If you grew up in a strict Chinese household, then you know never to underestimate a ferocious Chinese woman with a slipper in hand. But beyond harsh corporal punishments, perhaps an equally frightening association to the referenced figure are the old women in Causeway Bay incessantly slamming shoes against stone bricks whilst chanting a stream of ominous incantations. This ancient Chinese ritual often seen performed at the three-way intersection beneath Canal Road Flyover is known as “villain hitting” (打小人).
Typically administered by middle-aged to elderly women, villain hitting (also called “petty person beating”) is a type of folk sorcery used to curse one’s enemies and ward off bad luck. It has a southern Chinese history that traces back to around a thousand years ago and has long been rooted in Hong Kong’s local culture—which is not surprising given that its beliefs are predominantly drawn from widely popular religions in the region like Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion.
To the casual observer, the outwardly vengeful ritual may come across as unsettling or even disturbing, but there is a reason why people come from far and wide to see the traditional ceremony in action. We set ourselves out to learn all about the unique craft from one experienced sorceress who has been whacking away for 30 years...
Running a modest stall in the bustling heart of Causeway Bay, Wong Gat-lei (黃吉利)—whose name in Chinese literally means “good luck”—defies your typical impression of a villain hitter. Far from a grumpy old loner, Wong is a caring grandmother of five and receives clients with an open and friendly attitude. While her unassuming demeanour makes her profession seem like a questionable choice, Wong is no newcomer to the field.
When asked about her background, she reveals that her family has been in this line of work for a long time: “It's a multigenerational business. In my family, my grandfather and grandmother were devoted to Taoism and Buddhism, engaging in various practices to banish bad spirits. I have been in this trade for a full thirty years now and have had my stall put up at this site since 2011.” Previously, Wong also worked in Taiwan and mainland China, but she says that the intersection under the Canal Road Flyover converges spiritual energy, creating an optimal environment for the ritual. Naturally, she made the buzzing location her home base.
It’s fair to say that villain hitting is not commonly seen as a sophisticated profession, but everything becomes a fine craft when continuously practised and honed. Wong shows her decades of field knowledge and expertise as she proudly takes us through her bountiful make-shift stall of Chinese deity figurines, candles, incense offerings, and a colourful papers, and breaks down the traditional ritual for us.
According to Wong, the best time to curse your nemeses is during Jingzhe (驚蟄), the third solar term on the Chinese lunar calendar, which falls between the fifth and sixth of March every year. Marking the beginning of spring, Jingzhe is when insects and foul creatures emerge from hibernation and become active. With all sorts of bad energy looming in the air, villain hitting is said to be particularly effective during this time. “If you rid yourself of petty people as soon as they appear, good luck will come your way for the rest of the year,” Wong says assuredly, then proceeds to demonstrate the process of the ceremony step-by-step.
To start off, she lights two wax candles in front of the deities as a form of worship. “It’s for creating light because the gods consume light as sustenance,” the villain hitter clarifies. She then asks the client to sign their name on the Fulu (符籙; Taoist magic writing paper) and there’s also an option to write the name of the “petty person” whom they want to curse. Without a specific person to target, the ritual simply addresses bad luck in general, aiming to reverse ill fortunes.
Once the name(s) are written down, the villain hitting officially commences. Placing male and female paper effigies onto the brick in front of her, Wong whips out a tattered slipper and begins striking violently, repositioning the villain papers every few seconds to ensure that the deed is done thoroughly and satisfactorily. As she beats away, the piercing sound of Wong’s thwacking slipper is cut through only by the acidic words that simultaneously escapes her lips, “Hit the petty person and wash him away with water... Send his weary body off into the river... Hit the petty person until he is dismembered into pieces...”
Once beaten to a pulp, the crumpled wad of paper is then stuffed into a hallowed paper tiger, symbolising the villain being eaten up by the fierce animal. Both items are subsequently set ablaze and swallowed by candlelit flames. After the hair-raising episode, the ceremony proceeds on a less sombre note as Wong burns a colourful array of “blessing papers” and recites a series of prayers to invoke peace, prosperity, good luck, and good health.
To seal the deal, the final step to completing the ceremony involves throwing two crescent-shaped wooden pieces onto the worship table. Wong notes that one piece must be ”yin” (facing up) while the other one ”yang” (facing down) to be considered a successful throw. “If two pieces are [both facing down], it signals the presence of too much yin ‘chi’ (氣). But if both are [facing up], that’s no good either. It means there are petty people of masculine ‘chi’ in your vicinity.”
Venom-filled incantations and the repetition of merciless whacking often leave people with a negative impression of villain hitting. However, it’s not all about hatred and revenge. In fact, Wong views her work in a completely different light. When recalling her most memorable experiences, Wong describes in fond remembrance the lives she claims to have saved.
“In 2017, there was an elderly man from Tuen Mun who was in a coma for over two months. The doctors told his daughters that it was a hopeless case. But one of the daughters’ colleagues directed the sisters to seek out one Wong Get-lei under Canal Road Flyover. Needless to say, the two sisters came to find me. I performed a ritual for the father and promised that he wouldn’t die […]. I told them that after a specific date and time, their father would wake up from his coma.”
Sure enough, in a miraculous turnaround, the man came out of his coma and is purportedly still alive and kicking to this day. “Isn‘t it a happy thing to be able to help people?” Wong asks rhetorically, as she scrolls through her phone, showing photos of another client whom she allegedly saved from death’s door.
Throughout the conversation, Wong stresses time and time again that this folkloric practice is not to be flippantly used and exploited. Contrary to popular assumptions, not all villain hitters are out to sell vengeance and fuel hatred with no regards to moral conscience. Wong divulges that she often gets client requests to curse colleagues and gossipy acquaintances, but she always encourages them to take the high ground and ask for blessings instead. “I tell them, ‘Don’t write down anyone’s names. [Use the ritual to] accumulate some good fortune for yourself and your children first.’ All the back-and-forth fighting; it never ceases until one party chooses to resolve things peacefully,” Wong remarks thoughtfully.
But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be on guard against swindlers and frauds. “A lot of people are out to cheat you of your money,” Wong cautions. “They ask you to disclose your date and time of birth, then tell you that there are evil spirits around you [to trick you into paying hefty prices to exorcise the demons], when they don’t know a thing and can’t even read your Four Pillars of Destiny (四柱八字). Those who constantly pester you to “beat petty people” and chase you for your money are themselves petty people.”
Wong also offers advice on how to identify legitimate practitioners. One obvious giveaway is where their stalls are set up. She suggests being wary of stalls stationed in an obtrusive area blocking the way of pedestrians; credible practitioners with character and class usually occupy a more discreet location, and naturally attract customers without resorting to pushy tactics.
Whether you believe in this folk sorcery or think it’s a little too woo-woo, there’s no denying that villain hitting is a valuable part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage. It has firmly withstood the test of time and taken shape as a major tourist drawcard. In view of this, Wong wishes for people to be respectful towards the practice, quoting the old Chinese adage of “When entering a house, one greets its people; when entering a temple, one worships its gods” (入屋叫人，入廟拜神). In a didactic yet relaxed tone, she ultimately urges for passersby to show respect, even if they do not partake in the ceremony. As to how the timeworn and traditional practice of villain hitting will fare as its practitioners continue to age out of the profession and we move towards an increasingly digital age, only time will tell.