Untangling Myanmar's trade in human hair
Updated 2238 GMT (0638 HKT) May 16, 2018
- Myanmar is a major source of human hair, feeding the global demand for wigs, weaves and hair extensions
- But as the nation grows richer, there are fears that fewer women are willing to part with their locks
Yangon, Myanmar (CNN)Aye Aye Thein, 55, cuts hair for a living at Insein market in the north of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
But unlike most hairdressers, she doesn't charge her customers. Instead, she pays them.
The country is a major source of human hair, feeding the global demand for wigs, weaves and hair extensions.
"Myanmar hair is the softest, most sought-after hair in Asia," said Aye Aye Thein, whose hair stall is nestled between those of a greengrocer and a betel nut seller.
Figures suggest the global trade in human hair was worth $87.4 million in 2016, with Myanmar the third largest exporter after India and Tunisia.
In Myanmar, hair can be considered sacred: The gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the Buddhist country's holiest sites, is believed to be built on strands of Buddha's hair.
But it's also common for women here to cut their hair to make ends meet and during Buddhist New Year celebrations, when some women and girls become nuns for a short time and cutting off their hair shows an absolute sacrifice, a detachment from any distractions.
Much of this hair makes its way to China, where it's processed and sold to hairstylists in the West. But as Myanmar grows richer, opening up after decades of military rule, there are fears that fewer women are willing to part with their locks.
On an average day, Aye Aye Thein says, she has seven to 10 customers.
"Look at this hair! It's really nice," she said, gesturing at one thick clasp of hair in her palm. "It's not oily, not too dry, small bits aren't breaking off, light and fluffy."
She then gestured to the tops: "It should be solid, no frizz or split ends."
The pricing of hair depends on the quality and weight, which is weighed in "viss," a traditional Burmese unit of measurement, roughly equal to 1½ kilograms.
Huddled over a battered pair of scales, Aye Aye Thein estimates the price of hair by its feel and a simple scrape of the bundle with an open scissor arm to test for firmness and smoothness.
Placing the hair on the scales, she then