Hong Kong’s Ghost Signs: The Shanghainese Fortune Teller

This is the second in a new series exploring Hong Kong’s ghost signs – the long-abandoned advertisements and shop signs that linger over the city’s streets.

Shadows grow long as we wander the borderlands between Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. Hennessy Road is thronged with people marching along to the stuttering beat of a crosswalk, each going through the motions of daily routine but largely lost in the wider anxiety of uncertain times. Inside Wan Fat House, street noise fades and doors go unanswered. There is nobody left to tell the story behind the name that is daubed in red paint on this tenement’s grubby facade: 毛芝仙, 上海,命相 (mou4 zi1 sin1,  soeng5 hoi2 ming6 soeng1). Mo Zi-sin, Shanghainese Fortune Teller.

Mo’s sign is a fading relic—a ghost sign—announcing the services of a man who may now be nothing more than a spectre himself. Here and there are traces and clues. An old photograph taken on Hennessy Road around the 1970s shows an area whose signscape was as vibrant as the street was busy. Hidden amongst the chaos, Mo’s sign, fresh and gleaming scarlet, can be glimpsed just behind a tram. 

Based on this photo, the age of the building, and a 1973 newspaper ad placed in the now defunct Express (faai3 bou3 快報), the ghost sign is at least 50 years old. In the ad, nestled between advertorials for shoe wipes and a travel agent,  Mo proclaims himself a prophet, but he is just one of many in an area that is unusually rich with soothsayers and feng shui masters. Even today, with its charming hand painted script and elegant layout, Mo’s sign stands out against those of his modern day colleagues whose vinyl banners with computer fonts and QR codes seem oddly impersonal for this most human of industries. 

Divination has been practised in China since the beginning of its civilisation. The earliest records appear in the Shang Dynasty when oracle bones and the cracks on burnt tortoise shells were scrutinised to unlock the secrets of destiny. Modern Chinese fortune telling takes many forms: facial reading, palmistry, fortune sticks and astrology – a calendar based tradition that relies on the “four pillars of destiny” (birth year, birth month, birth date and birth hour) and the relationship between the five elements, wood, fire, earth, metal and water. 

It is impossible to guess what methods Mo employed, but it is likely that he practised some form of astrology. Because Mo’s sign emphasises his Shanghainese heritage, we can gain further insight by looking into the work of another Shanghainese fortune teller and one of Mo’s contemporaries, Tung Mo-zit, through the experiences of one of Tung’s former clients, Judy Mui. Speaking by phone, Mui details her 1985 consultation with Tung at his study on nearby Paterson Street.

“They called him the father of tit3 baan2 san4 syun3 (鐵板神算),” she says, referring to a type of geomancy. “I was told Li Ka-shing went to him every year and Mr. Tung told him what to do, places not to go and things like that. It was very difficult to get an appointment but my mum was the Tungs’ landlady. She was able to get two slots.’” 

The estimable clairvoyant received Mui at his office. “It was just like any apartment,” she says. “It had three rooms and he used one of them for a study where people would come to see him. Nothing fancy, just a desk and the two of us sitting across from each other with these booklets. We communicated in Mandarin or Shanghainese.”

Tung asked his client the year and exact time of her birth then indicated the booklets. “You flip through book three, to this page and this section,” he said. “There will be two sentences and that will fit with people around you.” The master made some calculations and together they consulted more books. “It took about an hour. And that was it. I went back two days later and picked up a two-page summary of my life with two sentences for every 10 years.”

The advice ranged from the general to the cryptic with no notable details except two. “I was married at the time but he didn’t know that,” says Mui. “I gave my maiden name. He said I would marry somebody with the last name, Mui. He calculated the age gap [with my husband] – exact.” The other prophecy would be of greater import. “He told me that the following spring, I would have a son. My son, Jeffrey, was born in April the next year.”

Leaving the stuffy, fluorescent lit confines of Wan Fat House, there is a sense of disappointment. The story of the fortune teller’s sign remains a mystery. A last ditch attempt is made with the six digit telephone number listed in Mo’s ad but it has been disconnected and yields no results when supplemented with the necessary 2 and 5 area codes. With nowhere else to turn, we wander east towards Canal Road where there is one group that may have answers about Hennessy Road and why it has attracted such a profusion of folk spiritualists: the villain hitters.

This evening the witches are doing a brisk trade. At one stall a punter is preparing to travel abroad and requires a protective charm. Another has a flannel shirt to be cursed or blessed. One villain hitter rises from her plastic stool and we lock eyes. “You have questions, I can sense it. Ask me,” she says. She indicates a seat by the altar where Kwun Yum and Kwan Kung gaze out impassively. “Where we are now,” the villain hitter explains, “there was a river that was turned into a smelly canal. Often people would drown here, also animals – dogs and cats. Many people like us began congregating at this point to suppress the negative energy. That’s at least how we came to be here.” 

Unable to offer any more information and certainly nothing about the ghost sign, she sends us on our way with more questions than answers, leaving us to wonder what became of Mo, the Shanghainese prophet of Hennessy Road.

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