Under the bridge downtown …
When the hurly-burly’s done
Every weekend they’re there, gathered under the Canal Road Flyover whacking paper effigies of bad dudes with their slippers. Yet in all the time I’ve lived on the same road as these grandmas of vengeance, I’ve barely ever stopped to take a closer look. But this time was different.
Sitting like Macbeth’s three witches surrounded by statues of their various gods, incense smoke mingled with the fumes from passing buses through which their chants and slipper thwacks echoed. Their clients, similarly seated on plastic stools, were consulting charts or having their heads and shoulders draped with paper to ward off the spirits they claimed were plaguing them. Candles flickered in the gloom.
The practice, known as villain hitting or Da Siu Yan (打小人), has been going on under the Canal Road Bridge for decades. Amongst crowds and swirling litter, it is a fitting spot for the villain hitters of Causeway Bay to ply their dark trade. The harassed or vengeful, assailed by ill fortune, visit the hitters in the hope that their demons can be tamed. Paper figures are used to represent the object of their client’s wrath which are then beaten to tatters and burned by the villain hitter in order to seal the deal with the gods.
A service, not a curse
Although clients are encouraged to provide as many details as possible about their target, the Canal Road villain hitters are quick to point out that this is no mere curse. Their aim is to free the client of bad luck rather than place any kind of spell on a carefully chosen victim. This isn’t some pin-pricking voodoo the hitters are engaged in, more of a casting off of the monkey on the client’s back … then beating it to death and incinerating it.
And it’s popular too. Particularly at weekends there’s a steady flow of customers waiting to take their turn on the stool. Even on weekday evenings the villain hitters are rarely short of clientele with beefs to squash. Most are looking to combat gossips, unfaithful husbands, love rivals or trouble at work. Maybe someone out there owes you money or is otherwise responsible for bad luck befalling you. If there’s a source of ill fortune that you just can’t shake, the villain hitters are your go-to girls.
With its focus on bringing good fortune and dispensing with bad, the practice of villain hitting can be seen as an extension of the usual temple-based rituals common throughout Hong Kong. Statues are prayed to, incense and paper ‘gifts’ are burnt and prayers are chanted. There are makeshift shrines in which statues of Guanyin ‘The God of Mercy’ and Sun Wukong ‘The Monkey King’ sit alongside Hong Kong’s most famous god Guan Yu. There are also paper tigers representing the White Tiger, bringer of bad luck, which are ‘fed’ with a gift of pork fat smeared around the mouth to ensure that they don’t go hunting for victims of their own.
The most auspicious day for those seeking the services of the villain hitters is said to be that which falls between the 5th and 7th of March each year. Known as Jingzhe (惊蛰) in Chinese, this is the day in the Chinese calendar on which winter ends and spring officially begins. It is also the day on which the warming weather is said to bring the thunderstorms which cause all sorts of animals and dormant spirits, including the White Tiger, to wake from their slumber. Taming the White Tiger is thus seen as pretty good form for those who seek to preserve their good fortune in the coming months.
The crowds of prospective clients milling about under the Canal Road Flyover each weekend testifies to the ritual’s enduring appeal. Whether people actually believe that smearing a yellow paper tiger with pork fat will rid themselves of all evil, or whether they are simply looking for a bit of touristy fun, makes little difference to the hitters.
One of the of the longest serving of the Causeway Bay villain hitters, 78 year old Leung Po Po, readily admits that the whole practice of villain hitting is not exactly an authentic art. The incantations she chants are mostly nonsense, she says. But as one of Hong Kong’s oldest and least known cultural practices, it is still, scam or no scam, an important part of Hong Kong’s traditional culture.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board has even cited villain hitting as part of ‘Hong Kong’s local living culture’ and, as a practice which promotes traditional ‘Chinese value systems and customs’, it has been mentioned as worthy of inclusion on Hong Kong’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list. For now, however, we’ll leave the last word to Leung Po Po, still hitting and still going strong, at the age of 78.
How to get there
Causeway Bay Station, Exit A, Times Square, and head towards the Canal Road flyover. Or take the tram or bus along Hennessey Road and get of at the Canal Road stop.
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