Look around you in Hong Kong, and you’ll probably notice only about 1% of Chinese women have curly hair — and 99% of them just had it permed at the salon. Along the aisles of chemists and supermarkets, on billboards and advertisements, there’s an endless supply of suggestions as to how your hair should be — shiny, silky, and straight. I’m among the 1% of that 1% who has naturally curly 2B/C hair.
My hair has always been seen as messy, frizzy and unruly. The best example of the general attitude towards this hair type was at the moment my father decided to ‘rebond’ my hair — also known as Japanese permanent hair straightening — when I was just shy of 12 years old. Honestly, I was actually very excited at the prospect of finally having straight hair too.
Since then, it’s been more than a decade of uphill battle armed with flat irons and heat protectant sprays, as well as money spent on keratin treatments and Brazilian blowouts. Looking back, I genuinely thought that was it. My life was to be cursed with this weird spell, and I was destined to carry on living with a flat iron strapped to my back and avoiding rain and moisture like the plague — a truly ambitious mission in Singapore and Hong Kong.
At the ripe age of 26, after a holiday where I forgot my straighteners, I was forced to live with my wonky, wavy hair. Save from the initial dark thoughts, I was curious to see what could be for these curls, so after over a decade of heat and chemical damage, I was ready to surrender to the natural state.
Karen Chiang’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ hair. Right image by Emily Lau
But of course, no transformation was effortless. Unplugging my straighteners for the last time was both cathartic and scary. I paid, twice, for ‘curl-friendly’ haircuts. There was a short period where I tried just to let my hair be without proper styling and care — cue the ‘before’ photo.
While researching online, I came across the almost cult-like Curly Girl Method, a system originating from Lorraine Massey’s book, with some incredible before-and-after photos that had me convinced. While there are many personal interpretations, the method has a few general things to steer clear from: heat, silicones, sulphates, alcohol — and combs. Personally, curl milk and gel has been a game changer for me, helping to activate and freeze the curls in shape.
From being overwhelmed by big scientific words to stockpiling products and bingeing tutorials, I’ve since learnt so much about caring for my own hair and what works for me. I’ve also connected with hundreds of curly girls in Asia through founding a Facebook support group where we discuss products and weather hacks – a bonus I love and treasure.
Turns out the clichés are true, and it’s so much better to be yourself even if that looks nothing like everyone else. I’m blessed with a quality that not many people have, and growing into it, learning to love it rather than fight it has been both humbling and an unintended lesson that I realise applies to so many aspects of life.