Scissor Hands

For Donnal, it's either his way or it's no way

On the window, the vowels of his name are pure geometry, the "O" a solid circle, the "A" a triangle. Inside, there's a ballet-sized mirror and a bench -- a single length of wood, exquisitely grained and uncompromisingly hard. At each end, iron spirals anchor the Chinese-red silk bolsters in midair, a 21st-century homage to Napoleon. Behind it, a single lily slants, horizontal, from a 4-foot vase.

Everything is reduced to essence, shape, power.

At 9 a.m., Donnal arrives, clad in dark corduroys, a shimmery chartreuse blazer and a Blues ballcap. His face has a distinct outline, as though someone slowly drew a heart's curves and points without lifting the pencil. Surface textures contradict each other: soft lips, deep dimples, black beard stubble. He comes in quiet as a tsunami and picks up his scissors, ready to restore the sleek cut of a woman who first walked into his Brentwood salon with thick blond shoulder-length "St. Louis" hair.

Donnal: "I'm the one to change St. Louis."
Jennifer Silverberg
Donnal: "I'm the one to change St. Louis."

"I knew she was prettier than that," he murmurs, bending like Gumby at a series of odd angles. He lifts her hair, jabbing scissors in the air underneath, then brings it behind her ears, swipes at it, claps his hands together lightly, reaches for the blowdryer. He sends it all forward, swishing and messing it up, trimming more, fluffing and mussing. The movements aren't prissy, they're relentless. He's searching for "character."

A radio-station executive shows up breathless, 10 minutes late for her appointment. Already occupied, he grins at her: "You're fired." She grins back and offers to juggle her schedule and return early the next morning. His next client holds a piece of hair in front of her forehead to show him how long it is already. "I cannot cut short there," he rebukes her. "I don't cut short that part."

When a man shows up with dark, curly shoulder-length hair, Donnal doesn't even describe how the new short cut will look; instead, he promises, "With this cut you will be able to do anything you want. It will make you powerful." When a famous doctor, about to be interviewed for a national news program, begs him to follow the cut she flies home to get, he cuts off 90 percent, does away with the bangs and dyes it five shades darker. She is appalled -- until her phone starts ringing, all the callers saying how stunning she looked on TV.

Donnal neither flatters nor obeys. "You don't tell a doctor how to do surgery," he reminds any clients who take umbrage. The timid ones he sends away. "They never satisfy themselves," he explains. "They come in and say, 'I don't want to cut my hair short; my husband doesn't like short hair,' and then they say, 'What do you think?' and I say, 'Cut short would look good on you,' and they say, 'Well, my husband doesn't like it,' and then they say again, 'What do you think?' There is just no ending to this! I say to them, 'You don't know who you are. If you cannot make this confidence for yourself, I don't cut hair for you."

He lost about half of his early clients by blurting such things as "Your hips are too wide for that hairstyle." Today, he rarely loses anyone who has the nerve to come in the first place. "It is my way or no way," he explains, "because it is my reputation. And if they still want it their way, I don't mind to lose this business."

Born in 1956 in mainland China, Donnal moved to Hong Kong with his parents when he was 13. After years in "a 5,000-year-old country where everybody's always telling you what to do," he craved freedom. Chafing under British rule -- "Every morning at school we have to sing 'God Save the Queen,' and I don't even know who she is!" -- he spent hours watching Saturday Night Fever and U.S. election coverage. When life in Hong Kong required an English name, he chose Ronald for his hero, Ronald Reagan. "No one could spell it or say it," he sighs. "They said 'Donald,' like Donald Duck. So I took the 'd' off."

At 16, he began playing with fashion, costuming a new identity. For months he cast about for a great haircut, finally stopping a guy on the street to ask where he'd gone. Donnal made an appointment immediately -- without asking the price -- and left the salon with "only a penny for the bus." He rode home with his mind pulled like taffy: "I love how I look; already I can see people looking at me, respecting me. But I hate what I paid for it!" He never went back -- instead, he talked his girlfriend into going, then studied what they did to her hair. "I see the trophies at the salon, I see them very creative, and I realize this is not a simple job. There is power here."

He quit his watchmaking job to apprentice at Rever, "the best salon in Hong Kong," where he "slaved" for the British artistes, watching every move they made in respectful silence. He became a salon manager, began to build a name for himself in high-fashion Hong Kong. Then he fell in love and came to St. Louis with his wife, a petite Chinese-American beauty who was studying at Washington University.

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