Laney College student and musician Pranjal Tiwari was walking from campus to his downtown Oakland practice studio one day when something unusual caught his eye.
As he passed 13th and Harrison streets, Tiwari noticed an intriguing sign hanging above a storefront: the large, hand-painted placard had red stripes on each side, a blue streak running through the middle, and a golden-colored Soyombo symbol. It was the flag of Mongolia.
“This area is on the edge of Chinatown and I love walking around Chinatown because you get to see different stuff from various Asian backgrounds,” Tiwari said. “But you never think of Mongolians being an immigrant group out here.” Curious about the flag, Tiwari asked The Oaklandside if we knew what the story was.
The flag hangs above Sondor Salon, a hair studio owned by Mongolia native Saraa Puntsag. She greets every customer with a warm smile and engages in wholesome small talk while she styles their hair to perfection. When she’s done, she offers her customers candy and cheerfully says goodbye in the hopes they come back again.
When she purchased the shop from the previous owner three years ago, Puntsag wasn’t sure what to name the business; the previous name, “In Beauty Salon,” was still plastered onto the sign in Cantonese and needed to be covered up immediately to prevent confusion.
“The Mongolian flag was a good symbol to represent my business,” Puntsag said in an interview conducted in English and Mongolian with some translation by Puntsag’s friend and employee, Emma Sumiya. “That’s where I’m from and I want people to know that.”. It worked out well because it attracted Mongolian families living or working nearby.
There are over 21,000 Mongolians living in the United States, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. About 883 Mongolians were recorded to be living in Alameda County, but Sumiya and others believe there are actually as many as 3,000 Mongolians in Oakland and roughly 8,000 in the Bay Area. These numbers are based on family and friend connections, text groups, and social media pages that Puntsag and Sumiya are both a part of. The Mongolian community has been undercounted in the past and local residents have taken it upon themselves to obtain a more accurate count.
According to Puntsag and Sumiya, Sondor Salon and another shop on Webster Street called Lotus Skin Care are the only Mongolian-owned beauty salons operating downtown and perhaps in all of Oakland.
The shop is fairly quiet early afternoons, but a steady stream of customers starts to arrive around 3 p.m. Sometimes, an entire family will come in and wait for hours until each member is attended to. Some of Puntsag’s retired hairstylist friends will hang around and eat their lunches while taking part in salon conversations. Puntsag works most days because she needs the money, and so local Mongolians will have a place to hang out and look good.
Making a new life in California
Twenty years ago, Puntsag was running a beauty salon and raising her family in her home city of Darkhan, Mongolia, the country’s second-largest city, “which is much more beautiful than Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaanbaatar,” she said with a laugh.
Puntsag said she is fond of Oakland the same way she is fond of Darkhan: It’s a big city, but not too big. There’s natural beauty throughout, and it’s not too hard to find a community where you can belong.
In 2003, Puntsag and her husband followed their daughter to Oakland, who was in her twenties and had just given birth to Saraa’s granddaughter, Sondor.
Sumayi said that many younger Mongolians don’t have many job opportunities in their home country so they’re tempted to migrate in search of opportunities. It’s less common for older Mongolians like Puntsag to move abroad.
“She was brave to move here because she came when she was 48 and so many of us came when we were in our 20s,” said Sumiya about Puntsag. “She had to start all over again.”
Puntsag was only visiting Oakland to see her new grandchild but decided she wanted to stay and be closer to them. She went back to cosmetology school to get certified, worked at various salons, and rented a chair from her shop’s previous owners for 10 years.
Later on, when she purchased the salon, she decided to name it after her granddaughter Sondor, which means “jewel” in Mongolian.
When we went back to Tiwari, the Laney College student and musician who happened upon Puntsag’s Mongolian flag sign and tipped us off and told him about the salon, he was surprised. The discovery opened his eyes to another side of Oakland that’s existed for decades, but one he wasn’t aware of.
“I really like looking into local history,” Tiwari said, “ and it [the flag] seems like a random thing to come across, but when you dig deeper it’s not that hard to see we’re all connected [in the world].”
When asked if he would stop by for a haircut, Tiwari said he might not be the ideal clientele. “I’m a heavy metal musician and I haven’t cut my hair in 15 years. If I were to cut my hair and go clean cut, I would definitely stop by there,” he said with a laugh.
Puntsag has plenty of customers in the Mongolian community, but the last two years have been hard for her, as they have for many shop owners. Family members passed away as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and Puntsag found herself working constantly to pay bills. Still, she’s optimistic that she can focus now on growing her business. Sumiya started working there part-time about a month ago and Puntsag is looking to rent a small space upstairs to a nail technician.
Anything she can do to keep this community space open, she’s going to do it. “I spend almost 100% of my life here at the shop, and I’m also taking care of the Mongolian community,” Puntsag said. “I want to keep this for the people so the people can look good.”
Sondor Salon. 302 13th Street, Oakland.