For them, ink meant permanence – a point of no return, a mark of brotherhood, entry into a higher level – something to be feared. As always, it was deeply ritualistic, but kudos came also from the bravery of risking Tetanus – or worse, being caught with one by the British police, who were fighting violence with violence – keen to create some order in their colonised land. Corporal punishment if you were caught was automatic and for the real people of Hong Kong, tattoos quickly became the symbol of resistance against what for some, was an oppressive, colonial regime. The designs of choice were mostly dragons, Chinese lions, phoenixes and wild horses – illustrations popular amongst the mob set since the 17th century in fact – as those who wore them were considered the true sons of China.
Today, the wishes of those people have come true. Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the city catapulted forward with a new identity, one country – with two systems. As the handover happened, Hong Kongers feared that they’d take a great leap backwards. Instead, the growth of China as a global economic powerhouse created huge opportunities and the world flocked to this half-way house between the Far East and West – bringing the city much wealth to reinvent itself. Hong Kong has come full circle once again to the bustling, deeply international melting pot of cultures and influences that it once was.
“These inked young people’s stories lie in individual self-expression, rather than social rebellion.”
A huge generation of hipsters emerged. Those from foreign lands looking to live their lives in the mystic East, those who studied abroad and returned home with new ideas and those born and bred Hong Kongers looking to show the world their own brand of cool. With this came an explosion of art, in all forms – and naturally, body art too. Skin-scribing, particularly in the style of traditional Chinese art, poetry, mythology and calligraphy is all the rage in Hong Kong – unique, avant-garde and individual. Hong Kongers are embracing their ‘Chinese-ness’ it seems – although they’d tell you in an instant that this movement is distinctly ‘Hong Kong-ese’. These inked young people’s stories lie in individual self-expression, rather than social rebellion. I met a local guy in a gay bar in Sheung Wan who had a tattoo of the Taoist goddess of mercy, Kwan Yin etched into his back – his reasoning was that she represents a universal, unconditional and non-judgmental love. Another guy I met in an art gallery in a disused tire factory in Wong Chuk Hang had a brushed crouching tiger on his arm (yes, I asked if he had a hidden dragon elsewhere) – simply because he thought it was beautiful. I encountered so many different pieces and stories, and reflecting on my own, I recognised that the city’s soul was calling out to me to have my tattoo done here.
Through the recommendation of a friend, I met Joey Pang, regarded as one of the world’s best inkers – artist in residence at Hong Kong’s ‘Tattoo Temple’. She has perfected her craft, able to tattoo in the style of traditional Chinese art and calligraphy, creating beautiful brush-strokes across the skin, so delicate it is almost an optical illusion. She is one of just a handful of skilled people in the world that can do this and her work is simply spellbinding. Her consultation waiting-list alone was over a year long, but when I told her about my dream, she invited me over to her studio after it had closed to talk about it.
The rest, as they say, is history. Fast forward a couple of years and with one more trip across the globe, and no second thoughts from me, and I was laid back on a tattoo chair, stencilled with beautiful manifestations of my original vision – more perfect than I could ever have imagined – and Joey was at work with her needle on my chest, bringing my dream to life. The result is simply stunning. Joey read me accurately and did a wonderful job delivering exactly what I wanted, something I had pictured so clearly but struggled to articulate.
But, more than the physicality, I love what they really mean to myself – a personal milestone, a signature of what it is I do, who I am and where I came from. It charts my own rite of passage as a traveller, an adventurer – symbols of the journeys I’ve made, both in distance and circumstance, as well as the ones that are yet to come. It’s something that makes Hong Kong a very special place, etched in my mind, as well as my chest, forever.
Uwern’s tattoo was inked by the infamous skin artist, Joey Pang, at Tattoo Temple, Hong Kong.
Photography courtesy of Tattoo Temple and by Uwern Jong
Get out there
… your research and choose a reputable tattoo artist in the city. Anyone with a great media profile and waiting-list is a good bet.
… consider checking out the Hong Kong Tattoo Convention, which is staged each October. It’s a good place to start if you’re looking for inspiration, with visitors arriving from all across the world.
… make sure you check out Hong Kong’s vibrant art scene if art, in general, is your flavour. Art Basel each March is an exciting time to visit.
… forget about M+, a brand new museum of visual culture due to open in 2019. In the meantime, its team creates amazing pop-up events around the city.
… miss out on the alt-scene: for more grass-roots art, and its related lifestyle, the emerging hipster district of Wong Chuk Hang is an amazing place to hang out.
… sleep on PMQ (Police Married Quarters) on the cusp of buzzing Sheung Wan, which is another great spot. Each old dormitory now houses artist studios.
Join us on an adventure
Subscribe to our newsletter to enjoy early access to the latest news, luxury hotel reviews and inspiring travel tales, delivered straight to your inbox.
A confirmation email has been sent to your inbox. Welcome to the club!