In the flesh
IN THE spring of 2000, I hurried down a staircase and into a dodgy underground mall on Jaffe Road in Wan Chai one evening. I wandered through the maze of stores before arriving at Boom, a shop draped with black fabric and walls covered with photos and clippings.
Ken Sze Hing-mei, piercer and owner of Boom, greeted me with a nod, a friendly grin and, 'What would you like?'
After I responded, he pulled out a reclining chair. I sat down gingerly, swung my legs up and lay down.
Sze's then-girlfriend, Tiffany, handed him an alcohol swab.
I lifted my sweater and T-shirt to reveal my navel, which he swabbed thoroughly.
'Will it hurt? How long will it take? What are you going to do, exactly?' I asked anxiously.
Grabbing a pen, Sze carefully drew one dot above my navel and a second dot on the inside of my navel. 'I'm marking where the belly ring will go through,' he said.
Then he tightly pinched the skin above my navel with a metal clamp.
I froze, yelping: 'Is it done yet?'
'Now just relax,' he said, chatting away easily. 'This pincer is the most pain you'll feel.' And he ripped open a plastic bag, pulled out a two-inch-long needle, and drove it through my pinched skin; in one dot and out the other.
'Is it done yet?' I asked again.
Attached to the end of the needle was a ring which slid through the hole. Sze fastened the little ball, released the clamp, and washed his hands. I lay motionless on the chair.
'It's finished,' he said, handing me a bar of special soap. 'Wash it three times a day with warm water and the soap, and turn the ring around in the hole so it won't gather pus.'
I looked at my watch. It had only taken five minutes. I sat up and peered down at my navel, still pink from the clamp, and saw the simple, silver ring.
Now, a barbell with an eye stares out from my navel, and the ring is sitting in my jewellery box.
And now, 30-year-old Sze and Tiffany, his wife of two months, have taken over the store space next door, adding it to their own.
In Hong Kong's taboo world of body modification, piercing is overshadowed by tattooing. But according to Sze, piercing has become 'incredibly popular' this year, especially with girls.
'I'd say the ratio of girls to boys who come here is 80 to 20. The girls all want their belly-buttons pierced,' he says.
'Hygiene is most important,' Sze stresses. 'Hong Kong has a long way to go in the hygiene department. Having an autoclave and ultrasonic to disinfect tools is a must, or diseases like Hepatitis B will continue to be spread through used needles.'
Starting out as a temporary tattooist, by 1998, Sze had had his navel pierced three times, but his body rejected the ring every time.
'Each time it was $600 and I didn't understand why my body rejected it. I wanted to know why,' he says, lifting his shirt to reveal the scars.
After reading up about it, Sze went to London and then Thailand to learn the art of body piercing.
'I first practised on myself a lot; it's the only way to aim for perfection. I had to pierce my own tongue a few times before I was satisfied with the result and fully understood the process,' he says.
Business is doing well. 'I'm not affected by the recession at all. My clients are mostly teenagers who don't earn money and therefore don't feel the bad economy,' he says.
His clients also include a range of celebrities from Nicholas Tse Ting-fung to Dodo Cheng.
Who is Sze's competition? 'I don't have any. Piercing is so rare in Hong Kong,' he shrugs. 'My only competition is myself. Every day I strive to improve.'