Secret lovers, bad bosses, noisy neighbours and politicians are some of their most common victims, perched under the flyover on Canal road or Russell street sits a few old ladies slamming weathered shoes against bricks, they beat small pieces of paper with names upon them back to the pulp they once were.
A common sight under the flyover since the 80’s, the practice is known as ‘da siu yan’ aka ‘petty person beating’. The retirees that carry out the sentence are tasked with giving a good beating and can even ‘curse’ your enemies – all they need is a name.
The practice is sorcery that is said to have derived from ancient folk religion in the Guangdong Province. It’s become such a popular service in Hong Kong and China that it’s now been added to the city’s “list of intangible cultural heritage” by the Hong Kong Home Affairs Bureau. A little odd for a tourist attraction but it’s certainly is hard to look away.
Walter DeHavilland, an ex-Hong Kong Cop, recounts his time with the vengeful grannies on his blog:
“Madam Yung beckoned me over “Leng Jai, come here”. Before I knew it, seated on a stool, burning paper is circling my head as the passing local’s smirk at a silly Gwailo. Between Madam’s Yung’s broken English, and my clumsy Cantonese, communication takes place.
The devil beaters (打小人) are elderly and middle-aged ladies, who recite incantations as they pound at a paper effigy of a white tiger. A shoe “beats away the devil”. The white tiger represents your enemies. This Taoist ceremony dispels bad luck; it’s linked to the lunar calendar.
The ladies are present all year round, with four on duty today. In early March, the “Feast of Excited Insects” marks the end of winter and heralds the spring. A new beginning, a new hope. Tradition dictates this is the best time to dispel evil. It’s the main beating season.
Madam Yung took my date and time of birth. “No way, you look so young!” … she’s got the patter perfect. I write my name on prayer papers and offer incense to the Kwan Dai, Kwan Ying and the Monkey King. Three deities; Madam Yung is taking no chances with me. Again, flaming paper circles my head, a bell is rung, and rice is cast about with abandon.
Business is busy today. At nearby booths a couple of grannies are hard at work, wreaking vengeance on evildoers. The thud-thud reverberates under the bridge, despite the traffic noise. Meanwhile, meters away, a group of Muslim ladies are conducting an Islamic chant. Neither side bothered by the other.
Madam Yung is now asking who I want cursing. I’m reluctant to offer a specific name or individual. She’s got customers waiting, so it’s all my enemies, unnamed, now getting blasted. She explains it’s usually ex-lovers, former or current bosses and mother-in-laws. During the 2015 festival, a favourite target was Hong Kong’s then leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying. Madam Yung made a brisk trade in beating his effigy. It appears to have worked, as he’s no longer in office.
Madam Yung hands me her business card. She does house-calls, fung shui and several different spiritual services. When I ask her age “I was here before the British arrived”. She’s looking well. 1841 was some time ago.
Before leaving, a blessed parchment gets thrust into my hand. Stern instructions come forth that it must be carried in my wallet and not opened. I make my payment.
The next customer is taking his seat, as more enemies get beaten. I can see the merit in it. The shoe beating an image, as a weapon of choice, is far better than a knife or gun. The punter comes away feeling the balance of power has shifted a little. How many ill-favoured bosses or deceitful ex-lovers feel the phantasmal slap of a shoe? I wonder. “