If the sex industry is the oldest profession in the world, fortune telling comes a close second and in Hong Kong it still plays a central role today. There are various forms of fortune telling prevalent in Chinese culture such as tarot reading, palm reading and even bird reading. Poignantly, although in the west fortune telling is seen as something of a joke, a circus act; in Hong Kong it is sacrosanct.
One famous cynic, Tiziano Terzani, an Italian journalist who spent decades working in Asia, was told by a Hong Kong fortune teller in 1976 not to fly throughout 1993. When the cursed year arrived, Tiziano decided to heed the fortune teller’s advice and gave up his regular flying routines. Instead he travelled everywhere by foot, keeping up with many of his journalistic responsibilities, but along the way he visited as many fortune tellers as he could and wrote a book about his experiences, ‘A Fortune Teller Told Me’ (below).
He found most fortune tellers were closer to psychologists or advisers than anything else, but much to his surprise, he thought some had a genuine gift. What’s more, the journey saved his life. The journalist who took his fulltime editorial position went down in a plane crash.
Keen to experience the phenomenon ourselves, we set off for the Yau Ma Tei end of Temple Street market where you can find practitioners by the dozen. The setting is striking, with stall after stall of fortune tellers lining the pavement. It looks amateurish and commercial – as if they were selling vegetables rather than offering potential salvation. A lot of the stalls are located outside a major public toilets and that didn’t fill us with confidence either. Nor did the first fortune teller. She initially demanded HK$500 for a face and palm reading but we eventually settled on HK$50.
She said I used to be unlucky but fortunately that period had passed and now I was a very lucky person. Her opening proved to be a common feature of all the fortune tellers we visited. They begin by saying how poorly you’ve done in the past before saying your luck has changed and that you’ll do much better in the future.
It’s a clear appeal to the hopes of their customers. If you go to a fortune teller, you go hoping the fortune teller has good news for you. By saying the past was bleak but the future looks bright, fortune tellers make their clients happy. They fulfill the goals of their customers which means they’re likely to return.
Although a cynic might think fortune tellers prey on the vulnerable, believers think fortune tellers can only interpret the signs in front of them. Importantly, fortune tellers say the same thing. Of course they have an interest in promoting their services as genuine but they seem to sincerely believe that they don’t create the predictions - they merely translate them. They see it much more as a science than a flight of fancy.
Unlike Tiziano we weren’t given any life or death predictions, but waiting in the lines we came across two intriguing sisters. A few years ago they’d been told their Chinese and English names were unlucky so they’d changed them overnight. The younger one prospered but the older sister developed a skin condition which lasted for over a year and she came close to a full breakdown while studying for a masters.
A naysayer would suggest all the factors were linked: the stress of completing her degree lead to a skin condition and brought her close to break down. Being a staunch believer in fortune telling, however, the older sister simply changed her name back and her affairs returned to normal.
It took us a while to get a sitting with the most popular fortune teller in the area, a tarot reader called B. A stern, severe looking woman, the queue to see her would have made Crystal Jade smile. Another of her clients, Esther, explained that the two hot topics to ask a fortune teller about are career and relationships. B recently advised her to stick with her job and she’s been happy with it. To an outsider, the power B exerts on Esther’s life is staggering. She is a stranger after all.
When I finally sat down with B she explained that tarot can only predict six months into the future before launching into my reading. “These cards say your relationship wasn’t good before and neither was your communication. You don’t want to put in enough effort to take care of your girlfriend because you’re interested in other women. You’re selfish and self-centred, and although you’re happy with your relationship, your girlfriend loves you more than you love her. You maybe cheat on your girlfriend but your girlfriend doesn’t cheat on you.”
All that from a set of cards. I hadn’t expected her level of directness, but perhaps to cheer me up, she added that my career looked better than my relationship. She was incorrect on a number of matters, most clearly the alleged infidelity, and B admitted about 3% of her clients feel wronged. If they don’t like what she says, she tells them not to pay her.
Despite my uncertainties, the vast majority of her customers rate her services. For instance, B once correctly divined that her client's husband was having an affair. In fact the customer was already aware of her husband’s indiscretion so she was bowled over by B’s abilities. B promptly advised the client to move out and after a short time apart the couple has since got back together.
All the clients we spoke to compared fortune telling with therapy, except they stressed that fortune telling has more to offer than therapy. Therapists are just therapists, whereas there’s a divine hope associated with fortune tellers. What a fortune teller can see is more reassuring than what a therapist can say. The comparison between fortune telling and therapy is striking and the mindset of both types of clients is indeed similar. Customers go to fortune tellers or therapists for guidance and reassurance as much as anything else.
The similarities also go a long way to explaining the different perceptions of fortune telling between east and west. When people in the west are stressed or troubled it’s common practice to see a therapist but in the east there is no such love for Freud. Add to that the Chinese’s enduring belief in spiritualism and you can see why fortune telling is still revered in Hong Kong.
The other key element is Christianity. Chinese Christians tend not to go to fortune tellers because they have another belief system which doesn’t celebrate the force of the cosmos. When the two elements are combined, Christian thinking and therapy, as is the case in the west, fortune telling falls by the wayside. In China, however, spiritualism remains the order of the day and fortune tellers still get taken seriously.
Interestingly, B said tarot reading can only hint at the future because people are still in charge of their own destinies. “I hope my clients can change positively because you can control your life,” she said. Of course a fortune teller’s predictions can hinder that choice – evidenced by Elizabeth, a 23 year old Hong Konger who told us about her revealing experiences.
A few months ago she saw a highly respected practitioner who uses her customers' date and time of birth to tell their fortune. It had taken her three months to get a sitting and after correctly noting several points about her past - such as studying abroad and her number of siblings - the fortune teller told Elizabeth she would meet her husband when she’s 26, marrying him when she’s 28.
The revelation has had a profound impact on Elizabeth’s life. “The problem is I know I’m not going to meet my husband until I’m 26,” she said, “so from now until I’m 26, I’m not going to be serious about any guys. I know it’s wrong but it’s deep in my mind so I can’t control it.” Her depth of belief is striking and it’s indicative of the perception of fortune telling in Hong Kong.
If, like Elizabeth, you want to see one of the foremost practitioners in the city, you'll have to wait a while. The best one to see without an appointment, however, is B, who can be found on the corner of Shanghai Street and Market Street in Yau Ma Tei. Make sure you get there just after 7pm to be at the front of the queue. Otherwise if you're ok with a reservation, we'd recommend Ms. Fung Lai Shan in Tsuen Wan, 9371 6570 (you’ll need a translator), or Alion Yeo in Wan Chai (2295 6096).
Whatever your leanings, visiting a fortune teller is an experience in itself. However cynical you are, the idea that a stranger can see into your life is appealing and most of us harbour the unspoken hope that a fortune teller has the gift of foresight. As a result, even if it’s just entertainment, you’re going to enjoy the interaction, and who knows, it might even save your life.