Squatting at a makeshift shrine with joss sticks burning beside her, Granny Leung starts bashing a manlike paper cutout with a pair of sandals.
“I beat you little people, I’m sending you away!” chants the 76-year-old woman, one of the last practitioners in Hong Kong of the ancient Chinese ritual of da siu yan (打小人), or “beating the little people.”
Granny Leung performs her mysterious incantations in the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay. And business is booming.
For as little as HK$50 (US$6), Leung claims she can curse her customers’ enemies and reverse their bad luck by burning paper offerings and hitting paper figures with shoes.
Believers say the ritual can help to drive away evil spirits in general or a specific nemesis such as a hated neighbor, a business competitor or a love rival.
Ada Mak, a 50-year-old businesswoman, travels from the outskirts of Hong Kong to see Leung every weekend. She believes the ritual can protect her from negative gossip, lawsuits and financial loss.
“I always feel at ease after I see Granny Leung,” Mak says, adding that she usually asks the old woman to curse a general villain rather than a specific target. “If you curse someone specifically, you’re only targeting that certain person. Cursing generally can help you beat whoever is trying to harm you, including those that you might not be aware of, in the whole Asia region.”
“This is better and this is more effective,” Mak explains.
Leung says a steady stream of visitors seek her service every day.
“I have been doing this for the past eight years,” she said on a recent Saturday afternoon, sitting on a plastic stool and burning some paper offerings in a red metal canister.
She is among a small group of elderly women who work near the gloomy “Goose Neck Bridge” in Causeway Bay. The women congregate there because they say evil spirits linger in dark places.
“I just beat the petty person in general for my clients’ peace of mind. I don’t curse or beat someone specifically. If I do that, there will be no end to this cursing and retaliation,” she says.
Leung, who used to collect cardboard for a living, attributes her powers to a “gift” from God.
Half a dozen people line up and wait patiently for hours for Leung’s services. Among them are four Taiwanese tourists, a foreign domestic helper and an eight-year-old girl.
“My daughter complains she has been bullied by her friends in school, she’s very upset,” the girl’s mother, Mandy Wong, says.
“It’s our first time here, she asked me to take her here. She said she’ll feel better after the ritual,” Wong adds, as her bespectacled daughter sits on a stool quietly watching Leung.
“I hope she’s happy after this. There is no harm to take her here if it helps to make her feel better,” the mother says, in between praises for Leung’s feisty beating of the “petty people” — her daughter’s schoolmates.
Each bout takes about 30 minutes, depending on how tough the villains are and how many times Leung needs to beat them until they are gone.
Another stage of the ritual involves feeding pig lard to paper tigers, which represent malignant beings, so they are full and will not bother people.
“I don’t think this is superstition,” says Hong Kong Heritage Museum curator Chau Hing-wah (鄒興華), who reckons the popularity of rituals like da siu yan is growing. “In Western countries, people may choose to go to church. In Hong Kong, they go to da siu yan. It’s just a way of letting go of stress, which is fun and interesting at the same time.”