Thursday, August 12, 2004

Future Games
Just as lasagna tastes better after sitting overnight in the fridge, here's a reheated piece I've written for this weekend's Standard. Apologies for the fact that much of it was posted here only a couple weeks ago, but there's some fresh material, too.

For better or worse, we all know the past; it’s the future that consumes us – whether knowing if you’ll meet Mr. or Ms. Right or simply divining whether the dry cleaner will be able to remove the red wine and curry sauce that you so artfully spewed on your white linen pants at last night’s soiree.
And soothsaying takes many forms, whether it’s tea leaves, a palm, the I-ching, rune stones, tarot cards, a crystal ball, or gutting a fowl and scrutinizing the innards. But at the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin temple (which honors, according to an extract from his "autobiography", Wong Tai Sin aka "The Red Pine Fairy", a fellow who seemed to specialize in turning rocks into sheep and "refining cinnebar nine times into an immortal drug’’) there is a plethora of fortune tellers – 161 to be exact – from which to choose. It’s a two-storey Soothsayer Superstore of sorts overseen by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.
I first stumbled on ‘’The Fortune-Telling and Oblation Arcade’’ while visiting the temple with a friend who calls himself ‘’the Temple Guy’’ and is in the throes of writing a history of Hong Kong temples.
As temples go, I'd already seen several on the mainland and they'd 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 my pal had replied that "when you're friends with ‘the Temple Guy’ temples is what you get’’.
‘’Why can't I be friends with "The Breakfast in Bed with Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu Guy?’’, I thought.
But the fortune teller mall proved to be a refreshing and entertaining alternative to the usual sickly sweet, lung clogging clouds of joss stick smoke being offered up to garish, demonic and stern looking gods and goddesses.
We were there on a Monday morning when many of the seers seemed to be taking day 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 confined to small booths adorned with large palm and face charts and photos of them with ecstatic looking clients.
We were the only potential customers 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," Temple Guy said. She showed us a chart in Chinese with price quotes - everything from $HK100 Kong to answer "one question" to $HK3,000 for a "very, very good fortune’’. I pointed to the $HK300 and asked what I got for that. Turned out it was a palm reading that I bargained down to $HK200.
In a nutshell I found that I'm in good health until age 73.(I have high blood pressure). 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 this month. (Still waiting). Temple Guy and I would make great business partners and I shouldn't lend anyone - "even good friends" - any money. "Hear that?" I asked Temple Guy, to whom I'd just loaned some money.
Intrigued, and wanting to know more about the place I returned recently with a Chinese co-worker as a translator so I could find out a little more.
Business was a little better and most booths were filled this time with folks eager to reveal all for a fee but I was eager to find out exactly what it takes to be a fortune teller. Trusting in fate and a sign that said he also spoke English we wound up at booth 134 where Tonny Cai was holding court. It turned out though he’s a former mechanical engineer, fortune telling also runs in his family.
"My grandmother and auntie were fortune tellers,’’ Cai said. "Very famous and I studied with them.’’
His aunt, in fact, is still in the business and also works at the prognosticating palace in booth 82. "She’s been on TV twice,’’ Cai said proudly and a later quick check of her booth revealed that there was a queue to see her, some probably drawn by the large colour photos of her television appearances posted outside her booth.
Cai does palms, reads faces, practices feng shui, casts the I-ching but said his specialty was a Chinese horoscope system called Pillars of Destiny or Four Pillars, Eight Characters (a precursor to Deng Xiaopeng’s "one country, two systems", perhaps?).
So what are most clients yearning to know?
Cai said most women are concerned about love, marriage and relationships and that his male customers are usually fretting about business/wealth and their health and virility.
Then he subtly predicted that his business wasn’t going to do so well if he kept answering our questions instead of talking; to paying customers.We moved on to booth 116 where Lau Tuen Lam gave us a similar forecast. In other words, if we had the money, he had the time.
"I have no time for a newspaper unless you pay me,’’ he said, pointing to a clipping from a Chinese paper with a story about him and fortune telling for which he said he had been paid to play. Though checkbook journalism is abhorrent to me, I quickly saw a way around this. My 23-year-old coworker had never had her fortune told and it would be interesting to see if Lau’s abilities were any better than the woman who had assured me of my strong, unblemished marriage line.
Lau – a former mainland high school chemistry teacher who learned palmistry and visage reading from a friend – went to work on her hand and then her face. The upshot was that she can look forward to a long, fairly routine life if she can keep her hot temper in check
"You will not live a glamorous life. Your life will not be like Princess Diana,’’ he told her a little regretfully.
"Thank god,’’ I thought. Who wants to live in media-driven fish bowl, be married to a jug-eared guy who once told his mistress that he wants to be "her tampon’ and then die at 37 in a wretched car crash? My coworker, though, looked a little disappointed.
Though I hadn’t paid anything for my fortune, Lau next generously turned his attention to me, studied the bridge of my nose intently and said something solemnly to my coworker in Chinese.
‘’What did he say?’’ I asked.
"He said you will have a bad year when you are 41,’’ she said.
I’ll be 52 in October. But he gets points for flattery.

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