Looking to stars, Hong Kong fortune tellers see only clouds

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Over the Lunar New Year holiday Hong Kong’s Che Kung Temple is packed with worshippers hoping for a better year ahead [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong, China – In uncertain times, people in Hong Kong found comfort in tradition, as they rang in the Year of the Rat with certain rituals.

During the four-day holiday weekend many headed to the temples, where under the watch of deities, worshippers and well-wishers alike found clues to what lay ahead.

One of the most popular sites is the Che Kung Temple in suburban Hong Kong, founded in the late 19th century to commemorate General Che of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), who fled south with the child king  to avoid the invading Mongols. Respect for his courage and loyalty has inspired faith in the temple that carries his name, as well as all manner of divination that emanates from it.

On Monday, by tradition, the representatives of the indigenous villages paid their respects at the temple and sought out the fortunes for the semi-autonomous Chinese city – by shaking out a bamboo stick from a tube of a hundred.

Each stick is labelled as portending good, bad or so-so luck and numbered to correspond to a riddle wrapped up in references to ancient legends.

After some shaking by the village representative, the No 79 fortune stick fell out. It presages middling luck and a corresponding story along these opening lines:

“Fairness rules heaven and earth. No one escapes the sight of the Almighty.”

Temples in Hong Kong usually have fortune tellers to give worshippers a sense of what might lie ahead. Hong Kong has been rocked by months of protests and is now battling the coronavirus that emerged in China in December [Achmad Ibrahim/AP Photo]

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Interpreting the riddle to yield more clues falls to people like Chan Tin Yan, who holds court at a stand behind the temple.

Not superstition

Ruddy-cheeked and down to earth, Chan exudes a prophetic “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 be compared with dispensing 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 culturally inappropriate at worst, akin to talking about divorce at a wedding party.

But that has changed as the city’s political turmoil whetted the public’s appetite for the bad and the ugly, in addition to the good.

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.

Starting out as a hobby, Choi has spent the past decade drilling down and learning at the feet of some of the city’s 30 masters. Since last October, he has been mapping out the star charts for the year ahead – with the aid of pen and paper, laptop and even an app.

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John Choi, 46, started doing geomancy or feng shui as a hobby, before learning from Hong Kong’s established masters He predicts a gloomy year ahead. [Violet Law/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

In his view, things will look 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 manifest in 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 keen to know if the new year was going to bring a bountiful harvest or the scourge of pestilence. And they often killed the messengers.

In modern times the business is less risky, yet Choi and his contemporary cohorts still get the blame.

“Some of my clients have said I’m too blunt,” Choi said.

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