In part one of our series on Hong Kong's oldest trades, SCMP.com spoke to the women who beat out a living performing an old Chinese ritual involving hitting a slipper to put a curse on a 'villain'.
The smell of incense and the murmur of elderly Chinese women saying “siu yan” (“petty little people”) fills the air under the Ngo Keng Kiu, or Canal Road Flyover, between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai.
Those familiar with the area may have seen the women squatting on makeshift shrines with burning joss sticks and hitting an old slipper with a long strip of paper attached to it. This is known as a “villain paper”.
The ritual they are performing is believed to put a curse on the chosen subject.
The women began congregating under the flyover fifty years ago. Since then, the ritual has grown in popularity.
While traditional Hong Kong rituals like Tin Hau worship and spirit-channeling are declining “villain-hitting” is thriving.
“Da siu yan” or “hitting away petty little people” derives from folk religion in Guangdong Province. Those practising hope it might make the government’s list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage in Hong Kong’ (to be announced later this year).
“Men are rarely engaged in these rituals,” explains Dr Liu Tik-sang, associate Professor of Humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “They ask women in their families to perform them instead.”
“But it’s no longer an individual practice,” says Liu. “It has now more of a paid service for those who need to outlet some anger.”
The most popular day for “villain-hitting” is the “Awakening of Insects”, or “ging zat”. This is the third of 24 solar terms in the Chinese lunar calendar. It refers to the day when the Sun is at a celestial longitude of 345 degrees. It annually falls on March 5 or 6. Some believe the weather will begin warming up on this day and hibernating insects will be awakened by thunderstorms.
The ritual itself comprises several steps. Both the “villain hitters” and their clients must worship deities at the shrines. The client then writes down information about the person they want to “curse” on a “villain paper”. This only occurs if the client has a specific “villain” in mind. Otherwise, a “general villain” is used. (This is a group of people or circumstances the client feels is harmful to them). The ritual then proceeds using an old slipper or shoe belonging to the client. One of the women hits the “villain paper” while murmuring incantations.
This is followed by a sacrifice to “Bai Hu” - “The White Tiger” - represented by paper tigers. Pork fat is smeared over the paper tiger’s mouth, so it will not hurt anyone. After paying tributes to gods like “Guan Yin” or the “Goddess of Mercy” and “Sun Wukong” - the “Monkey King”, the hitter makes circles around the client’s head with the burning tiger effigy and throws it into a fire.
Towards the end of the ritual, the “villain hitter” casts two kidney-shaped divination blocks, known as “sheng bei” on the ground. One must be flipped over, and the other down, to signify that the “villains” have been cursed.
This sequence is only one of many ways the ritual is practised. Asked where she learnt it, one of the women, surnamed Yeung, 78, said: “Everyone learns it their own way. I perform the same scam to get people to pay – sometimes they give me HK$50, sometimes HK$100.”
Yeung first performed the ritual in Ngo Keng Kiu 10 years ago. Before that, she struggled to make a living collecting cardboard in Wan Chai. Now she has up to 10 to 20 customers a day and makes much more.
As the most venerated “villain-hitter” on Canal Road, Yeung says younger people are now taking it up. She declined to comment on their “authenticity”.
Dr Kuah-Pearce Khun-eng, a professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said it was hard to say how authentic the rituals were. “As long as they prove efficacious to the person asking for the service, then they are useful.”
Mak Dai, another “villain hitter”, began performing the service three years ago. Mak, 48, used to be a medium and said she started doing “villain hitting” as a part-time job.
“Villain hitters” are not regulated. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department said although “villain hitters” offered paid services they were only participating in traditional rituals. Therefore, they do not need to apply for temporary hawker licences. They would only be investigated if residents raised hygiene or safety concerns about them, the department said.
The area under the flyover is often crowded - mostly with middle-aged women - but also with men and younger people.
One man, surnamed Ng, who is a long-time participant, said: “More people started coming in recent years - mostly from Hong Kong. This is because there is more anger in our society. People need to outlet their anger.”
The Hong Kong Tourism Board has been promoting the ritual. A board spokesman described it as part of “Hong Kong’s local living culture”. He added that it “held strong appeal to visitors”.
The board has also been promoting it overseas. It is also featured in the Hong Kong Living Culture Guide on the board’s official website.
One client, a 40-year-old woman surnamed Law, said she became interested after her husband left her for a younger woman.
“I suffered so much… I hate my ex-husband, so I’m going to curse him, but I don’t want him to die. I just want him to feel my pain and suffering,” she explained.
A male client, surnamed Ho, said his business had improved after he cursed a “general villain”. That was six years ago. Since then, he began to see a “villain hitter” every year. “Once you start, you can’t stop. I’m a businessman, so there are a lot of invisible enemies,” added Ho, who is in his early 30s.
Mak Dai said the ritual was increasing in popularity because Hong Kong people were still spiritual. “They fear the gods. Worshipping the gods makes them feel safer and more blessed.”
She believes the ritual will continue in future. “There will always be those who seek solace in this city. And when they come, I’ll be here for them.”
The University of Hong Kong’s Dr Kuah-Pearce Khun-eng said the ritual should be preserved. “Like other religious practices, it has a place in the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong Chinese.”