The Villain Hitters of Hong Kong

Chiu typically sees more than 100 clients during Jingzhe, the start of the third solar term of the Chinese lunar calendar in early March. It’s the most popular time for villain hitting.

Forget what you know about minding your own business. For a group of women who operate in the depths of one of Hong Kong’s most chaotic neighborhoods, their business is your business. They help you seek vengeance on conniving coworkers, evil bosses, and cheating husbands.

There’s a highway overpass in Causeway Bay near the city’s central business district that you’d very likely hurry past on your way to work or brunch without a second glance. It’s filled with incense fumes and trapped humidity – and five stalls, each manned by a woman in or around her 70s engaging in da siu yan (打小人), or “villain hitting.” It’s a kind of folk sorcery popular in southern China and Hong Kong, perhaps most conveniently compared to voodoo.

Ms. Chiu describes her job as worshiping gods. Which, technically, is true. But almost within the same breath, she casually mentions in Cantonese that she’ll curse the day your husband’s mistress was born or make sure your petty brother never succeeds in business. For a fee, of course.

Chiu’s small space is filled with gods, fruits, incense sticks, a “licensed by the Hong Kong government” sign, and a long list of deities for clients to choose from. If it’s wealth you want, opt for the god of riches; if you seek revenge on your enemies, you might choose the monkey king. Chiu will then pray to the gods you’ve selected during the ritual.

The poster above Chiu’s stall includes a list of dozens of deities for clients to choose from.

She reveals a piece of paper explaining her services, which local journalists helped her translate into English for tourists: To expel the devil and to make you calm, and comfort mentally and physically. Charge $50/time. That’s $50 HKD – a little over $6 USD. The price of a latte, give or take. Curses take effect in about a week’s time and can potentially linger for years. 

The ritual starts with writing down your own name and birthday. On a separate slip of paper, you write down the intended villain’s name and birthday; Chiu places this atop a brick that rests on a small wooden stool. She takes the sole of a slipper wrapped in masking tape and begins smacking the paper repeatedly with increasing force, thwack thwack thwacking until it’s beaten to a pulp and shreds curl away into the wind, all while reciting the appropriate curses. Some clients bring photos of the people they wish to punish, Chiu explains, which she pairs with the slip of paper.

The next step is a sacrifice to the white tiger, a harbinger of bad luck, which is represented here by burning paper tigers. Finally, Chiu tosses a wooden divination tool to make sure the gods received her messages. The entire ordeal can take about five minutes. 

On the left, incense sticks; on the right, paper tigers alongside a tiger carving.

The practice of da siu yan has centuries-old origins in southern China, where Chiu, now in her 70s, grew up. Over 30 years ago, a family friend who worked as a medium in her hometown of Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, asked if she wanted to learn to help others. Chiu agreed. She was working on her family’s farm, but when it rained, she needed something to do indoors. Chiu moved to Hong Kong around 1999 when the Communist Party began cracking down on the custom in mainland China, settling in the same Causeway Bay overpass she occupies today, known as the Canal Road Flyover. She’s often there seven days a week, from 11 a.m. until as late as 8 p.m. 

On a very busy day, Chiu might see more than 100 customers, with lines snaking around her stall. She’s especially popular during one particular time in the Chinese lunar calendar, Jingzhe, which usually falls at the beginning of March. This marks the start of spring and the awakening of insects, symbolizing a time to get rid of all the little pests in one’s life. On a slower day, say in the middle of summer, Chiu might only have a handful of clients. If a new customer or tourist approaches, it’s a free-for-all among the five villain hitters. 

Chiu pulls out her smartphone and scrolls through her WeChat messages, showing off a client roster that spans the globe. It’s filled with requests for virtual sessions. “Someone will ask me to [curse someone], so I’ll record it and send them the video, and then they’ll send me the money through WeChat,” she explains. The most frequent requests are for office gossips, petty colleagues (siu yen, or “small-minded people”) and cheating partners.

When asked about cursing public figures, Chiu hesitates. She refuses to curse Hong Kong government officials like former Chief Executive Carrie Lam, even though plenty of people have come asking. The licensed by the Hong Kong government” sign looms large, after all.

“A lot of people like you want me to beat Trump,” she says, meaning Americans. They’ll bring newspaper cut-outs of him to include in the ritual. She turns them away; by her reasoning, that’s none of her business. 

But not all politics are off-limits. She’ll agree to curse Japan – she vividly recalls her mother’s stories of the Japanese bombing and destroying her village in China during World War II. 

And, of course, not all clients are revenge-oriented. Many come for blessings, which have a higher price tag than villain hitting. For these sessions, Chiu burns incense sticks and red Gui Ren paper while asking the gods to chase away the bad luck that may be causing problems within a family or a relationship. Others come for “cleansing” – if you’re sick and medical treatment isn’t working, perhaps bad spirits are inhabiting the soul. Still others come hoping for love, for children, for their children to excel in school. One of the priciest services Chiu offers is asking the spirits to terrorize someone, which is more work and will set you back $350 HKD ($45 USD).

The Canal Road Flyover, which sits at the intersection of three roads and is surrounded by an incessant thrum of traffic, has operated as a hub for villain hitting for about 100 years. It’s recognized as one of the most effective places to cast curses, in large part due to its storied history and bad feng shui. People keep coming back, so something’s gotta be working. Similar services can be found in a handful of other spots across Hong Kong, but those often have more of a palm-reading vibe than a curse-the-day-your-coworker-was-born vibe. 

Trucks and buses rumble by all day.

This is not a job for the faint at heart, and it’s also not a business that any of Chiu’s daughters are interested in taking over. “They feel embarrassed to be sitting here, especially at such a young age,” she explains, moving burnt scraps of paper around on the ground. It’s one of many vanishing jobs in Hong Kong that the younger generation is spurning. 

But for now, other people’s business is still her business. Clients’ motives can take many forms: curiosity, revenge, anger at world leaders, or simply a desire to put one’s mind at ease. Each year, Chiu does a blessing to get rid of the villains around her, a general villain beating for herself and her family. For this, she doesn’t need to write down anyone’s name.

This interview was translated from Cantonese by Jennifer Ngo.

For more of Hong Kong’s vanishing jobs:

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