Grandpa + His Thumbs of Death

Just two years after Great Britain handed the island back to mainland China, we went to Hong Kong. We were heading to Indonesia for a month and bracketed the long flights to get there with a stop in Hong Kong at both ends. Those seven days would cost us as much as the four weeks on Java and Lombok and Bali, but man, were they worth it….

I’ve gone back a half-dozen times since. One of my sisters taught at international schools in Hong Kong and the New Territories.* My nephew Nikolai ran two restaurants in Sai Kung and just opened a new bar-bistro named Graceland in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district.** Graceland opened the first week of November 2021.

 But let’s go back in time a few decades and return to that first trip to Hong Kong. Uwe and I ate great meals of dim sum and quickly found ourselves dining in spots where we simply pointed at photos of menu dishes that looked familiar (and we hoped didn’t consist of canine or rodent). Hong Kong is and was a fascinating world city, and we explored knowing we’d definitely return.

Along with stocking up on traditional Chinese salves and medicinal oils to use in my own massage practice, I made an appointment for Chinese foot reflexology. This was easily done as soon as we found a street lined with neon lights of foot soles.

I booked a time slot for a few hours later, happy that I was going to get a massage. Long flights are hard on me, and I’d felt pretzled ever since the plane landed in Hong Kong. When I arrived at the clinic my feet were bathed and cleaned, and I was led over to my therapist. He was a delicate looking older gentleman in glasses. He looks like someone’s honorable and slightly fragile grandfather, I thought to myself.

 The therapist and I didn’t speak each other’s languages. The clinic manager handed me a sheet of paper with a diagram of a foot and points on it highlighted in Chinese characters, numbers, and the names of the body’s organs in English. I rolled up my jeans, my therapist rolled up his sleeves, and we sat facing one another. He placed my foot on a towel on his knees. He slathered some lotion on my leg. I studied the diagram, wondering how to use it.

Then he went to work on the sole of my foot and the first jolt of pain hit.

I jumped in my chair. “Ouch!” I exclaimed.

“#32,” he commented.

#32 on the information sheet corresponded to kidneys or liver. Now along with the pain, I was horrified that major organs were being bruised.

He moved his hands down my foot looking for the next tender points and immediately found them. He drove his thumbs into the new spots.

 “OUCH!!” I repeated. You know that jolt you get if you jab your elbow against a hard surface and your nerves shoot pain all the way up and down your arm? Magnify that pain about 100 times and imagine it blasting up from your foot which is being tortured by an evil sorcerer…

Uwe moved to the side of my chair with his camera out and a fat smile on his face.

“Having a good time? Are you enjoying documenting suffering?” The questions were caustic but I’d turned into a sniveling bundle of inflamed nerve endings. I felt pitiful.

“Like you always say… Relax, Jadi. Plus, don’t you want me to take photos so you can remember this later?”

I wanted to make the perfect sarcastic retort, something like, “Why would I want to relive pain like hot needles being pushed under my nails?” But I was too busy flinching. Every time Grandpa probed a point, I jumped in my chair.

Breathe! I reminded myself over and over.

“#17.” “#23.” He kept calling out numbers and I read along as Grandpa punished my internal organs. Diaphragm. Lungs. Sciatic nerve. Forget a sore back from a long flight; clearly, I was one hot mess.

The gracious grandfather who I now referred to as He-With-the-Steely-Thumbs-of-Death went on inflicting pain and suffering on my left foot.

He inflicted the exact, same, unbelievable pain on my right foot. I twitched in my chair as he calmly called out numbers.

As soon as the torture session was finished I tottered off to the bathroom to pee (funny how torture really clears out all your systems!). But when I came back to the main room where the manager, Uwe, and my therapist waited, I felt surprisingly okay.

Back out on the street I had the strangest impression that I was about to levitate. I felt that good. I slept like a log that night and my back pains vanished. I bet my inner organs benefited from the workover he gave them, too.

Take a look at the third photograph. I am glowing. It had to be from increased blood flow due to shock to the various parts of my body (like, all of them). Or it was the vast tide of the endorphins that followed the experience.

But I’ve never looked at gentle old grandfatherly types again in the same way. Gracious Ancestor? Hah! He-With-the-Steely-Thumbs-of-Death!


NOTES: *See my blog thread Adventures in the New Territories for more pictures and stories. **Graceland’s instagram page is @gracelandmk

© Jadi Campbell 2021. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s animal photos and pics from our trips go to

My books are Broken In: A Novel in Stories, Tsunami Cowboys, Grounded, and The Trail Back Out

Tsunami Cowboys was longlisted for the 2019 ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Award. The Trail Back Out was honored as 2021 IAN Book of the Year Award Short Story Collection Finalist for the Independent Author Network, and American Book Fest 2020 Best Book Award Finalist: Fiction Anthologies. The title story The Trail Back Out was longlisted for the 2021 ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Broken In: A Novel in Stories was a semifinalist for the international 2020 Hawk Mountain Short Story Collection Award from Hidden River Arts, and named a Finalist for Greece’s international 2021 Eyelands Book of the Year Award (Short Stories).

Click here for my author page to learn more about me and purchase my books.


Borneo: Shaman Medicine

I was going to tell you about Malaysian Borneo when I got sidetracked by their neighbor Brunei. Moving on quickly (which is what we did as we flew over the sultanate on our way to the state of Sarawak), we landed in Kuching. What a lovely, lovely city. Kuching should get its own post, and likely will. We roamed along the riverfront walk and slurped down laksa noodle dishes with gusto. Kuching is a great spot to head out to various national parks to see wildlife.

Borneo is home of the native Dayak tribes. Remember childhood tales of the wild headhunters of Borneo? The Dayak call this ritual Ngayau. We visited Dayak long houses. Smoked skulls still hang at the hearth in the central long house.

The most important tribal figure is the head chief, closely followed by the shaman. This medicine man, also known as a balian [1] is responsible for the health of the tribe as well as interceding between the worlds.

During our time in Kuching I’d been glancing in shops without actually entering any of them. Among the streets of tourist trinkets, one store fascinated me. On the last day I made a beeline for that shop. [2]

And then I made a beeline for a shelf lined with containers topped by human figures.

Jerry Ang, the soft-spoken shop owner, kindly answered all my questions. He told me these were Dayak shaman medicine containers. The figures are hand carved from polished buffalo or cow bone. A shaman had hand-etched the jar with scrimshaw patterns. Dayak shamans used the containers to store herbs, magic powders and betal lime to make medical potions. Some still contained resins – Jerry and I opened each jar and sniffed.

The carved figure indicates the illness the potion was intended to treat. Some of the figures held their heads (aches and pains of the head) or their stomachs. Some figures even depicted a person crouched over… the traveler’s curse of diarrhea for sure.

My piece has a prawn carved on the back: Jerry thought maybe prawns were one of the main ingredients in the medicine. Or perhaps the prawn indicated the woman who made the potion (he said the figure was female), or an ancestor. An on-line source tells me the scrimshaw work represents animals that bring good luck. If anyone can give me more information, I’d be most grateful!

NOTES: [1] Balian is the term used for traditional healers on Bali, too. Healing arts are passed down through generations. Twenty years ago I did a massage exchange with the son of a balian there; he had been taught by his father. To learn more about the Dayak shamans go to The article gives the following information: “Shamanic curing, or balian, is one of the core features of these ritual practices. Because illness is thought to result in a loss of the soul, the ritual healing practices are devoted to its spiritual and ceremonial retrieval. In general, religious practices focus on the body, and on the health of the body politic more broadly. Sickness results from giving offense to one of the many spirits inhabiting the earth and fields, usually from a failure to sacrifice to them. The goal of the balian is to call back the wayward soul and restore the health of the community through trance, dance, and possession.” [Source: Library of Congress, 2006] Or see Wikipedia: The Dayak People [2] See also Unika Borneo, the shop where I found my figure. I receive no commission for mentioning the store. I just think they deserve to be mentioned.  More figures can be admired at and

© Jadi Campbell 2019. All photos © Uwe Hartmann. To see more of Uwe’s pics from our trips go to

Click here for my author page to learn more about my books and me.

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