Hong Kong, China – As Hong Kong prepares for more uncertain times and residents rang in the Year of the Rat, people have turned to fortune-tellers.
During the four-day holiday weekend, many headed to the temples to find out what the year ahead augured.
One of the most popular sites to do so is the Che Kung Temple in suburban Hong Kong, founded in the late 19th century. It was built in tribute to General Che of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), who fled south with the child-king to avoid the invading Mongols. There you can find all types of fortune-telling.
On Monday, the representatives of the indigenous villages paid their traditional respects at the temple and tried to foretell Hong Kong’s fortunes by shaking a tube filled with bamboo sticks until one fell out.
Each stick portends the person’s luck and corresponds to an ancient oracle.
After the village representative shook the tube, the No 79 fortune stick fell to the ground, which indicates middling luck. The corresponding oracle read: “Fairness rules heaven and earth. No one escapes the sight of the Almighty.”
Interpreting the oracle falls to diviners such as Chan Tin Yan who holds court at a stand behind the temple.
Ruddy-cheeked and down to earth, Chan exudes an “I told you so” air.
“This is saying the gods up above are watching closely what the ruling minions are doing,” said Chan.
“Offending officials ought to take responsibility and step down.”
For those who criticise Chan for politicising, at least one academic who has studied the significance of divination in traditional Chinese society, notes that fortune-telling can sometimes be akin to giving advice.
“People going to a fortune teller do not give up their faculty of judgment. Often, the result is merely an advice, just as if you had asked a good friend. You may follow this advice or not, it is up to you,” Dennis Schilling, who teaches Chinese metaphysics and Daoist philosophy at Renmin University in Beijing told Al Jazeera. “We should not stigmatise fortune-telling as ‘superstition’.”
It used to be that fortune-tellers in Hong Kong were harbingers of hope rather than Cassandras of doom. Spelling out misfortunes at the start of Lunar New Year was considered inauspicious at best and socially inappropriate at worst, akin to talking about divorce at a wedding party.
But that has changed as people became more receptive to bad news as the city’s political turmoil continued.
Many have looked to the skies for guidance.
“Chinese religious beliefs still incorporates many deities and practices related to astrology. Astrology is one of the leading belief systems for fortune-telling. The stars never err. They move according to their orbits,” said Schilling. “Why should they not be able to guide our actions?”
Looking to the stars
John Choi, 46, is one such practitioner of what is known as feng shui, or geomancy.
When he first started it was just a hobby, but Choi has since spent the past 10 years learning from the city’s 30 masters. Since last October, he has been mapping the astrological charts for the year ahead – with the aid of pen and paper, laptop and even an app.
In his view, Hong Kong’s upcoming year will be rather grim.
“The political turmoil will last at least six more months. A top leader, especially a female, will likely quit due to illness. The economy will suffer and the stock market tank,” said Choi. “There’ll be no peace.”
The coronavirus outbreak currently gripping mainland China and spreading globally is also on his charts.
“Illnesses abound, particularly infectious diseases,” he added.
Choi explained that charting the stars for fortune-telling dates back to 2700 BC. In ancient times, emperors and nobles were eager to know if the new year would bring a bountiful harvest or pestilence. And they often killed the messengers if they did not like the prediction.
In modern times the business is less risky, yet Choi and his contemporary cohorts still get castigated.
“Some of my clients have said I’m too blunt,” Choi said.