March 5-March 7 is 惊蛰 (jingzhe, or “Waking of the Insects”), a lunar holiday observed almost exclusively in Hong Kong. People here mark the occasion by seeking out elderly women to use a shoe or slipper to beat the pulp out of a strip of paper that symbolizes a backstabbing coworker, cheating spouse or gossiping neighbor. This ritual is called 打小人, meaning “Beat the Petty Person,” and this year some customers came out with the economy weighing heavily on their minds. “The financial economy is not so good right now,” says Elaine Wong, a logistics saleswoman queuing in line to pay for a beating. “I came last year and I still have a job, so I think this is pretty effective.”
There was fierce competition among some of the practitioners this year. TIME Asia intern Anka Lee and I witnessed a heated shouting match between three of the grannies early Wednesday morning. Gu Yanzhi, 77, has performed 打小人 for the past seven years. Though most customers didn’t show up until Thursday, Gu set up her Guanyin statue, paper tigers, fruit, leaves, and incense Wednesday morning and slept outside overnight in order to reserve her spot under Wanchai’s Canal Road overpass, a popular 打小人 location. At about $6 per beating session, she said she makes up to $500 a day during jingzhe. “Some people got laid off, some people feel betrayed,” says Gu. “So they want to get back at people.”
Beating the Petty Person is a relatively understudied tradition. For the most in-depth English analysis, see this article by former Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Chien Chiao.