agsalda was born on Dec. 13, 1943 in San Pablo City, Laguna, Philippines. She became a beautician early in life and spent some time training as a Master Cutter under prominent hairdresser Jun Encarnacion in Manila.

In 1982, Norie moved to Honolulu with her husband, former military man Roger Fohey, whom she connected with as a pen pal. At that time, Norie worked as a beautician in her clients’ houses, what she called “house to house” services. But some people opposed her working without a license, so she worked at a Korean delicatessen to earn money and pay for her tuition at the Hawaii Institute of Hair Design. She acquired her license from the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology in 1988, and from the Board of Barbers in September 1992.

Norie has owned and operated her hair salon at this current Kalihi location for 23 years; she was at a different location for 3 years before that. Norie rents space at the back of Jimmy’s Produce & Filipino Store on North King Street. She not only works, but also lives there. Some of her clients knew her from the Philippines and sought out her services here; she has known her clients for years, including the ones who were sitting in her salon with me.

COVID-19 has slowed down her business significantly. Instead of having seven clients a day, Norie now had one to four a day, and some days none at all. Some of her clients lost their jobs and asked her for credit – our famous “utang” system – after Norie has finished cutting their hair. When the state was on lockdown, she was forced to close temporarily. Norie said she cut her elderly clients’ hair for free.

Her services include $10 for a haircut and $35 for a perm. Her working hours are random now; she opens when her clients call for an appointment.

However, Norie sees the positive side of Covid. She acknowledges that her age is advancing, and she gets tired easily. She can’t manage to do manicures anymore like she did when she was younger. Closing the salon altogether was not an option. “I have nothing else to do. At least when I have clients, I have someone to talk to,” Norie said. Despite the struggles with Covid, she thanked “Papa God” that she can continue to operate her salon. Even the owner of Jimmy’s Produce gave her a discount on her rent.

Norie’s companions at home are her beloved three dogs and a cat. Eventually, Norie said she plans to go back home to the Philippines with her younger sister Emelita, since she didn’t have anyone left in the U.S. She’d lost her husband over thirty years ago, and they didn’t have children.

After her client paid her for a haircut, Norie’s sister Emelita stopped by the salon, and Norie passed the cash to her.

This is typical for us Filipinos. We don’t think twice about sharing our blessings with our loved ones. It’s ingrained in our DNA. Not even Covid can change that.

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