PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Mashie Butman usually causes a stir when she walks into the salon carrying her hair in her hands. Butman, who runs the local Chabad Center here along with her husband, sits next to the hairdressers and watches attentively as they style the light-brown head covering that she paid more than $1,000 for in New York.
“I’m sure they think I’m crazy,” says Butman, an Orthodox Jew who wears a wig around the streets of the Cambodian capital, “but it’s not the only reason people think I’m crazy, so I don’t mind.”
Butman’s husband, Rabbi Bentzion Butman, estimates there are only 100 or so Jews in all of Cambodia, yet this small Southeast Asian nation has increasingly become a hot spot for Jewish/Israeli buyers in search of wigs made of human hair.
The export of human hair is a new and growing industry in Cambodia, with two large companies launched by Westerners in the last three years. And Jewish and Israeli buyers are an important customer group.
According to British entrepreneur Evan Gill, who launched Natural Cambodian Hair in Phnom Penh three years ago, Jewish customers became interested in Cambodian hair partly due to ethical issues surrounding India and China, where most of the market’s human hair used to come from. In particular, Gill says, customers grew concerned after a scandal revealed that some Indian hair on the market was coming from the heads of cadavers, and that people in China were being forced to donate hair.
“From the Jewish perspective, they were getting hair from China and India and they couldn’t trust the source,” Gill notes. “People started asking questions – not only in Israel but also in Europe – so they needed to find a new source, a more ethical source.”
While Jewish buyers make up about five percent of Gill’s customers, the vast majority of hair is sold to women of African descent who wear hair extensions. And even when it comes to Jewish hair dealers, not all of them supply wigs for observant married women.
“There are some Jewish people who just want to have extensions,” Gill says. “There is also sickness: We sell a lot of hair to cancer centers, for women who had chemo.”
Two years ago, he continues, “nobody thought of Cambodia as a source of hair. People thought of China, India and Brazil – which supplied 90 percent of the world’s hair.”
Gill says that when his company first opened, he used to export 25 or so kilograms of hair per month, “because no one knew about the quality of the [Cambodian] hair.” Now he’s exporting more than five times as much every month and shipping to customers in Israel, Europe and North America.
As well as dealing directly with two large hair distributors in Jerusalem, he says there are also a few Israeli businessmen coming to Cambodia in search of human hair.
Another large hair-exporting business, Arjuni, was launched in Cambodia by an American businesswoman at around the same time, and generates a reported $1 million in revenues annually. Small-scale hair sellers at Cambodian markets also noticed that business has picked up. At Phnom Penh’s O’Russey Market, for example, hair salesman Kim Heang says that human hair has doubled in price in the past two years due to increased demand from foreign buyers. “It’s a good business to be in now,” he smiles.
Gill says the hair business in Cambodia benefits women from the countryside who do not have any other employment options. He reveals that a Cambodian woman can receive between $20 and $35 for selling her hair, depending on its length. That’s a substantial amount in a country where the minimum wage in the garment factories is less than $100 per month – and in the rural areas even these jobs are nonexistent.
“People were running from the villages because there was no work, no food,” Gill says. “The business in Cambodia for Cambodians has created a new opportunity that didn’t exist before.”
The hair is purchased in villages near the capital by the company’s agents. That’s because the women who live in cities are not poor enough to resort to selling their hair, Gill says, and dealers are not interested in their hair either, because it has often been treated with dyes.
Before it is shipped out of Cambodia, the hair goes through a cleaning process. About a third of all hair from the Cambodian countryside is contaminated with lice.
While chemical products can kill the blood-sucking insects, the eggs have to be physically removed from every strand of hair. “Believe it or not, we have a lice team. Their job is to sit under the light and remove lice,” Gill says.
Two middle-aged Orthodox gentlemen in the hair trade – one from Ukraine, the other from Israel – enjoyed a Shabbat dinner at the Chabad Center recently, but neither wanted to be interviewed about why they came to Cambodia, of all places. However, the Israeli businessman said he used to purchase hair in South America but had recently discovered Cambodia because the price is lower and the hair is of good quality.
As for Butman, she is now more interested in finding out where the hair on her wig came from. “I’d feel bad if someone forced her [the hair donor] to cut off her hair. I’d feel bad if it [was done] in an unethical way,” she admits.