Hong Kong’s Underground Holiday
Yesterday I ran out of printer ink and went down to a shop on Wellington Street to buy a cartridge. It was a busy lunch hour, and I really enjoy that corner of downtown, where rents are still hanging on and the printing shop owners are working away on ancient metal presses in clanky open storefronts. I meandered up the hill and turned left on Hollywood Road, by the Man Mo Temple. Then, further on, across the street, I spotted something unusual: about 20 ladies were squatting on the sidewalk, lighting candles and incense sticks, laying out cute little paper tigers with a strip of pork fat on their heads, and burning fistfuls of paper in metal cans.
Burning paper in canisters on the street isn’t a big deal in Hong Kong. People do it all the time. The little red metal canisters are such a standard household item you can buy them in hardware stores. People habitually burn offerings to ancestors, or to meddlesome spirits. But they don’t usually do this in large groups stationed along the sidewalk. And what’s with those paper tigers? I went over and asked one of the old ladies if this was a special occasion. She smiled, and said something in Cantonese but the only words I could make out were baai san–pray.
I walked home, trying to figure out how to get to the bottom of this. At the door to my building, the solution appeared in the form of a middle aged lady with a pixie haircut and a blue uniform: Mrs. Wong. Mrs. Wong’s official title is “gung leih yuen”, in other words, she’s my building’s security person and doorlady. What that really means is that she’s the Empress of our little kingdom here at Profitable View Court. Mrs. Wong knows everybody and everything.
Including what the ladies on Hollywood Road are up to. “Today is Ging Jat,” she says, pulling me over to the enormous Chinese calendar that’s by her desk and pointing to today, March 6th, a date which has two red Chinese characters on it:
蟄 ging jat. It means, literally, “awakening/hibernation”
Mrs. Wong knows I can speak Cantonese, but she usually embellishes her talks to me with lots of pantomine anyway, just to make sure I get her point. I ask her what “Ging Jat” is, and for a moment she’s lost for words. Then she makes a creepy-crawly motion with her ten fingers. “Today the bugs wake up! And you have to hit them! And then the ladies will take their shoes and hit the small people. You should go down to Canal Road in Wan Chai after 6 o’ clock, because there will be lots and lots of people beating the shoes. It’s part of Hong Kong’s history.”
I know a little about this. For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the elderly ladies who set up shop under the overpass on Canal Road. You pay them a few dollars, and they will vigorously slam a shoe into a picture of your enemy while cursing them. It’s called “da siu yahn”, or “beat the petty little people”. When Tung Chee Hwa was Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, these ladies did a huge business with disgruntled HK citizens.
But what do the shoe beaters have to do with paper tigers and the insects waking from hibernation?
A little Internet research turns up an enlightening academic article by a Chinese University anthropologist. It seems that Hong Kong people, over the years, have created a pragmatic stew of rituals that all happen simultaneously on the early spring day that Chinese call the “Waking of the Insects.”
“Waking Insects” is a sort of Groundhog Day for rural Chinese. If there is thunder on this day, then the insects will wake up, and the rain will come and harvests will be good. If not, tough times ahead.
There aren’t a lot of fields left to plow in Hong Kong, so over the decades, Chinese Insect Day has taken on some additional trappings and symbolism. It has also become the day when you feed the tiger (with pork fat–hey, he’s a tiger who likes Hong Kong food). And it is considered to be the best day of the year to beat effigies of “petty people” with shoes.
At around 6, I grab the trolley and head to Wan Chai. When I get to the underpass, there are hundreds of people there. The clip-clop of shoes being hammered against benches and bricks sounds like the thunder of a thousand hoofbeats. I make a little video and take a few snapshots.
It’s really a scene. There’s smoke everywhere, from all the incense and papers burning. A few of the shoe-beating ladies must be especially skilled, for they have a long queue of people lined up and waiting. There are lots of photo hounds with cameras, and I spot some reporters from the Chinese press running around with their notebooks, interviewing people. I’m lost in the swirl, transfixed as one client after another goes through the drill of lighting incense, selecting a piece of paper with a drawing of a man or woman on it, then watching grim-faced and silent as the old woman pulverizes the effigy to shreds with sharp, repeated blows.
My reverie is broken by two eager girls from Carmel Pak U Secondary School in the New Territories. They are making a survey for their school project entitled: A Peaceful Violence–The Ritual of Beating the Petty Person in Hong Kong–would I help them?
I take a look at their list of questions. Do I think that ‘Beating the Petty Person’ can reflect the Hong Kong culture, and why? Do I think it is good to preserve or even to promote this ritual to the locals or tourists, and why?
Funny you should ask. For I’ve been wondering all day why this popular and compelling Hong Kong holiday, which draws a huge crowd, is so under the radar. Hong Kong’s tourism board, which promotes every major and minor Chinese festival from Mooncake Day to Lantern Lighting, somehow left this one off their list.
I’m about to say something to the girls, when one of the shoe-beater’s clients, a guy in his forties, suddenly stands up and starts yelling and waving his hands. His temper tantrum breaks the intense mood and disturbs the workmanlike, determined rhythms of the heels going clop! clop! clop! The schoolgirls look embarrassed, and say maybe he’s angry cause the lady didn’t beat the shoe long enough for him. (Today the service is twice the usual price–$50 HKD a session, about $7.50 US.)
Anyway, the man eventually gets over his Bus Uncle moment, and the clients return to the serious business of changing their luck and symbolically smashing their enemies to a pulp.
I wander around, and start to take another picture of a shoe-beater and her client. But then the client, a young woman about 30, does something that has never happened to me before in Hong Kong: she puts her hand over the lens of my camera. As I apologize, and back away, it occurs to me that if I were in the process of arranging for my errant husband, or my hated sister, or my rival in love to be ritually beaten by proxy, I wouldn’t want someone recording it for posterity. I would want to get the job done, then slip quietly and anonymously away into the Hong Kong night.
Maybe this is why Wake Insects, Feed Tiger, Beat Little People With Shoes day is not an Approved Hong Kong Tourist Attraction.