The temple dedicated to Wong Tai Sin, in the district of the same name, is always extra crowded in the days around the lunar new year – pandemic restrictions allowing. Worshippers burn incense and send prayers to their favourite deity to propitiate them for the new year ahead. As part of these rituals, however, not everybody goes towards the praying halls. Going up the slope that leads to the main altar, one can turn on the left hand side, towards the Fortune Telling and Oblation Arcade, where dozens of fortune tellers await clients, armed with their esoteric knowledge and a number of divination techniques.
Fortune-telling is often linked to temples, whether the main divinity worshipped inside is from the Taoist or the Buddhist traditions, which are very often intermingled. In Wan Chai, at the Pak Tai Temple—dedicated to the martial god of the same name—a fortune teller has a dedicated table near the entrance, where he traces with ink and brush his clients’ birth date. He does so in order to read their baat3 zi6 (八字) literally eight characters, or the day and time of birth, in order to calculate their horoscope and suggest how to improve their fortune.
In many smaller temples scattered all across the territory, people can interrogate the gods without an intermediary by throwing two wooden crescents three times on the floor. These are called gaau2 bui1 (筊杯), and they must be purified by passing them three times above incense smoke: one side of the wooden half moon is rounded, while the other is flat, and they can be used for yes-no questions. Often, these can be accompanied by readings of numbered bamboo sticks (kau4 cim1 求籤) which need to be carefully shaken out of their bamboo container until just one falls out. The number corresponds to a written oracle that must then be interpreted. On the second day of the lunar new year at the Che Kung Temple in Sha Tin, a stick is drawn to predict the fortunes of Hong Kong – a sign taken rather seriously by everyone in the territory, including the authorities, which often appear quite ill at ease when an unlucky number is extracted.
In the Temple Street night market, rows of fortune tellers light up their booths every evening – rickety affairs with small plastic tools and a foldable table, protected from the elements by red-white-blue plastic sheets. Here, to this day, bird divination is still practised. A small bird trained to pick cards, which hold revelations on a number of questions, is allowed out of its little wooden cage. The client’s fortune can be predicted according to where or what it picks and how it moves.
In Wong Tai Sin, too, those who are in need of answers can rely on a variety of techniques meant to help in taking important decisions or give an overlook on what the future holds, in the usual highly sensitive topics of love, career, health and financial prosperity. But the sheer number of fortune tellers, and their wide range of competences is unique in Hong Kong. The fortune telling arcade is made of four corridors on two floors, along which are placed dozens of small booths, with a number on top for easy recognition. Each fortune teller rents one of the small booths, and decorates it with all the auspicious images and objects they can fit, many symbols of their skills, statues of gods and goddesses and portraits of Wong Tai Sin himself, the mystical healer, but also the different languages in which they can tell their clients’ fortunes, and also pictures of themselves with various famous people, whether local or international.
One of Wong Tai Sin’s specialities, which brings many people to come here and not to fortune tellers elsewhere in the city, are the twin arts of palm and face reading, known as sau2 soeng3 (手相) and min6 soeng3 (面相). For this, all around the arcade, one can spot many panels with stylised faces, or simply variations of noses, mouths, eyes, and eyebrows with a few words of description. Regardless of how much one believes in their accuracy, the drawings are quite appealing: they carry intricate codes, a complicated grammar of moles and wrinkles, plumpness and curves and bone position.
In these pandemic days, as people walk around in face masks trying to decide which fortune teller to patronise, there is a small added ritual: the client sits down, says what is on his or her heart, and then takes off the mask to reveal his or her face. Some young couples can be seen wandering among the stalls, hand in hand, stopping by those with large hearts hanging from their window display, signifying they excel in relationship divination.
Jenny Wong, at booth 114, advertises that she can tell the fortune of her clients in both Cantonese and Mandarin, but also in English and Japanese. She explains that face reading interprets a person’s features by dividing them into three: the forehead represents one’s life from birth to around 20 years of age. Eyes and nose contain tell-tale signs for how one’s life will be from 30 to 60, while mouth and chin take care of the latter part of one’s life, after the sixth decade. Some of the signs that she points out in describing what each feature may represent come as a surprise. A bigger nose, for example, is a sign of wealth. “We Chinese people,” she explains, “say that fat and round is lucky,” referring to a person’s face. Whether today’s beauty standards favour these characteristics, which they don’t seem to, is irrelevant; fortune telling is not a profession that follows the whims of fashion.
More specific elements are also pinpointed by the presence of moles, discolouration or scars. But the various physiognomic charts hanging from the walls in the fortune teller booths show an intricate map of meridian points and conjunctions of interest that can only be interpreted after a careful study of their traditional significance. The standard charts show 99 age points—one per every year of a long life—and 12 “houses,” which are located in particular on the forehead and which regulate everything, from health and wealth to relationships with siblings and other family members, career, travels, and everything else.
This system reveals the values of the era when it was crafted. The eighth house is located on the two sides of the chin and is called the Assistant House, which was important for those preparing to sit the imperial exams in their quest of becoming an official. A sunken eighth house shows that assistants and subordinates are unruly and disobedient, which will not favour official career prospects. Of course, practitioners assure their clients of the scientific value of this body of knowledge. According to Wong, “face and palm reading are linked to Chinese medicine.”
This is because the various elements are part of a larger ecosystem, which has had a long time to evolve. The first Chinese divination on record was linked to the rulers of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1040 BC). They would commission a shaman to interrogate turtles’ carapaces and bovine bones. He would interpret the cracks these would form when exposed to the fire and write the response from heaven with the earliest extant Chinese characters. These are the roots of today’s divination practises in Hong Kong temples, but they also comprise elements from the main local religious traditions and complex calculations linked with Chinese medicine, the Chinese zodiac, Chinese geomancy and countless other influences.
This wealth of influences creates an infinite amount of possibilities in predicting the future – as well as finding ways to reassure people. A round nose on a tiger, apparently, could not be quite the same thing as one on a rabbit, as all the various parts need to harmonise. Rather than distressing a client, one positive element can be emphasised over a less auspicious one. Even then, the Wong Tai Sin Temple fortune tellers are happy to help: small talismans can be purchased for a few dollars, and kept in one’s purse for as long as necessary. Little suggestions linked to feng shui are also given, so that with a specific use of colours, of water-earth-fire-air-metal elements or of different surfaces such as water, mirrors or stones, a balance can be restored in one’s life. And at the end of the day, placing a little mirror or a small aquarium in strategic positions—or even just plucking one’s eyebrows—can give a sense of control over our lives, which is not without merit.