Tag Archives: Hong Kong

打小人 (da siu yan) Hitting Villains Tradition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese American
Age: 23
Occupation: part time tutor
Residence: Hong Kong
Date of Performance/Collection: April 23
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

This is a transcription of an interview with a friend from high school, identified as A. In this piece, I am identified as IC.

A: There’s this tradition called 打小人 (da siu yan), which means like to hit villains or hitting villains. The basic idea is that you hit a symbolic piece of paper or item, usually paper, while chanting in order to curse someone or something.

IC: So, it’s kind of like voodoo?

A: Kind of, I mean it’s not like a precise comparison, but you could say that it’s similar concept. So, you can target a person, spirits or just overall life to get it to do what you want to do. Like, you can try to hit away bad luck. Say you have an exam coming up and you don’t want to do badly, then you can ask someone to help you hit whatever might get in the way of you achieving your goal. It’s not a very big tradition in China; I’ve only really heard it in context of Hong Kong and maybe Guangzhou.

IC: Okay, what’s the process like?

A: I’ve never seen it in person but apparently, it’s best for it to be done in like shadowy areas. So, what you do is go up to these women who are in specific shadowy location and say what you want to curse. From what I understand each woman who does the hitting has a specific god or deity that they like to… I guess evoke when they are doing the chanting. The chanting for this is very nonsense, like I watched a video once and it was strange because no one ever talks that way. But I saw another video of another woman who said I guess, scripted prayers. It was like prayers towards a specific God or whatever.

IC: So, it’s just prayers asking a god to help?

A: Yeah, for example you ask about protection from bad spirits or another god about someone who’s cheating on you and wait until the woman is done hitting villains. I’m not sure how long it takes precisely.

IC: Are these deities ones that actually exist in like Chinese culture or is it just kind of made up?

A: They actually exist, like there are gods for specific things. There are so many deities in China.

Background:

My informant is 23 years old and she is my friend from high school, which was in Hong Kong. She went to New York for college and graduated last year. She is currently working in Hong Kong.

Context:

My informant was describing a common tradition in Hong Kong that she has never seen before but know about from her previous internship for a newspaper. She mentioned this when I asked about any traditions or activities that she knew about.

Thoughts:

I remember seeing some women with incense and hitting pieces of paper when I grew up in Hong Kong, but I didn’t think much about it because I wasn’t familiar with the tradition. After hearing my informant describe what it was, I pieced the two together. I think this is a very odd tradition, and I’m not sure if it works but I guess there are some people who believe in this and it’s why they participate.

The Ghosts of Happy Valley Cemetery

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 51
Occupation: Housewife
Residence: Arcadia, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/27/2013
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

My mother told me that there is a folk belief among tram drivers in Hong Kong.  Whenever a tram driver passes along the Happy Valley cemetery on their route at night, they stop their tram regardless of whether or not they see people waiting on the sidewalk.  This is because of a fire that occurred in the area:

“Many years ago, in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley, there’s a horse racing track.  Back then Hong Kong didn’t officially build stands at the race track, so they’d often make stands out of bamboo.  So every time there’s horse racing people would watch in the stands as others race horses.  One time there was a fire, and there were too many people who couldn’t escape.  Many people burned to death.  Now, across the horse racing track, they’ve built a Happy Valley Cemetery, you’ve passed it before, haven’t you?”

[“Yeah, I’ve passed it before.”]

“The victims of the fire are buried there.”

The Cantonese name for Happy Valley is 跑馬地 (Pao ma dei), which literally means “horse racing grounds.”  It’s interesting to hear about the story in English – the name “Happy Valley” makes the story of the tragedy and the existence of ghosts even more eerie.

My mother emphasizes that the fire itself took place a long, long time ago.  It surprises me that these legends of ghosts still remain.  The cemetery has contained many people not related to the disaster since then, but the circumstances surrounding its construction continue to haunt it.  My mother noted that she would hear a lot of colleagues talk about these ghosts along the cemetery; the tragedy still resonates with many Hong Kong residents, even if it’s been decades since the accident.

Trams are considered relics of the past in Hong Kong (they’re kept running for their penchant to attract tourists and retain a sense of nostalgia), so I also find it interesting that it is the tram drivers who keep this tradition alive the strongest.  Perhaps trams are the primary vehicle that still remain from that era, and the belief is that ghosts would recognize it.  It’s really interesting that my mother made sure to point out it was tram drivers, not taxi or bus drivers (who operate more modern modes of public transportation).

七彩豬毛釘 (Rainbow pig-hair nail)

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 51
Occupation: Housewife
Residence: Arcadia, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/27/2013
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

Phonetic pronunciation of 七彩豬毛釘: chut choi ju mo deng
My mother grew up in a working-class family in Hong Kong.  On one hand, my mother’s family was living in an industrialzing culture; on the other hand, her parents came from Southern Chinese villages.  So there’s a lot of beliefs and practices that they carried over from their village lives.

My mother learned a folk medicinal practice from her mother when she had a fever as a child.  Her mother used an old folk remedy, the 七彩豬毛釘, to cure my mother of her fever.

The 七彩豬毛釘 is made of rice flour, hot water, and an egg.  The preparation of the remedy is really simple – you heat some water and add the rice flour and egg to it.  There is no specified amount of each ingredient that you have to put into the remedy.  You just have to create the right consistency that lets you knead the mixture into a piece of dough.  While it is still hot, you roll the ball of dough along the back of the sick person.

The person who prepared the 七彩豬毛釘 then breaks open the ball.  If the treatment worked properly, there should be tiny hairs of all colors stuck in the dough (七彩 means “rainbow” in Chinese – the hairs are also described as looking like pig-hairs, 豬毛).  My mother attests that she saw her mother break the ball open and found rainbow-colored hairs inside.  After the treatment, her fever reduced.
My mother recreated the treatment for me (I was curious), but since I did not have a fever, she was unable to actually apply the remedy.

What I find very interesting is that the remedy has a visual confirmation associated with it.  The remedy’s power comes from contagious magic — the illness of the patient transfers into the piece of dough when it contacts the patient’s skin.  My mother didn’t particularly remember any explanation as to why the illness would turn into rainbow-colored hairs, she just knows that it reduced her fever.  Nobody is allowed to eat the dough after the treatment either, which would make sense since contagious magic has transferred what’s causing the illness into the dough.

Cantonese Wedding Comb Tradition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 51
Occupation: Housewife
Residence: Arcadia, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/27/2013
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

My mother said that when she was about to get married, she learned of a tradition that takes place before the day of the wedding.  Her older sister combed her hair the night before, and said the following lines:

一梳梳到老 (yi shu, shu dao lao)

二梳白髮齊眉 (er shu, bai fa jing wei)

三梳兒孫滿地 (san shu, er sun man di)

四梳有田有地 (si shu, you tian you di)

Each line is delivered with a stroke from a comb.

The first line translates to, “one stroke, stroke until old age.”  The first stroke comes with a wish for the bride-to-be to have a long life.

The second line translates to, “two strokes, your brows become white together.”  The second stroke wishes for the bride-to-be to have white eyebrows at the same time her husband does.  In other words, this stroke wishes for the couple to grow old together.

The third line translates to, “three strokes, children and grandchildren cover the ground.”  This third stroke wishes for the bride to have many children, and children who survive to raise grandchildren.

The fourth line translates to, “four strokes, you’ll have fields and have land.”   This wishes for the wife-to-be to own property.

There are other significant gestures in this ritual as well.  The reason why my mother’s older sister combed her hair was because she was happily married, had children, and had a home.  Elder members of either family can comb the wife-to-be’s hair so long as they’re happily married and generally have experienced the wishes of this combing ceremony.  Widows or sickly wives can not perform this action.

After the combing ceremony, the wife-to-be can not sleep and must preserve the hair until the wedding.

There’s a lot going on in the gestures of this combing ceremony.  A happy marriage and future is very important, so it would make sense that this combing ceremony takes place.  The stressed need for a happily-wedded wife to perform this ceremony shows that theres is a form of contagious and homeopathic magic going on in the performance.  Since homeopathic magic follows a “like produces like” rationale, a happy wife combing a wife-to-be’s hair hopefully produces another happy wife.  On the other hand, the wife combing the wife-to-be’s hair acts as a form of transferrence.  She is transferring her happiness and successful marriage to the wife-to-be.

My mother noted that the fourth line was a recent addition.  With expanded rights and social roles for women, the wish for her ability to own property became very relevant.  This shows that the incantation and the practice of combing the wife-to-be’s hair is adaptive to changing circumstances.