When a tattoo was taboo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 April, 2012, 12:00am


Tattoos have a long - and surprisingly complicated - history in this part of the world. Given Hong Kong's role from the mid-19th century onwards as one of the world's major ports, sailors passing through often picked up a permanent souvenir of their stay in the city. There was a time when almost every sailor sported a tattoo somewhere, usually an anchor or other nautical symbol, or a full-figured 'broad', generously outlined on the chest or limbs.

Wan Chai - for more than a century an off-duty roistering destination for the world's navies and merchant fleets - has some long-established tattoo parlours.

Kowloon - in former times the off-duty preserve of the British Army - also has a few long-established businesses, where mean-looking squaddies (or, more frequently than many choose to remember, their wives) could get a lasting memento of their Hong Kong posting.

But tattoos have always had a more sinister connotation in Chinese and Japanese societies, as identification marks of triad and yakuza members, respectively.

Triads were attracted to tattoos because of their permanence; they symbolised more than anything that a point of no return had been passed. There were several reasons for this. The danger inherent in both getting them and being discovered to have them was obvious.

These days, sterile inks, hygienic needles, disinfectant and antibiotics all help make the tattooing process fairly safe and straightforward. In earlier times, when iron needles had to be dipped in ink and laboriously jabbed into the skin by hand, serious infections were common. Tetanus, in particular, was easily contracted and generally fatal.

Going though the lengthy, painful and potentially dangerous process indicated a willingness to take great risks for the group, and demonstrated a profound level of individual commitment and collective identity.

Being marked indelibly with triad symbols also meant that - if apprehended - punishment was automatic, as there was no plausible way an innocent person could have acquired the tattoos.

Stylised dragons were always the symbolic animal of choice, right back to the earliest days of the triads. The secret societies started out as rebel forces opposed to Manchu rule following the collapse of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. The tattoos marked them out as Sons of the Dragon - Han Chinese.

Deities drawn from the Taoist pantheon have long been part of the triads' tattoo tradition. Kwan Tai, also known as Kwan Kung, the red-faced, black-bearded god of loyalty and bravery, remains a favourite. In fraternal associations such as the triads, an emphasis on allegiance and courage was necessary for them to survive.

Tattoos depicting the goddess Kwan Yin were also common. She represents mercy and a universal, unconditional love; seeing all and hearing all but refraining from judgment.

Recent years have witnessed an explosion of tattoos among young Hongkongers, but as they have become more common, the idea of 'body art' as a form of rebellion against social norms has rapidly declined.

The Taoist symbol of loyalty and bravery, Kwan Tai is worshipped by members of the Hong Kong Police. Every police station in Hong Kong has its Kwan Tai altar located somewhere.