Ghost Stories: Scams Targeting S.F.'s Cantonese Community Reveal the Terrible Power of Belief

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An evil spirit was going to kill Susan Yuan's youngest son and only she could save him. She walked quickly, terrified by the revelation. This had all happened so fast.

Less than an hour ago, the 51-year-old's biggest concern on the afternoon of Nov. 10 was shopping for fruit. The market was bustling as Yuan browsed the aisles, passing tents selling strawberries, peaches, bean sprouts, eggplants, red peppers, and loaves of bread. She smelled roasted ducks hanging from hooks and flowers in plastic buckets. There were men unloading meat from the back of trucks and women packing bags of fresh fish and cabbage heads into metal carts.

The city's public awareness campaign, spearheaded by District Attorney George Gascón (top) and Sup. David Chiu, has included community meetings, press conferences, video reenactments, bus ads, and tote bags.
Photographs by Joseph Geha
The city's public awareness campaign, spearheaded by District Attorney George Gascón (top) and Sup. David Chiu, has included community meetings, press conferences, video reenactments, bus ads, and tote bags.
Yannu Tan (left), Mudi Wu (center), Yonghua Zeng (right), and Yachang Lei claimed that they were human trafficking victims coerced into committing the thefts by a criminal organization that threatened to kill their loved ones.
Yannu Tan (left), Mudi Wu (center), Yonghua Zeng (right), and Yachang Lei claimed that they were human trafficking victims coerced into committing the thefts by a criminal organization that threatened to kill their loved ones.

So much to take in that Yuan barely noticed the woman in the gray knit hat.

"Excuse me," the woman said in Cantonese. "Do you know where I can find this great herbalist doctor, Dr. Chan?"

Yuan said that she did not know.

"Oh, I know Dr. Chan," came a voice behind Yuan. A woman with a bandage around her hand had apparently overheard the question. Bandaged Hand explained that he had healed her mother after a stroke three years ago.

The two women told Yuan that she should join them to meet the doctor. Yuan agreed. She felt a connection to them. They spoke her language. They were fellow immigrants from the Canton region of China. They were generous enough to introduce her to the great doctor. And this Dr. Chan sounded like a man worth meeting. So the trio made their way out of the market. As they walked, they talked about their families. Yuan's two new acquaintances asked her all sorts of questions — how many children she had, where she lived, how long she had been in America. Soon, Bandaged Hand led them down a small residential side street, where they encountered a middle-aged man on the sidewalk.

He introduced himself as Dr. Chan's grandson. The doctor, he said, was out of town. But the grandson had his own reputation. The women told Yuan that he had "Yin-Yang eyes," which gave him the ability to interact with the spiritual realm — the Chinese version of a shaman. He focused his attention on her. Yuan was impressed that he somehow knew how many children she had, and how many people lived in her home.

But then his face turned serious. He sensed that she had recently hit a stretch of bad luck. The cause, he explained, was an evil spirit that had been following her family. The spirit had attached itself to her youngest son and intended to bring him into the afterlife. Yuan's son, the doctor's grandson declared, would die in a car accident within three days.

Yuan's stomach twisted. In one sense, she felt lucky — only a person with Yin-Yang eyes could have made this discovery. But fate had also been harsh. Evil spirits don't need much of a reason to enter a life. The random ghosts are the most feared. They roam in the world of the living, picking their marks. They can possess anyone, at any time, for any reason. And only certain special rituals, conducted by a shaman, could exorcise the ghost.

The grandson tried to calm Yuan. Don't worry, he told her, there is a way to save your son.

So, not an hour later, Yuan was rummaging through her home, seeking the ingredients for a purification ceremony. She grabbed a bag of rice. She gathered every bit of jewelry she could find. She snagged a bundle of cash. She wrapped the items separately in newspaper. All of it went into a small black bag.

She took a bus to her bank. She opened her safe deposit box, taking out $10,000 in cash and some gold and jade jewelry pieces. She visited a second bank, where she took out another $10,000 and more jewelry. She withdrew another $3,000 from an ATM.

The doctor's grandson had told her that the purification ceremony's chances of success increased with every dollar. So Yuan was not leaving any bill unturned. As she hopped into a cab outside the bank, she carried her entire life savings — around $47,000 — wrapped in newspaper in that black bag.

Yuan met the grandson in a vacant lot just east of the market. The two other women were also there. The grandson took the items from Yuan's bag and placed each one in a small black plastic bag. He then put those into a larger fabric bag. He handed this bag to Yuan and the ceremony began.

With his hands over the valuables, the man with the Yin-Yang eyes proclaimed in Cantonese, "Ghost will not follow your son. Your son will not die. Your son will not be involved in a car accident. Ghost will not harm your son." He repeated the words. And then he told Yuan to turn around and face the sun. He handed her a bottle of water to wash her face with, and she handed him the fabric bag, which he passed along to one of the other women watching from a few feet away. As Yuan washed her face, the man restated the invocation. Everything will be peaceful, he told Yuan, all will be safe. The ceremony was over. The man returned the fabric bag to Yuan.

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