March. In like a lion, out like a lamb. In Hong Kong it’s more like a slaughtered lamb. While my fellow Americans welcome spring with warmer temperatures and budding crocuses, many Chinese welcome it with awakening insects and hitting villains. It is Jīngzhé, or hitting season, and for 15 days professional hit women are legal guns for hire.
A villain-hitter is a job title. The villain-hitting ceremony, or da siu yan, dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). At the end of winter, when temperatures began to rise, it was customary to burn incense and mugwort in the home to drive out hatching insects. Through the centuries, the hatching insects has evolved into unpleasant people. Siu yan literally translates to “awakening insects” and this includes “little people,” such as troublemakers, gossips, and people who cause misfortune. Villain-hitters are typically older women (please note: older women are fondly called "grannies" and older men "uncles"). It is their job to clean house. During Jīngzhé the professionals set up shop where evil lies: under bridges and overpasses and at crossroads.
To every villain there is a season. I knew just the insect I needed to hit. The petty man was my sister’s enemy. What he did to her directly affected my family and me. With my mark in mind, I went out in search of a dark place where evil spirits linger.
Under an overpass at the crossroad of Hennesy Road, Canal Road East and West was a gallery of six villain-hitters. Each sat on a low stool next to a ceremonial stage set with an altar of the Goddess of Mercy, stacked fruit, and a vessel of burning joss stick and candles. Also included was a pride of paper tigers. I approached the first granny who met my gaze. She allowed me to take a couple pictures of her set up, then extended a hand for me to sit. Amid the noisy mid-day traffic and the clicking cameras of all those who passed by the strange sight of a blonde westerner sitting before a villain-hitter, the ceremony began.
We never spoke a word to each other throughout the 30-minute ritual. First, the hit woman handed me a wad of colorful paper roughly the size of a tri-folded 8x10. She tapped the top of it with a pen, so I wrote my villain’s full name. She placed it on the ground in front of the goddess. Then she lit a few sticks of incense, put them in my hands, and positioned them palms flat together as if in prayer. I mimicked her hand gestures and slightly bowed my wrists while she chanted. The chanting continued as she took the incense from my hands and stuck it in the vessel. Next the granny placed a folded piece of paper marked with green drawings of humans, animals and geometric designs on a cloth-covered brick and began to hit it with the sole of a black shoe. This tapping echoed under the overpass and sounded louder than it actually was because the other villain-hitters just happened to be performing the same task for their clients.
The beating lasted for over five minutes. When the paper began to fray, she wrapped it in one of the paper tigers, rubbed it on a pig’s ear, and waved it over the altar. She lit it on fire from the flames of candles and flung it into a burn barrel. Then she picked up the colorful paper with my villain’s name, unfolded it and took out the inner pieces of paper. The piece with the name remained in its place. The chanting began again as she lit the sheets of paper to smoke, not fire, and waved it over my body - tapping my shoulders, forearms, and thighs. At this point the scent of incense and paper smoke was so heavy I could no longer smell the exhaust that choked the air in the crossroads camp.
After the burning paper accolade, she chucked it into the burn barrel. The name piece was set alight and added to the fire. A few grains of rice were thrown over the altar and vessel. Finally, she tossed a pair of ear-shaped discs of wood into the air. It took a couple turns of the charms, or jiaobei, before she divined that my petty person had been eliminated. She did this by gesturing with the international sign of all’s good: two thumbs up.
The elimination of the cursed man from my life doesn’t mean death. Chinese folk sorcery is not like voodoo. It isn’t meant to kill or bring bodily harm. The ceremony is performed to bring peace and happiness to the person who hired the professional killer. Villain-killing is another example of yin and yang and the Chinese culture of dualism. A villain-killer is a do-gooder because she is helping her client, not harming the enemy.
I paid my villain-hitter HK$50 and tried to learn more. I pieced together that she got her start from a “dark calling.” At 78, the granny had been giving the boot to baddies for 10 years. Reducing an enemy to something lower than the lowest part of the body – the foot – was something I thought only happened in Arab cultures. Right after my participation in the villain-hitting ceremony I felt like a multicultural sole mate, but it also left me feeling like a heel with no sole.