Monday, July 26, 2004

 
Fortune Teller
Though I've had no shortage of reminders - both from friends and family - that they've recently read that Hong Kong is No. 5 on the most expensive cities in which to live list, it might surprise some to know that today I picked up a shirt, tie, vest, gold tie clip and watch, and a spiffy blue plaid suit jacket for $18 Hong Kong dollars, or $2.30 US.
Well, the ensemble is made of paper. And it probably wouldn't come close to fitting me if I bothered to pull it out of its elegant blue and gold box. It's actually a funeral suit or more specifically an offering, made to be burned and sent to the next world so your deceased beloved arrives in the afterlife as a sharp dressed man.
I picked it up at a temple only three subway stops from my apartment, a visit I owe to my SZ pal James and his obsession with all things temples. He's in the throes of writing a history of Hong Kong temples and had arranged to meet me this morning to scout out the Wong Sai Sin temple.
As temples go, I've seen several since being in Shenzhen and Chengdu and they've all pretty much left me a trifle underwhelmed. In fact, while setting up our excursion I'd carped a bit about seeing "another temple" and James had said that when you're friends with "The Temple Guy" temples is what you get. I'd emailed a reply to the effect of why can't I be friends with "The Breakfast in Bed with Uma Thurman or Lucy Liu Guy"?
According to an extract from his "autobiography" in a temple pamphlet, Wong Sai Sin  aka "The Red Pine Fairy', seemed to specialize in turning rocks into sheep and "refining cinnebar nine times into an immortal drug." At his temple we found a fair amount of people, mostly women of all ages, imploring him with incense and fruit offerings to turn or refine their luck. There were also signs with male cartoon figures showing the recommended incense offering methods - one stick in two hands held in prayer position - not a fist-full of sticks pointing directly from one's crotch or chest.
I got into the spirit of the imploring and offered one stick and several prayerful bows with fond wishes for my father (who is having health problems), my sister (currently pissed off at me) and my son (just to be safe).
After James and I made our pleas and stuck our smoking joss sticks in a long sand filled trough, presumably with the messages flying heavenward on the smoke, we moved to the side to watch others, only to see a temple worker in an orange jumpsuit and rubber gloves begin to methodically pluck the dozens of burning sticks like so many weeds from the sand, plunge them in a tub of water and dump them into a large green garbage bag. Talk about dousing dreams. He was only making room for more but it was a bit like seeing all those prayers short-circuited to be shipped to a landfill. Or seeing an altar boy suddenly snuffing out votive candles as devotees are in mid-prayer. But these worshippers didn't appear to notice, or if they did, didn't appear to mind. They just kept burning and bowing.
The temple is next to a subway station with pushy crones at the entrance hawking overpriced joss sticks and nestled in a pocket surrounded by the Hong Kong skyline, all of which gave one a rather surreal view that included the graceful, curving traditional Chinese temple roof lines set off by sky scrapers, a McDonald's and a garish, modern mega-church that James described aptly as looking like "an IHOP on crack." 
But there was a  bonus - a two-floor fortune teller mall of sorts. A 161 Seer Superstore, though many of them seemed to be taking Monday off. Those that were on duty, mostly elderly and  middle-aged men and women, sat looking bored, some dozing or perhaps contemplating futures where they weren't trapped in small booths adorned with large palm and face charts and photos of them with ecstatic looking clients.
We were the only potential custormers and one old woman who could barely move saw a future in us. "Speak English?" she asked astutely. Amazed at her insight we agreed that we spoke it and she motioned us to follow her up some stairs and down another row of seers til we came to a younger woman who spoke English very quickly, if not exactly fluently.
"Probably her daughter," James said.
She showed us a chart in Chinese with price quotes - everything from $100 Hong Kong to answer "one question" to $3,000 Hong Kong for a "very, very good fortune." I pointed to the $300 HK and asked what I got for that. Turned out it was a palm reading that I bargained down to $200 HK.
In a nutshell I found that I'm in good health until age 73. My ailing father is in great health - but I could have purchased a paper with an inscription in Chinese to put under my pillow to ensure it. My marriage line is "very good" (I'm twice divorced). I'm going to have a "big argument" with a woman next month. James and I would make great business partners and I shouldn't lend anyone - "even good friends" - any money. "Hear that?" I asked James, to whom I'd just loaned some money.
As we left and went through fortune telling row again, another sage - a bespectacled fellow - asked: "Do you want to know your future?"
"No thanks," I replied. "Still trying to deal with my past."







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