Beat the Devils Away

Reportage

 

“Pad, pad, pad …”

 

Suddenly, a series of strong beating sound burst out from under Ngo Keng Kiu, or Goose Neck Bridge, competing with the constant buzz at the bustling intersection of two major roads swarmed with traffic and people in Hong Kong’s Central District. Accompanying the sound, a smell of incense swelled and rolled into the air, haunting every passerby.

 

“Pad, pad, pad …”

 

At the center of where the sound came, an elderly woman was crouching on a plastic stool, chanting while slapping a strip of paper on stacked bricks with a black shoe so fiercely that she quickly beat it into pieces. Beside her was a set of three Chinese deity statues, a pile of apples and oranges, two incense burners with dozens of incense sticks in them, dozens of yellow paper tigers scattered around, and a thick piece of pork fat.

 

Four other elderly women nearby were doing the same thing with the same setting beside. They are the practitioners of a traditional Hong Kong ritual, beating the petty person. A “petty person” can be a nasty co-worker, a snagging friend, an ex-lover, or simply bad fortune. During the ritual, people would first burn some incense sticks to worship the deity, and then beat a paper figurine representing the petty person with an old shoe. After the figurine is all “beaten up,” they would press it on a piece of pork fat for several times and fold it underneath a paper tiger, representing the petty person being gagged by the pork fat and overpowered by the tiger.

 

Now around 20 people were waiting in lines in front of the elderly women. Each of them would pay one of the women HKD 50 to beat the bad things away.

 

“I came here at 12: 30,” the fifth in line, Ms. Lau said somewhat complainingly. “I’ve been waiting for almost two hours.”

 

Cynthia Wong, a 26-year-old accountant, was chatting with others in the line actively while waiting. “I’ve encountered impediments in life,” she said, “and I’m not getting on well with people around me.”

 

Last year Wong came to beat the petty person for the first time. “It just struck me that I should try this,” she said. “Then I searched online and knew this place. I know it’s unscientific, but I did feel better afterwards, so I’m here again.”

 

Granny Leung, one of the customers’ favorite “beaters,” said the customers came for various reasons. Some came for a good fortune, some for love, some for health, and more.

 

Leung said once there was a woman whose husband had lung cancer. She was praying all the way through the ritual. After paying Leung, she went to another beater to do it again, and then the third … “She asked every one of us to beat for her,” Leung said.

 

Although the ritual can be practiced every day, early March, around Chinese Lunar Festival, is believed the best time of a year to conduct it. This time also attracts the most local customers.

 

While some of the beaters only come to do the business during the festival, Leung comes every day. She makes a living out of this. At 76, she has been in this field for eight years. Before, she was a scavenger of cardboard boxes. “I could not survive by picking cardboard boxes,” she said, “so I started to beat the petty persons for others. It makes more money.”

 

Her old customers said she beats the paper figurine the hardest, making the loudest sound, which is why they like her.

 

But being so popular is a bitter-sweet thing for Leung. “My arms hurt, my throat is sore, and I haven’t had the time for lunch,” she said and smile.

 

Time magazine selected “beating the petty person” as one of its Best of Asia 2009, which made it a cultural hot spot for tourists. The Hong Kong Tourism Board also included it as one of the highlights of the local tram guide.

 

But according to Desmond Wong, the project manager of the Conservancy Association Center for Heritage, a local NGO concentrating on protecting cultural heritages, such tourism exploitation is distorting the original  meaning of the ritual, turning it a mere showcase for fun.

 

This ritual is also included in Hong Kong’s 63 local cultural items identified for an on-going city-wide survey on the city’s intangible cultural heritages. But the government has yet to take any measurement to protect the tradition.

 

Earlier last month, during a Sunday protest, hundreds of people gathered outside the city’s Legislative Council and conducted the ritual together, “beating” the Financial Secretary to express their anger towards the latest budget. According to the organizers of the protest, they have applied for a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest petty person beating gathering. But neither the organization nor the Guinness has confirmed any result.

 

 

Hong Kong, Superstition