Joanna Funk

music, gardening and my dog

Barber Q

Above: Quang Le by Akira Le

When you meet Quang Le, or ‘Barber Q’ as he’s known, you think: this is a cool dude. He’s got the skills, they got the music going at Crooners Barber Shop, you can talk to him about the tracks and the fades. Just relax and smile, you’re in good hands and you’re gonna walk out of there feelin’ real good.

But Q’s got another side, a side that cares about people’s mental health. “Barbering is how I am able to connect with people. There is so much anxiety and pressure out there, and sometimes we are just afraid to connect. But human beings need to allow themselves to feel.

It’s not about what I present to the world, it’s about how I make my clients feel. Like they are the only ones in the world, and I am listening to them. I’m trying to be the difference for someone, the kind of difference I never had myself. I want to raise awareness about depression, for men and women.

Quang Le aka Barber Q

Q took part in an event at Howard Smith Wharfs wrapping up Movember 2019. Crooners Barber Shop had been approached by The Connection Project to bring a group of men together to connect, and support each other in talking about depression. 

“We had a player from the Broncos, and the CEO that looks after that section of the wharf where the event was hosted, Felons Brewing Co,” said Q. “There were a lot of men involved that day. They were really masculine, strong men, and they really understood how people wear masks every day, to get by in their jobs. From that event I realised how many people are affected by anxiety and depression, grief and loss, and it’s so hard to talk about it.”

Although the original cause can sometimes be lost in high profile drives, Q thinks the direction is right. “We just need to remember that these issues are every day realities for some people. It gives me hope that things can really change, for everyone.”

Q is no stranger to hardship. As children he and his siblings got into a boat when his parents sold all they had to flee Vietnam after the war. “We knew if we got sick someone would throw us off the boat. But what choice have you got when the Communists are coming and there’s a chance of being executed if you stay?”

New Zealand was the family’s first place of refuge before building a life in Australia. “I have no clear recollection of my childhood. I think I just block it all out. I have no baby photos. It’s funny, but I feel I was never a baby!” Q recalled the Brisbane Expo being on in 1988 when the family first visited Queensland, and they moved over permanently a year later.

Q’s family knuckled down to establish themselves. “My parents always had different businesses. Typical Asian shops, vanilla farming. They did well for people of non-English speaking background. They taught me ‘the hustle’. That’s a strong thing: the Vietnamese work ethic. Mum and Dad were always working, seven days a week. My teenage sisters raised us, cooked for us, made sure we got home from school. Hard discipline. If there was trouble, that’s when Dad would step in.”

But there was violence at home. “I grew up in a house where there was a lot of physical abuse, beatings. My mum was trying to protect us from my dad, with his PTSD from the war. But she couldn’t protect us all the time. Back then, it felt normal. I thought all kids went through this. As I got older I started to realise that it wasn’t normal.

Q barbering at the Connection Project event.

“It was hard to make connections in school because there was so much going on at home. I was very conscious of my feelings but I didn’t know who I could trust so I didn’t talk about it. Mainly, it was music that saved me. Soul music was a big influence. Even today, I still resonate with the romance of it. Soul music said there was a different way to be, and I guess in my young mind I didn’t want to lose that part of me that could be a gentle person. I have a teenage stepson now and – the headphones – I get it! I understand why they do that and that it’s really important. The music becomes part of your identity.

“As a young adult, I didn’t know what to do for a long time. I worked helping my parents, then I moved on to thinking about dreams and what I really wanted. My world was more Anglo Saxon, not like Minh’s world, especially in New Zealand. Then in Australia it was hard; you’re not fully Vietnamese but you’re not Anglo Saxon or Caucasian. You are caught, trying to please Australian society while trying to respect Vietnamese and Asian culture. It’s so difficult. Ultimately you’re trying to find your own identity by experimenting with culture, friends and relationships. I guess I adopted a Western way of seeing relationships, which was not something I found in my own family.

Q by Akira Le

I’m married to my wife, and growing up with domestic violence in my family, with my father, I made a conscious choice to not be like that. My wife is a human being, she is a daughter, a sister, a mother, a lady. No-one should ever place ownership on a life. My relationship with my wife is about friendship.

Quang Le
Q with wife Akira and stepsons Hayden and Ronan

Q’s desire for generational change permeated everything he did. “I remember really liking music, dancing and art in Grade 7 and 8. It brought me joy, just being creative. But in Vietnamese culture back then, those things didn’t count for much. Why do you want to waste your time with that? You should be a doctor or an optometrist, look at your cousins and how well they’re doing. But that was never in my heart, and I always felt that I could find success if I really loved something. Of course, Dad wasn’t impressed. He’s very old school, there were a lot of battles fought. But I was stubborn and determined to find my own path.”

One day, Q went into a barbershop. “I had been looking at this barber shop a lot. The door was shut, you couldn’t see much from the outside. I passed by and thought: you know what, this time I’m going in. I went through the door and just sat down. This was a different kind of barbering. The barber talked with me, and he made me feel good about myself. I was also inspired by his skills. I liked it!

“So I wanted to be a barber. There were no barbering courses in those days so Akira and I researched the options. Studying hairdressing at TAFE to get a certificate seemed the best thing to do, in case I opened my own shop one day.  I had to figure out a way to hone my barbering skills while I was studying, and ended up volunteering my time to the barber who inspired me.

Photo by Akira Le

“They did the tracks, they did the fades. I was into the music which was R&B. Back then, there weren’t a lot of Asian barbers or hairdressers doing this. So of course I had to work against the: Oh he’s Asian, he’s not going to do a good haircut. Even to this day, you have to be better than anyone else. Even if you’re the manager you still have to sweep those floors, and treat everyone like it’s the first time you’ve met them, like they’re a new customer. I’m never going to be complacent. I will treat you with the respect you deserve. That work ethic is always in the back of my mind, and I guess I’ve inherited it from my parents. I think it’s important in this day and age. Service is different now, like people are disposable. In my craft people aren’t disposable. People are paramount.

Crooners Barber Shop crew. Photo by Akira Le

“You can’t always fight with your fists. You have to build your mind. You have your own choice to put up your own fight. Sometimes people are not going to stand with you but it doesn’t matter. You have to be strong enough to fight that fight alone.

I champion the causes that I believe in, but I also respect the choices of other people, because that’s the democracy we live in and we fight in. To me, barbering is to be able to live – it’s how I am able to connect with other human beings. I still don’t know what to do with this a hundred per cent, but I know you can be successful and do good.

Quang Le

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About Joanna

Joanna is British Australian. She worked mainly in financial news in London. In her forties she moved to her parents’ birthplace, Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, where she became a pianist in a hotel and wrote a blog about musicians. The blog became a book before Joanna came to Australia in 2012. In this blog she writes mostly about music, gardening, and trips to Sabah. Oh, and Wookie the Havanese.

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