By ALICE ZHANG
Everyone looks down on Wong Gat-lei when she works. Sitting in a chair designed for a kindergartener on a bustling junction in one of Hong Kong’s busiest districts, she has to raise her head 45 degrees to look for potential clients: revenge seekers. For HK$50, Wong will take care of your enemy.
Wong is a professional ‘petty person’ beater. Her weapon is a worn shoe. She will beat your rivals and burn them to ashes, metaphorically speaking of course.
Beating the petty person, or “Da Siu Yan” in Cantonese, is a Chinese folk ritual to dispel evil, particularly the kind brought by enemies. Beaters, usually old women, will hit a human-shaped paper that represents your nemesis and do a sequence of steps to ask a Taoist god for help in protection from malicious influences and to bring you good luck. A petty person can be a specific person or just a general reference to all things bad, including evil spirits.
“Only the person who’s kind-hearted can be a beater,” Wong said in a video interview made by a group of students, which she charged HK$120.
Wong works under the Goose Neck Bridge in Causeway Bay, a favorite spot for this ritual. Folk belief says dark places, such as those under a bridge, are where malevolent spiritual forces gather so it’s easier to catch them there. According to an anthropologist, people have been coming to this spot under the bridge for more than a century.
This particular spot under the overpass is about 20 square meters and forms a triangle bounded by two main roads and a sidewalk. Normally, there are five permanent beaters with their stands here, their signboards hanging on the guardrail competing for pedestrians.
“Come on, beat the petty person!” Wong shouts and beckons with a determined look to passers-by.
Once she gets a client, Wong will start the beating process. The first step is to write down the client’s name on a piece of red paper that says “bring money and treasures,” so Wong can ask the god for help. If the clients want to vent their anger, they can write down their enemies’ names — better with a birthday, address or sometimes a photo — on one of two long pieces of white paper with a green portrait of either a man or a woman. The ritual distinguishes between petty men and women.
“This is strange to curse your enemy, I can’t understand it,” said Ukraine tourist Serge Rodionov passing by. But after he paid $50, Rodionov wrote down one enemy’s name. “I just came up with one enemy,” he said while writing. “Oh, maybe another.”
The client burns three incense sticks to worship the Taoist gods. Every beating stand has three or four gods, such as Tudigong (the god of land), Guanyin (a bodhisattva) or the Monkey King.
Then Wong holds a yellow piece of paper over several candle flames and waves the burning paper around the client’s body. Fire is believed to exorcise evil spirits.
The third step is the beating. Putting the petty person paper on a pile of brisk and chanting “Petty person go away; this person not afraid,” Wong will use a worn white shoe she paid HK$5 for to beat the paper harshly. Shoes represent trampling the petty person under feet, said a local TV show in 2009. Within about 30 beats, the paper is crushed. Then it is burned.
A tiger-shaped paper that represents the “White Tiger,” believed to hurt people on a certain day of the year, is also burned. At the end, Wong will toss two coins until they land with heads and tails at the same time, which means everything will go well. The whole process is about 10 minutes.
Does this really work? “It works when you believe in it,” customer Les Yen said, adding that he has beaten the petty person several times and thinks it works. “But it’s not like you can go to beat whenever you like,” this white-collar worker from Hong Kong said. “You need to check the fortune-telling books every year to know if it is the year you need to beat or not.”
Hong Kong is a superstitious city. Big advertisements for fortune-telling books, which tell you what you should or shouldn’t do in the coming new year, can be seen in subway stations in December. Houses where suicides or murders happened are cheaper than market value. In March, a woman chopped up her lover more than a hundred times and then committed suicide by jumping out of her 77-story window. The apartment, which was reportedly worth HK$100 million, lost 30 percent of its value, and nearby apartments suffered a 5 percent or 10 percent loss.
Though trying hard to be a modern, international city, Hong Kong is proud of its petty person beating, which is listed as an “intangible cultural heritage” by the Hong Kong government along with other 62 items. On the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s official website, petty person beating is introduced as “living culture”, and local newspaper Ming Pao also reported that petty-person beating attracted more than 2,000 Taiwanese tourists at one time during an international travel fair.
Cursing your enemy has been around a long time. In Haiti, some stick pins in a voodoo doll; in Central Africa, it’s nails in a nkisi. “One of the most widespread magical procedures for injuring an enemy is by making an effigy of him from any convenient material,” Sigmund Freud said in his Totem and Taboo. “Whatever is then done to the effigy, the same thing happens to the detested original; whatever part of the former’s body is damaged, the same part of the latter’s becomes diseased.”
In China, more than 3,000 years ago, the king of Zhou Dynasty shot arrows at a target that represented his enemy the duke, according to Liu Liming’s Research of Song Dynasty’s Folk Witchcraft. And in the famous Chinese classic novel “A Dream of Red Mansions” from the 18th century, two main characters were made seriously ill after a witch cursed two paper portraits of them.
The beaters are viewed as witches. They are believed to communicate with the gods to make the beating effective. “In ancient times in China, witches are somebody that can get connected to the god via dancing,” said Wang Guiyuan in the book Witch and Witchcraft. China also has a culture of believing that women have a mysterious connection with the supernatural world.
But nobody will ever know if these beaters really believe what they do. Beating a specific person for a client is believed to hurt the beaters’ own fortune, and most of them claim they won’t do it even when customers ask.
On Wong’s name card, her name is Gat-lei, which means lucky. This is not her real name. “I named myself. Lucky is very good. We want luck,” Wong said, laughing.
Middle-aged, Wong is the youngest of the five long-time beaters working under the bridge. She said she has been doing this job for seven or eight years and her mother is also a retired beater. “My mother taught me to do this,” Wong said, “and I am doing this job because I feel the god wants me to do.”
“She just came here last year,” said another beater, who just gave her last name Zhao, with a stand just next to Wong’s. “Unlike old women like me, she’s not taking it seriously.”
There is supposed to be a particular process for beating the petty person, but Wong’s ritual changes slightly or leaves some steps out every time – sometimes she will ask the client to read a paragraph on her name card, saying it will bring good luck and curse bad things; sometimes she doesn’t bother to burn the three incense sticks. Beaters will generally accept fruits and candies from clients for the god, but when there is no client, Wong will eat them herself. She once offered others a bag of peanuts, which she said afterward was brought by a client as an offering to the gods.
Originating thousands of years ago, Taoism has a very large god system: besides the high level gods in heaven, there are also gods in the sea, in hell and in the mountains. Taoism also believes there’s a small world inside our body, so most organs, such as the eyes and mouth, have their own god, too.
Wong will worship the god statues silently for a while when she finishes her work. She will talk to the god, which she said say thanks for the help and send the god back to the heavenly palace. Wong said she won’t beat a specific person. “This is bad for my fortune,” she says. To protect herself from the hurt of doing the beating, Wong will scrawl something on the “petty person paper”, which she said is a charm. “My mother taught me this. Other beaters don’t know it,” Wong said. “This charm can protect you from beating the petty person, otherwise it will hurt your luck.” Wong draws on the paper in her spare time.
Wong has a lot of spare time. The beaters will have several to dozens of clients a day depending on luck. But most of the time, the beaters are just sitting there, sometimes doing the ritual alone to attract clients.
“Business is hard,” Wong said. Sometimes she beckons passersby for two hours with nobody coming.
Sitting in the short chair the whole day slows down time. From that low position, you can see beautiful long naked legs pass right in front of you and you can memorize every detail of the pavement’s mosaic ground. Wong is interested in everything, such as the people carrying advertising boards or an old man collecting cardboard. But the thing you can’t ignore is the pain that accelerates gradually in your neck, waist and legs.
“Sitting here for so long is too tiring,” Wong said. “So when I have no client, I will jump here and there to exercise.” Sometimes, Wang will bring a can or bottle to an old man collecting them under the overpass.
Wong also reads missionary handbooks about God and Feng Shui when there are fewer people on the street. “This is good stuff. You should give them to other people. It’s good,” Wong said and started to read out the sentence on the cover: “Every mother is the Buddha of her children. One one,” she said, mistaking the dash for the Chinese character “one.”
Wong’s three children live with her in a 15-square-meter apartment. Two of them are already married, their families still in a small village near Guangzhou. All three work in restaurants.
“We got Hong Kong residency by unmentionable methods,” the son said, “I want to go home, but we can’t.”
“Before my mother became a beater, she worked hard as a dishwasher and she was very very tired,” said Chen Xiaofeng, the second daughter. Chen said her family came from mainland China more than one year ago. To support the family, Wong washed dishes for more than ten hours a day. Her arms were too tired to lift when she returned home.
“My work here is quite hard, too,” Chen said. “As a waitress in a restaurant, I had to work 12 hours a day. I couldn’t tolerate it so I quit.”
“But how about your father? What’s his job?” I asked.
“This one in Hong Kong is not my birthfather,” Chen said, her voice becoming low. Divorce is viewed disgracefully in China’s rural areas. “My step father is old and can’t work. He also has a son living with him and my mom so that we have to rent a house ourselves.”
For beaters, the reward for the hard work comes on the biggest day of the year for this business–March 5, or “Jingzhe” in Chinese, which means “The wake of insects.” This is one of 24 solar terms on the Chinese lunar calendar, a day when people believe that the petty person will come out to hurt people.
“On that day here will have many, many people. People will line up all the way from here to there,” Wong said, referring to a distance of about 5 meters. She spoke of this day several times, each time emphasizing the queue.
Three month ago in January, Wong had a woman her same age sitting next to her, watching her beating and taking notes. A week later, this woman became the sixth beater in this area. “I taught her to be a beater,” Wong said. “If there are more people here, we can make it a popular place and attract more clients as well.”
But two days before Jingzhe, Wong quarreled with her apprentice, who brought another eight women and set stands up along the pavement. “They took so much space that people couldn’t walk,” Wong said, “but they are just here for three days.” Beater Zhao soon made an alliance with Wong to fight against the outsiders. “Our five beaters are the authentic ones,” Zhao said.
The big day finally came. By 9 am, you can smell the burning 20 meters away. More than 30 beating stands had appeared and the beating area had expanded to the other side of the pavement. There are already about 60 people waiting for different beaters with seven or eight policemen keeping watch.
The beater who had the longest queue, however, was a newcomer. “I don’t know which beater is better,” a woman said. “It’s my first time to beat. I just see so many people queuing here so I followed.”
Many customers come in sunglasses and masks partly to avoid being pictured by reporters. One young woman took out her cellphone and looked at the contacts one by one as she wrote down names on the petty-person paper. Two women from Shenzhen said they asked for a day off for this beating because this place is the most famous and each of them had to do the ritual for a friend. “My friend has five petty persons to beat,” one woman said.
The line grew and grew. At 7:30 p.m., the longest queue had more than 100 people waiting. The police cordoned the area into four parts and asked the customers to queue 10 meters away along another pavement.
Wong’s queue was not long, just five or six people waiting for her. But she never stops beating. A man wearing a dirty shirt with “Security” on it helps her drum up business. “Two years ago Wong helped my beating the petty person,” the man said. “My eye used to be swollen and nothing could cure it. But it’s good now after the beating. I really appreciate her so today I am here to help her.”
One of Wong’s daughters helped her get customers, another helped with the shoe beating. Her son helped the paper burn completely.
“I want to ask my mom to beat for me, too,” Chen said. “I really want to get rid of my worries and have good luck. It’s my birthday tomorrow.”
Chen said she would wait until there were no clients to ask, but she never got the change. Wong didn’t finish until 4 am. “She was too tired,” Chen said in a text the next day. “I wanted her to rest.”
But Wong paid no attention to the people. She just kept beating and beating into the night. She took off her coat, though it was still chilly enough for a sweater. Her hair was full of ashes, but she had no time to clean it. Wong didn’t even have time to draw the protective charms on the petty person paper anymore. And when customers asked to beat a specific person, she did it as well. At 12:30 am there were still three people waiting. One asked her to beat 12 times for his whole family. The beating sound “pa pa pa” echoed in the night, as if it would never stop.
A beater starts to sets up her stand around 11 a.m. under Goose Neck Bridge.
Many of the shrines are made of decorated cardboard.
A typical stand has fruits and candles to worship the gods, paper tigers representing beasts that may hurt people, moon-shape “cups” and copper coins used for divining and, nowadays, the name card of the beater.
Beater Wong Jili, which means Lucky Wong in Chinese, makes amulets when she has no clients.
Beater Wong Jili tries to attract a tourist with an English poster reading, “Pray for god’s might to expel the devil and to make you calm and comfort mentally and physically.Charge:$50 1 time, thank you.”
A beater circles a paper above a client’s head, the most important part of the body.
A yellow tiger is burned as a way to deliver information to the god’s world
A beater uses a worn shoe to hit a human portrait while chanting, “Beat you petty person’s leg until you can’t walk anymore; beat you petty person’s mouth until you can’t curse anymore.”
A beater grabs lunch at her stand while waiting for clients.