Hypermodern Hong Kong is chock-full of superstitions.
Four old women gather every morning beneath an overpass in the glitzy shopping district of Causeway Bay to set up their shrines. They erect statuettes of a hodgepodge of Chinese deities, mixing and matching characters from Buddhism, Taoism, and local folklore. There's Guan Gong, a folk hero worshipped by both the police and Triad gangs; Buddha, who blurred the lines between god and guru; Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy; and the Monkey King, equal parts prankster, disciple, and protector. Incense stays lit until past dusk, and the women offer supernatural protection to anyone who stops at their stations. At the same time, they confer misery, misfortune, and general unpleasantness to the personal enemies of their clients.
The ritual is called da siu yun in Cantonese, and it means "hitting villains." Each woman has her own variation of the ceremony, but it really boils down to striking paper "villains" with shoes, lighting Taoist sigils and paper charms on fire, and chanting a spell or two as the smell of smoke clings to every garment. One of them even tells fortunes by tossing fake antique coins and consulting a Taoist text.
One of the street sorceresses admits it's a hustle, but at least it comes with a show. They put their hearts into the performance, and tourists love it.
The cops don't chase away the women because they've used the space for decades, and no one can even tell when their predecessors invented the ritual. It's one of those things that has been in the city since a time that stretches beyond memory, and the Hong Kong government even declared the custom a part of the city's "intangible cultural heritage."
In fact, villain-hitting was revived as a popular way to express civil discontent.
The local populace has been dissatisfied with their political leaders for years. Rising real estate prices, attempted pro-Beijing education reform, and a widening wealth gap are just a few issues that stress out Hong Kongers. But it's their current quest for universal suffrage that really has them riled up.
"Nowadays, almost nobody comes because of personal grudges," one of the old women said. "When they line up, they are coming to us to curse the Chief Executive." (The Chief Executive is the top political leader of Hong Kong, sort of like the mayor.)
And line up they do. Once a year, typically in March on a day that the Chinese lunar calendar specifies is good for this sort of thing, the queue can stretch around the block and waits can last for hours. As half a million people hit the streets to ask Beijing to honor the promise of hosting open elections in Hong Kong, some call on the supernatural and focus their ire on the city's leader. Unlike the rest of China, Hong Kong guarantees much greater personal freedom. Whereas this sort of collective criticism of a political leader might lead to unpleasant consequences in mainland China, Hong Kongers are able to practice freedom of speech without the worry of repercussions—most of the time, anyway.
"We've hexed [the Chief Executive] thousands upon thousands of times, even more than that," the sorceresses said. "Sometimes we charge extra to hex him because he's a 'major character' that requires more work, but people still want to do it. Everybody just hates him."
Then they reminded me of their fundamental purpose, and asked, "So are you going to curse someone, or are you just going to ask questions and take pictures of us?"
I'm easygoing and live a relatively frictionless existence. I don't have enemies and am generally at ease with the universe, so I tried to think of the most odious, most hateable, most repugnant person in the news right now. There were plenty of contenders, but one stood out.
I put a curse on Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, Swiss watch connoisseur, and possibly the most vile man alive.
The youngest sorceress let loose a spell from her lips as she cursed his head, his face, his eyes, ears, mouth, gut, hands, and feet. She smacked him with her shoe thirty-odd times, and burned him in a metal canister beside her shrine. She said nobody had ever given her a name in English. I told her that it was actually an Arabic name, but that wasn't an issue. "What's the problem? Sorcery is sorcery," she said. Her equal-opportunity attitude for the supernatural reminded me of John Constantine.
And then she asked me for $7.
I awoke the next day to the breaking news that al Baghdadi had been killed in a drone strike. I couldn't wait to give the sorceresses news of their godlike powers, but before any feelings of excitement or elation could really sink in, the news turned out to be a photoshopped image being reported in the wake of real drone strikes that killed other ISIS members, but not al Baghdadi.
So the curse didn't work—not yet at least—but what about the wave of hexes directed at Hong Kong's top politician every year? Doesn't that amount to a lot of bad mojo? "Of course not!" My sorceress laughed as she cooled herself with an old straw fan, nursing lukewarm water from an old plastic bottle in the exhaust of roaring double-decker buses. "But if things don't go well for him, he deserves it."
Villain-hitting isn't a dying tradition, but it's not exactly a booming profession either. It has competition from an app for villain-hitting, with iPhones in essence replacing the sorceresses, but without the smoke and incense. Aside from the occasional tourist who stops by, things get busy only for a day or two in March, so why do they still show up every day?
"We're in this for life; it's what we know how to do," one of the sorceresses said. "Even Li Ka-shing [the richest man in Asia] consults a feng shui master for his business. We do the same things as the big-name grand masters, just for everyone else." Then she cracked a smile.
"So which terrorist do you want us to hit today?"