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.
"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.
St. Louis felt like icewater down his back: "Very religious, family values and discipline, but for what I am from, it was a totally different world: the attitude, the look, the fashion and lifestyle ..." He considered himself a professional hair designer, but in St. Louis that meant "hairdresser" -- definitely low-caste, with connotations of homosexuality. He could overlook the misperceptions; his wife couldn't. "We had no problem with the love," he says, "but she was embarrassed by what I did, and that was hurting me. I have a sickness from the Communist Chinese; I have a sickness from living under the British. I am scared when people look down on me because I have a low education. So I am very defended about who I am."
He divorced the woman he still loved and fought five years for joint custody of their baby boy. Meanwhile he worked at area salons and decided that the American system was "unhealthy": tight rows of sinks; air cloudy with chemical fumes; shelves of "product" like a grocery store; stands cluttered with photos and trinkets. "People want to enjoy what is between you and them," says Donnal, "not hear about your dog and cat and grandma until they cannot see their own face." Not only was the usual ambience fussy and unprofessional, but there were no great schools, no owners willing to share their secrets with employees. "The bosses want to put you under contract, make you a slave," he explains. "They don't want you to grow or be famous, because they have no confidence."
Discouraged, he went home to Hong Kong and poured out his trials to his mentor -- who made fun of him. "My teacher said, 'If you are the greatest, you can make it happen no matter what country.' So I realize: I'm the one to change St. Louis."
"What is your profession?" Donnal asks a prospective client, a 30-year-old photographer. "Why are you coming here?" She launches into a tale of once-long hair and her mother's coaxing, and he cuts in like a slalom skier: "That's not what I'm looking for. I don't care about who or why, I care about you. Maybe you say, 'I'm bored -- what can you do for me?' or maybe you are getting married, or having a midlife crisis. I don't want detail; I just want to know where you are going from here."
She nods and starts again, tossing specifics at him until he's satisfied. "Some people," he remarks, "they pull up, look in the rearview mirror, put on makeup, take a drag on their cigarette so they're ready, and come in chest up --" he cups his long fingers and lifts imaginary breasts. "Those women are fake. But I see you, the easygoing attitude, how you sit in the chair any old way. If I needed more clues, I would look at your clothes -- because you paid money for them, you must like them. If you came in sweats after working out, I'd look instead for jewelry." He scans wrist, finger, earlobe, then makes his pronouncement: "Either very short, and lighter, very free and dramatic -- or very long. This medium length makes a triangle; it makes you look shorter."
She glances dubiously in the mirror. "Very short is not happening."
"You are wrong," he counters. "You carry that big hair very uncomfortably. Because you never have short doesn't mean you don't like it. Life is short. You don't try something, you've missed it."
He bids her goodbye, murmuring, "St. Louis women forget about themselves. People say, 'Oh, New Yorkers always look good.' But they are the same human beings; they just have more personality. In St. Louis, everybody pretty much looks the same; people follow the crowd.
"The artists all eventually leave," he adds, "because St. Louis is going slower than any state in the country. The media talk about sports and violent murders, but they don't like to talk about fashion. People don't see the possibilities.
"My advice is, put more art in. Show the power of it."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.