FACE THE FUTURE
Garry Marchant consults a brutally honest soothsayer in Hong Kong
YOUR nose is big,’’ Miss Lam announces. Well, I don’t need a physiognomist to tell me that. And my medium has more bad news: I am a year older than I thought. According to Chinese tradition, the smiling soothsayer informs me, age is counted from conception, not birth.
I get this disconcerting information in the boisterous, aromatic precincts of Wong Tai Sin Temple, a conglomeration of Eastern religions about a 20-minute subway ride from Hong Kong’s deluxe hotels.
The business of worship starts right at the Wong Tai Sin Mass Transit Railway station exit, where mendicants and mercenaries sell joss sticks and pieces of red paper with words such as luck, health and wealth in gold Chinese script.
Gold-painted plastic amulets dangle from hawker stalls, and a profusion of bright, temple-red paper prayers, cards and packets of incense clutter the shelves. The rich scents of musk and jasmine and the smoke from burned paper offerings hover in the air along the stone steps.
In the temple compound, worshippers gather around taps of blessed water, believed to cure many illnesses, while others light incense sticks, bow and set them in the sand in big brass urns. The rhythmic click-click sound of people shaking bamboo cups with chim (oracle sticks) comes from the temple. While many worshippers kneel and pray, others gossip or take family snapshots while children run around playing.
Wong Tai Sin, the busiest, most boisterous of Hong Kong’s 600 temples, is named for the city’s most popular Taoist deity. Built in 1921 and dwarfed by high-rise housing estates, the compound is a classic example of traditional Chinese architecture with vermilion pillars, two-tiered golden roof, yellow latticework and an array of multicoloured carvings.
Under a green and gold pine ceiling, the deity Wong sits on a raised marble platform surrounded by carved and gilded ornaments while several wishing ponds and a pagoda are dedicated to the Buddha.
In the fortune-telling and oblation arcade to the left of the temple, in more than 100 cubicles, freelance soothsayers, chim stick readers and palm and face readers offer their services. Along the arcade, locals window-shop for the right oracle: young couples anxious about their love, stockbrokers worrying about their future, gamblers looking for help from Lady Luck.
At an alley of stalls labelled ‘‘ English’’, a cheery man presents a card written in Chinese characters and answers my questions with a smile, and a price. I walk on.
A few stalls away I find Lam, who does speak English. Diagrams of faces and hands written over with Chinese script decorate her cubicle, along with drawings of different chins, noses, eyes and lips. The most popular way to divine the future in this celestial bazaar is through kauchim , shaking bamboo sticks from a canister.
‘‘ That is just storytelling,’’ Lam sniffs, clearly favouring her more detailed (and expensive) palms and face package.
I bargain, but not too hard, fearing she will read stinginess in my character among my other failings. So, opting for the full facial and hands treatment, I squat before her on a little kitchen stool like those used in Asia’s roadside teashops. In her gold necklace with jade pendant, Lam looks more like a Hong Kong office worker than a Gypsy palmist. She asks for my date and place of birth, translates it into Hong Kong time and consults a book to transpose the date from the Gregorian to the Chinese calendar.
‘‘ Chinese think when you are in the womb that counts as part of your life, so you are almost one when you are born,’’ she says, noting the date, and informing me that I am a snake. In the Chinese zodiac, that is.
‘‘ We believe that the palm tells about 60 per cent of your life and the face 40 per cent,’’ Lam says, grabbing my two hands and staring at them intently. ‘‘ You have a square face and square hands. Palms and face match. That is good.’’ Finally, something positive. ‘‘ You do what you want.’’ Meaning I am stubborn. ‘‘ You are practical, don’t trust things of the imagination.’’ Hardly desirable qualities for a writer.
‘‘ Your nose is very long,’’ she continues. ‘‘ Most negotiators have a long nose. They are very patient, they keep insisting on hearing what they want to hear.’’
My eyes are deep, so I plan more than other people. My ears are close to the head, so I play safe and don’t take chances. And I have thin lips. ‘‘ This gives the impression of being sincere and honest,’’ the chirpy diviner con- tinues, without saying I possess these qualities. ‘‘ Your career line is strong. You can work all your life without retiring.’’ Great, a lifetime of drudgery. Finally, the stock in trade for fortune tellers. ‘‘ You will lead a long life.’’
At this point, she starts to sound more like a medical adviser. ‘‘ Your face is hot even though it is not summer. Your blood is too concentrated.’’ Now she is like a school counsellor. ‘‘ Donate blood, then don’t eat so much meat and oily food. Eat less chicken, pork and fast food, and more green vegetables and fresh fruit.’’ She continues: ‘‘ As a writer, your spirit is important. Get fresh air. It is good for the brain and bright ideas.’’
And finally, with a last glance at my face, she announces firmly, ‘‘ You will be fatter in the future.’’ Cantonese fortune tellers definitely don’t always tell you what you want to hear.
Take the Mass Transit Railway from Central (Hong Kong Island) or Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) to Mongkok, cross the platform to change trains, and continue another five stations to Wong Tai Sin.
Jossing about: Praying at Hong Kong’s Wong Tai Sin Temple