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January 2022

Soc Sci Med. 1984 ; 18(2): 147-57.

Black magic and illness in a Malaysian Chinese community.

Mo B.

Ah Yuk Je is a successful Hakka Chinese spirit medium practicing in a small Chinese community in Malaysia. Her clientele consists largely of young children suffering from a culturally specific condition called haak geng or 'soul loss' and women concerned about infertility, prenatal problems and errant spouses. While in a trance state, assisted by her tutelary spirits, she diagnoses, prescribes and treats illnesses. Her treatment includes naturalistic and magico-religious elements such as 'cooling' herbal teas, tonics to strengthen the body, rituals and amulets. Because Ah Yuk Je is a wife and mother, women find her sympathetic and astute at solving family problems. When faced with an illness herself, which she suspects to be the result of kong tao (black magic) instigated by someone in her own village, she seeks assistance from a healer outside her own ethnic group as well as outside her community. Four important factors influence Ah Yuk Je's decision to seek out this healer. The first two, recommendation from a trusted friend and a positive previous experience, are obvious, and require no further discussion. The remaining factors are the special nature of the illness, which requires treatment from a specialist, and her practice as a spirit medium. Successful spirit mediums are perceived to have a certain immunity to and control over supernatural forces. Thus the need for secrecy when a spirit medium becomes the victim of evil forces. She is able to preserve her professional reputation by consulting someone outside her ethnic group of potential clients as well as outside her physical community.

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