Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong: Where witches curses meet a modern metropolis

What's your weapon of choice? A stiletto? A ballet flat? Maybe a beat up old boot?

It's not a question I ever expected to be confronted with but here I am, sitting on a red plastic stool beneath a flyover in Wan Chai, with a fateful footwear choice to make. The city's traffic rumbles overhead while a wizened woman beckons me with her battered shoe. She is one of the last of Hong Kong's so-called rent-a-curse grannies: elderly women who eke out a living practising traditional folk sorcery.

I'm drawn to Wan Chai by the promise of witnessing a villain-bashing ceremony. For a small fee, the friendly witch will smite my chosen villain with her shoe, feed them to a tiger and then burn them into oblivion. What's not to love? My family and friends had made me promise I wouldn't give their name to the witch. Lucky for them I already have a petty nemesis chosen well in advance.

I take a seat at the granny's shrine, which is decked out with incense, stern-looking deities, fruit offerings and a smiling golden cat holding a hammer. It dawns on me I should have come with a translator. The woman asks for a name and in the confusion I accidentally give her my own. She briskly writes it down on a piece of paper and, before I can correct her, we're off. The witch pounds my name to shreds with a white ballet flat while muttering incantations in Cantonese. Before the torn scraps of paper have time to hit the ground she's fed me to a tiger-shaped envelope and set me on fire. The tiger burns to ash in her hands and the woman deftly dumps the lot into a trash can beside her. She turns to me and grins. I'm aghast.

But we're not done yet. She waves a burning fan of paper around my head to guard me against bad spirits, then hands me two carved wooden sticks that look like rotten bananas. Her hands clasping mine, we raise the sticks together and then drop them at my feet. I don't know what's happened, but the witch is ecstatic and gives me double high-fives. It turns out the position that the two sticks fall in – either facing upwards or downwards – can predict my fortune. She tells me I will have the very best of luck during my stay in Hong Kong.

I thank the sorceress and stumble off in a daze trying to figure out whether I'm cursed or blessed. At first I'm tempted to laugh off the experience as a tourist trick but, looking around, I realise I'm the only foreigner beneath the flyover. All around me are local women making appointments with their neighbourhood witch, sitting with either their daughters or sons, and asking for good fortune.

This isn't just a theatrical performance, but part of a deeper superstition ingrained in Hong Kong's culture. Even amid the city's glitzy mega malls and trendy eateries, it seems old-school mysticism and superstition still survive, you just need to know where to look.

Mystified, my search to learn more takes me to the back streets of Sham Shui Po, a laidback blue-collar neighbourhood in Kowloon that feels a world away from the clamour of Hong Kong island. My guide, Carrie, walks us into a traditional medicine store where engorged fish bladders hang like ghosts from the ceiling. Clear jars of dried shrivelled things look out at us as Carrie explains the basics of folk medicine. There are seahorses to improve your circulation. Thin slices of reindeer horn to help men in the boudoir. Dried out swallow's nests that improve kidney function when soaked in soup.

Carrie holds out sun-dried geckos, which have been crucified on a skewer cross, and asks if I want a taste. The ingredients are, unsurprisingly, prohibitively expensive and Carrie predicts that folk medicine shops like these will soon die out within a generation as Hong Kong's youth become more worldly.

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All around Hong Kong there are signs that folk practices are slowly fading, or at least being safeguarded by the few who remain faithful. The traditional temples and medicine shops are being edged further towards the fringes and becoming trickier to find. In the more remote province of Sai Kung, part of the far-flung New Territories on the eastern coast, I discover Tin Hau Temple almost deserted.

Following tendrils of incense inside, I watch a solitary woman patiently kneeling before an altar. She is also using the fortune-sticks I'd seen in Wan Chai. She drops them, looks at the result, prays and then drops them again. She finally gets a result she's happy with so she burns some prayer papers and then hurries off. Tempting fate, I pick up the sticks and toss them again just to be sure. I still have my good luck.

Back in the neon streets of SoHo I'm mingling with the city's youth. All around you can see the steady encroachment of globalisation. There's funky eateries showcasing a variety of pan-Asian influences and bars stocked almost exclusively with international beers.

The city is bustling in preparation for the Hong Kong E-Prix. I take dinner at Ho Lee Fook, a restaurant pulsating with the energy of an underground nightclub that serves modern interpretations of Cantonese classics. A table of expats next to me shout "gom bui" while knocking back shots.

At the end of the meal comes a fortune cookie in a chirpy green wrapper and I can't help but laugh at this little piece of imported sorcery. In a city where I can consult a witch to read my fortune or brew a potion to improve my libido, the idea that the US-invented cookie might outlive Hong Kong's own folk culture feels ludicrous. Cracking it open, the cookie sagely warns I should "safeguard my secrets by removing my enemies". I mentally start planning another visit to my good witch under the bridge tomorrow morning. Maybe this time I'll choose the stiletto.

HONG KONG'S TOP FIVE SPIRITUAL SITES

MAN MO TEMPLE

Wreathed in sandalwood smoke, you'll likely smell Man Mo Temple long before you see it. Step inside one of Hong Kong's oldest temples and observe locals performing age-old prayer rituals.

HUNG SHING TEMPLE

This Buddhist temple once enjoyed harbour views, that is until the shoreline receded. Inside you'll find a sorcerer who has a unique way of bashing villains – by using a sword!

PO LIN MONASTERY

Take a day-trip to Lantau Island to witness lush mountain views and the incredible Big Buddha statue. Fill up on monk food at Po Lin Monastery, which stands opposite.

CHI LUN NUNNERY

Ignore it's imposing size, this sprawling complex is all about serenity. Watch nuns make offerings to Buddha then take some time to reflect in the calm surrounds of Nan Lian Garden.

10,000 BUDDHAS MONASTERY

Inside this quirky monastery you'll find five halls containing some 12,800 Buddha statues, and the preserved remains of the temple's founder encased behind glass.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/hong-kong 

discoverhongkong.com 

FLY

Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar operate flights between Sydney and Melbourne to Hong Kong.

See qantas.com.au; virginaustralia.com.au; jetstar.com.au

STAY

Hotel Icon offers deluxe accommodation with an eco-conscious approach to hospitality. A harbour-facing room with king bed, which costs about $528, includes buffet breakfast, electric shuttle bus to nearby train stations and late check out.

See hotel-icon.com

TOUR

Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours offers a foodie tour of Sham Shui Po, including a stop at a traditional medicine store.

See hongkongfoodietours.com

Justin Meneguzzi travelled as a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Justin is the winner of the Australian Society of Travel Writers' inaugural Rising Star award.

See also: The incredible, lawless 'Sin City' block inside Hong Kong

See also: The seven best places to shop in Hong Kong

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