Around the end of last year, I went for an impulsive solo trip to Hong Kong. Just for a few days, I thought. I hadn’t been there for quite a long time. Little did I know I would experience the city in its utmost weirdness or that I’d met some of the most beguiling strangers ever. Some people – you just don’t need to know them by names.
There was a handsome swimming instructor sitting across me at breakfast one morning. At one point in our conversation, I noticed him struggling to understand my English, so I was about to move on talking about a next topic.”No, no,” he said, “Repeat, please. I want to understand. I want to learn.”
There was an American investment banker working out in a park. He declared, “Nah, I love Chinese food in New York better.”
There was an old lady in a museum pointing out to me her favorite exhibition, a room with glass flooring, under which you can see countless broken pieces of Chinese ceramics. “Stand right here,” she whispered, “You are literally stepping on 500-year old Ming vases now.”
And then, there was the girl at the empty pier in Lamma Island. The ferry going back to city had just left; both of us missed it. Under the moonlight, she sat cross-legged, closed-eyed, at the edge of the boardwalk with a bouquet of flowers next to her. After few minutes of contemplating and preparing myself mentally for any backlash (you know, if she was crying or meditating), I decided that I needed to hear her story. What chains of events had brought her to sit on that boardwalk of that small pier on that particular night, creating a view so serene, enigmatic, and surreal?
She said of the flowers, “I saw an old man in the island today selling flowers. He was walking around with no shoes. I followed him around. Then I bought him (slippers) and I bought the flowers from him.” In that one sentence of hers I found an immediate difference between me and this stranger – the old man was in her field of vision. She focused her sight on him and took the extra step. Shame hit me as, truth be told, I saw that old man, too. But he was in my peripheral vision, as how people in need often are. As the saying goes, she brought back my faith in humanity.
We took the next ferry back to the city and she let me follow her to her secret spot on the esplanade. We lied down our backs and till past midnight discussed thoroughly about life, art, dreams, fears, feminism, history, religion, bucket lists, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, the Yellow Umbrella Revolution…
I kept a mental list of moments in my life which I deem Groundhog Day-worthy. This was definitely one of those. I wouldn’t mind reliving those hours on an infinite loop. (Maybe I’ll write about the other Groundhog Day-worthy moments some other times) Also, I have a favorite secret spot in Singapore now, but it was only after meeting her that I actively sought to find one.
The next day was the last day of my trip and she volunteered as my local guide. In one of our conversations after lunch, my new friend asked me if there is anyone I don’t like – friends, colleagues, anyone. I said, duh, yeah, of course sometimes other humans bring out the misanthrope in me. I thought she was just making a way into her venting out her own hated people or something. But then the conversation took a completely different turn and she revealed that there was a spot under some random highway reserved for a few old ladies performing cursing rituals. And she was taking me there.
Thinking back now, my first reaction was to let out a laugh of surprise. (Isn’t it funny that laughing is a reaction to many things that aren’t related to actually perceiving hilarity? Like yawning in dogs could be a sign of anxiety than drowsiness). I mean, going to a shaman to actually perform curse on an actual human being? It was totally absurd to the twentysomething me. Maybe it would be a good idea when I was eight years old and we all played the Pencil Game or tried to knock certain toilet stalls to bring out the urban-legend Boogeyman (Fun Fact: Indonesian version of Boogeyman, Mister Gepeng, directly translates to Mr. Flatface).
But I was game for almost anything when traveling and I was positive this kind of experiences would make for the best stories. When else would I have the chance to see this enchanting, mystical side of the skyscraper-packed Hong Kong? So I followed her to that under-the-highway curse shop.
Under the broad daylight, the place was a major letdown in the bone-chilling-atmosphere department. I could walk past this place thinking it only a congregation of street vendors selling some traditional Chinese incense and other prayers paraphernalia. Upon closer look, though, the ritual itself started to spook me. I could no longer recount the exact steps, but it involved writing the names of victims / recipients of the curse on some yellow papers (already full with Chinese characters and mantra), the old shaman lady chanting some curses while holding those papers and beating it repeatedly with a sole of shoe. She would then “fed” the papers into the mouth of a Tiger papier mâché and subsequently throw all those items into a fire, dramatically. With other sets of paper, the shaman would then lightly hit the body of the person who wished for misfortune of others, saying prayers for their good health, wealth, and strong familial relationship.
Unfortunately, my friend could not translate and explain to me the meaning behind each step of the ritual despite my constant probing. Still, the scene captivated me in its absurdness and the overall sensory stimulation.
It didn’t scare me, until the moment I noticed the other customers – a normal-looking crowd: giggling young girls in pink jeans, a tired middle-aged guy who looked like he worked in an office nearby, some housewives with their bicycles. And the horror struck me. These are the people I’d met on subway, on the street, in the park, in restaurants. In another life, these could be the strangers I met and enrich my travel experiences.
I looked at my new friend and tried to think what sort of grudge she could hold to discover this place in the first place. To whom? Or did she just stumble upon this place accidentally?
All the while I could not think of a single name to curse. Again, the whole idea feels childish and very negative. What good could come out of it? I personally don’t buy in these kinds of supernatural practices, but I wonder if those other customers really, really think they could handle the mental responsibility if something horrible actually happened. Confirmatory bias is real – if nothing happens, then nothing happens. But if in the off chance something does happen to the supposed cursed person, humans would have the tendency to attribute it to the shaman, wouldn’t they? Can they bear that burden? I know I can’t and don’t want to.
So when my turn came, I named ISIS. I wouldn’t mind if misfortune befalls on them. As a matter of fact, I’m taking credit now when the world eventually got rid of them. You heard it here first. (Well, it’s been about six months and they’re still at large.)
My new friend commented on my choice, “Ohh why, you’re too nice.” I think it is wrong to praise someone for not wishing misfortune to fall upon other humans. The absence of evil does not equate good. That modicum of decency should be the bare minimum of everyone’s life principle, I think. Each to his own, I suppose.
By the way, I never knew her full name until we said goodbye. She only told me to address her with a nickname, the same nickname she used for Facebook. I finally found out a few weeks ago, when we needed to make some bookings arrangement for our upcoming trip to Cambodia. Can’t lie – I’m expecting more stories to come out of it.