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Exploring the mystical art of fortune-telling in Hong Kong

By Catharina Cheung 25 March 2021 | Last Updated 4 September 2021

Header image courtesy of Good Orient

Perhaps one of the characteristics that makes Hong Kong so charming is that in spite of its global status as a financial hub firmly situated in modernity, the city and its people have not (nor do they look likely to) let go of their traditions and cultural roots. An example of this is how the art of fortune-telling is still widely prevalent in Hong Kong. 

You may not hear it being talked about much, but all around the city, business people check for favourable conditions before starting new ventures, students pray to specific gods for good grades, and mothers might even consult oracles to find auspicious days for something as simple as a haircut.

Fortune-telling comes into the spotlight mostly during Lunar New Year, when thousands flock to temples to find out their fortunes for the year ahead or to change their luck for the better. Whether or not you think it is superstition, fortune-telling is an inalienable part of Hong Kong culture, so here are different ways of divining the future as well as where to find them in the city.

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Historical origins

Divination has long been a practice in Chinese culture, and though its precise beginnings are unknown due to a lack of records, it was definitely a part of life in ancient China. In fact, divination methods were sanctioned by royal practice during the late Shang and the Zhou dynasties, so such practices necessarily had to have been already present for some time prior for it to have gained sufficient prominence.

Reading shells & bones

One of the earliest methods of fortune-telling was plastromancy, or the reading of turtle shell oracles. Sometimes ox scapula bones were used instead, in which case the precise term is scapulimancy. Diviners would ask questions regarding crop harvests, if the weather was going to be good, military endeavours, or other topics—this would then be carved onto the shell or bone, and then heat applied, usually using a metal rod. The material would crack, and the diviner would read and interpret the patterns, writing their prognosis onto the piece as well.

Such oracle bones bear the earliest known body of ancient Chinese script, and were invaluable to Chinese historians, especially after the finding of an oracle bone excavation site in Henan in 1928, recording divination performed for or by the royal household of the Shang dynasty. The very existence of this dynasty was confirmed only through these ancient fortune-telling tools, because prior to this find there wasn’t enough physical evidence to prove that the Shang dynasty was real outside of scholarly texts. This kind of divination was called卜 (buk1)—either a pictogram of the cracks, or an onomatopoeic rendition of the sound the material made when it cracked—and it still lives on in the modern term for divination, which is 占卜 (zim1 buk1).

Photo: Master Choy (via fengleiyi.blogspot.com)

Reading sticks & coins

Another kind of ancient Chinese divination involved the use of 50 yarrow stalks which were methodically removed from the bunch to reveal a final numerical value. The sticks are then gathered up and the whole process is repeated five more times for a total of six numbers, each symbolising a line of a hexagon. This concept of the hexagon comes from an ancient Chinese divination text from the Western Zhou period, called the I Ching or Book of Changes

The text consists of 64 hexagrams, made up of solid and broken lines representing yin and yang arranged in different orders. The hexagon created through the process of eliminating yarrow sticks can then be found in the I Ching along with a commentary that is interpreted as an oracle.

Years after the yarrow stalk method, fortune tellers started using three coins instead. All three are tossed at once and, depending on whether they land as heads or tails, each coin is given a numerical value of two or three—six tosses in total forms the hexagon. This method proved far quicker and largely supplanted the previous method in popularity. Some fortune-tellers would also use an empty turtle shell to shake the coins in, similar to how a dice cup is used; this is often portrayed in Chinese period dramas, much to the bemusement of viewers who don't quite understand the workings of divination.

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Reading the stars

By the time of the Tang dynasty, Confucianism had largely dissipated as the dominant religion of China, and was supplanted by Buddhism and Taoism instead during the previous dynasty of Sui. It was a Taoist man named Lu Chun Yang who created the divination method of Zi Wei Dou Shu (紫微斗數; zi2 mei4 dau2 sou3), which seeks to recognise the spiritual dynamic of the universe in order to identify changes. 

This method involved astrology and star-gazing, beginning when the ancient astrologers noticed that one star seemed to be stationary while the others revolved around it. This was named the Emperor Star (紫微星; zi2 mei4 sing1) to represent the ruler, and the stars in the sky were used to calculate longevity, health, fortune, and upcoming disasters by observing their orbit, position, and amount of light emitted. In the West, the Emperor Star is known as Polaris, the North Star.

Zi Wei Dou Shu used to be restricted for the emperor’s consultation only as its readings were deemed too detailed and were thus classified knowledge. Because an emperor’s destiny is tied to the fate of his kingdom and its people, charting his personal fortune based on the Emperor Star is said to have direct bearing on the kingdom as well. Astronomers and astrologers of talent often worked in the imperial court, and also played important roles in determining successors to the throne.

By the Ming dynasty, the diverse art of fortune-telling had trickled down to the rest of the Chinese population and gained much importance and popularity in society. The old methods of divination illustrated above are not necessarily performed anymore, but they do form the basis upon which modern-day fortune-telling is based.

Thierry Chow (left) and Chow Ming Hong (centre). Photo: @thierrychow (via Instagram)

Reading feng shui 

Feng shui is undoubtedly one of the Chinese mystical arts that every foreigner has heard about. This method mostly involves the feng shui master, or geomancer, examining homes, places of business, tombs, or any other location of importance, to see how its location and placement fits and balances within the order of the universe. 

Good feng shui is said to be able to secure promising prospects in life, love, and fortune, and many Hongkongers still hold much stock by it. A common example of what is considered to be good feng shui is when a dwelling faces a body of water with hills or mountains situated behind it—flowing water symbolises the incoming of good fortune, while the mountains signify always being supported. Even the mausoleum of the Qin emperor—of Great Wall and terracotta army fame—and Confucius’ family home were built against mountains and facing water.

A feng shui master’s most important tool is the luopan compass, a complicated device with 38 rings intersecting displays for the five elements, twelve branches, nine stars, and ten stems that make up feng shui geomancy. A geomancer will read the compass to find a particular symbol representing the nature or element of a location; this will tell them if the location is flat-out inauspicious, or if its fortune can be improved by introducing redesigns or furnishings that can offset any inherent bad energy. 

Often, feng shui masters evaluating a home or office will recommend placing precious stones such as jade or amethyst crystals where energy needs improving, figures of mythical creatures such as the pixiu to attract a flow of money, or setting screens and other dividers in place to redirect the flow of energy in a space.

Hong Kong has several feng shui masters of note who have gained much recognition and acclaim even abroad. Master Chow Ming Hong has been on the scene for more than 30 years, and is also a specialist in ancient Chinese divination; his daughter Thierry Chow is one of Hong Kong’s most interesting creatives and feng shui practitioners, combining divination with interiors and fashion design; and Louisa Cheung, who goes by the alias Yunwenzi (and boasts Credit Suisse and Vivienne Westwood as clients), specialises in the Qimen Dunjia system which was initially used to create ancient Chinese military strategies.

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Photo: ancient-origins.net

Reading zodiac animals

Towards the start of every Lunar New Year, Hong Kong’s book stores will be inundated with titles telling readers what their year ahead may look like. These are personalised to a certain extent, according to the Chinese zodiac animal that corresponds to their year of birth. As the legend has it, Buddha invited all animals to celebrate the New Year with him, but only 12 turned up. To reward them for their attendance, Buddha named a year after each animal, supposedly after the order in which they arrived, beginning with the rat and ending with the pig.

The Chinese zodiac system is arranged on a 12-year rotation with an animal representing each year, then cycling back to the first animal after the twelfth year. Similar to the Western horoscope system, people belonging to each zodiac animal are said to share similar character traits. 

However, those born 12 or more years apart under the same zodiac animal will still have different fortunes for each year, so fortune-tellers need to divine fortunes for every year in order to give the public a comprehensive guide that is guaranteed to cover each person’s preordained fate—a huge annual undertaking, as you can imagine.

Finding out your zodiac fortune in Hong Kong is easy; simply look out for the bright red almanac books sold everywhere, even in 7-Elevens! Most of these books will be broken down by zodiac animal, specific year of birth and its corresponding element, an overview of upcoming fortunes in career, money, relationships, health, and more, and even a breakdown of each month, depending on the book. 

In general, most Hongkongers have opinions on which fortune-tellers for zodiacs are the most reliable in their predictions, and the ones to look out for include Peter So Man-fung and Mak Ling Ling.

Reading kau cim

求籤 (kau4 cim1) is a type of fortune-telling often seen practised in Hong Kong’s various temples. Like many other types of divination, kau cim involves contemplating an issue a querent wants an answer to, getting a number, and then interpreting answers from an oracle.

According to Jade Box Records, an ancient Chinese text written in the third century AD, kau cim can be dated as far back as the Jin dynasty. The Cultural Revolution in mainland China during the 1960s and 70s pretty much eradicated this practice as it was seen as a tradition to be purged, but it has persisted to this day in many other Asian cultures including Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. 

In America, kau cim is also known as Chinese fortune sticks, or sometimes marketed as Chi Chi Sticks, but this is merely considered a parlour game and holds none of the spiritual or cultural importance that kau cim has for Asians.

In Hong Kong, temples are dedicated to specific gods who are representative of different aspects of life. For example, devotees pray to the goddess Guanyin for safety, family matters, and fertility, or direct their prayers to Man Cheong, the god of culture and literature, for success in examinations. 

Querents seeking answers through kau cim will choose the appropriate temple, make offerings of incense to the main deity, then purify the kau cim bamboo holder by revolving it around the incense holder three times. The bamboo kau cim sticks are gently mixed by hand, and the querent kneels in prayer with the holder between their palms. As they shake the holder, they must pose their question or think of the issue they want answers to; this needs to be done decisively, without shifting questions or hesitating midway. The shaking will usually result in one kau cim stick being pushed out of the holder onto the floor—if multiple sticks fall out, the shaking process is repeated.

Each of the 100 kau cim sticks corresponds to an oracle written for it. Querents could interpret it themselves, but the text is in old Chinese and presented like poetry or a short story, so usually, this is brought to priests or fortune tellers in the temple for more clarity. Based on the short poetic text, the fortune-teller will interpret a response to the question asked of the gods, and a small fee is charged for the service.

Such emphasis is placed on the validity of kau cim in Hong Kong culture that every year, a member of the government represents the city and draws a kau cim stick on the second day of the Lunar New Year, which is supposed to represent the fortune for Hong Kong in the upcoming year. The most popular temples to visit for kau cim fortune-telling are Wong Tai Sin Temple and Che Kung Temple, where it is said the deities are listening and the fortune-tellers are accurate interpreters.

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Photo: @travelstock44 (via Alamy)

Reading palms

Similar to palmistry in Western occult practices, palm reading is a cultural art that supposedly has its roots in Hindu astrology and spread to China, Tibet, and further west to Egypt and Europe as well. The four major lines of the palm—the Life Line, the Head Line, the Heart Line, and the Fate Line—are analysed for length, shape, depth, and other characteristics. These are believed to represent one’s overall relationships, personality, health, and career. Qualities such as the shape of the fingers and the overall hand, colour and texture of the skin, size of the knuckles, fleshiness of the palm and its mounds, and other such characteristics all factor into the reading of the person as well.

Hong Kong’s palm readers generally don’t just do this divination in itself, but paint a more comprehensive picture of their clients and their fortunes by combining the two other methods below.

Reading faces

Face reading is the interpretation of facial features into predictions for one’s future. Chinese physiognomy dates back to the Northern Song dynasty, but similar concepts were also practised by the ancient Greeks. Different portions of the face are said to cover a person’s life at different ages: The forehead corresponds to life before 30, the middle of the face for the ages 30 to 60, and the lower region for old age.

Because the shapes of features are seen to have an effect on one’s future, the belief is that one’s fate can also be altered by changing features that are seen to bring bad fortune. For this reason, it is not uncommon for face readers in Hong Kong to advise their clients to enhance the size of their eyes, remove moles and beauty spots present on certain areas of the face, or otherwise undergo minor cosmetic surgery procedures in order to change their fortunes for the better. 

Modern-day face readers might even take photos of their clients and use face retouching apps to demonstrate how their faces can be altered to maximise their good luck in the future! Along with palm reading, face reading is also often offered in conjunction with Ba Zi, featured below.

Reading Ba Zi

八字 (baat3 zi6) literally means “eight characters”, and refers to the eight characters derived from one’s birth date and time, which is used to calculate the Four Pillars of Destiny. The concept of the Pillars can be dated back to the Han dynasty, but it wasn’t until the Tang dynasty when it became systemised by a man named Li Xuzhong, who reorganised the idea into two sexagenary cycles, meaning time is sorted into 60-year groups per cycle. A person’s birth year, month, and date can be used to generate characters that would predict their personality and future.

During the Song dynasty, this was further refined by a man named Xu Ziping, who added birth time into the categories as well, thereby creating the fourth pillar by which a person’s destiny could be judged. This is why even though this form of divination is usually known as 生辰八字 (saang1 san4 baat3 zi6) in Cantonese, some Chinese will also refer to it as 子平八字 (zi2 ping4 baat3 zi6; Ziping Ba Zi) after this fortune teller.

It would be too difficult to go into the intricacies of the 10 Celestial Stems, the 12 Earthly Branches, and how each of the eight characters yielded corresponds to one of the five traditional Chinese elements, but suffice to say that the Ba Zi divination method is one of the most popular in Chinese culture. Aside from divining fortunes, one’s Ba Zi can also be used in occult rituals to place a curse or a hex on them. For this reason, some Chinese people to this day are still wary about letting strangers know their full Ba Zi!

The best place to go to have fortunes read according to palms, faces, and Ba Zi is likely the Temple Street area. Set slightly away from the bustle of the famous night market and closer to the Tin Hau Temple are a long row of fortune-telling stalls. These stalls house nothing more than a table and a few rickety stools, so don’t expect anything as performative as crystals or smudge sticks! There are usually signs proclaiming the services provided by each master, and if they can speak English this will also be heavily advertised. 

Usually, it is good enough to choose a stall simply by how much you like the look of the fortune teller, but if you speak to a Hongkonger beforehand, you may be given worthy recommendations. Master Wong Chun Fu is a particularly famous Temple Street fortune teller who made his name by offering his passengers quick Ba Zi readings while he was still a taxi driver. Another great spot for fortune-telling is in Wong Tai Sin Temple, which houses corridors lined with offices of fortune-tellers!

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Reading bird predictions

A form of fortune-telling that seems to be unique to Hong Kong, or a least rarely found elsewhere, is divination by birds. The client asks a question and picks a bird that stands out if there are multiple to choose from. The bird will then be allowed to hop out of its cage, onto a stack of cards arranged on its side, and it will then pluck one out of the pile. The card is interpreted by the fortune teller, and the helpful bird is rewarded with some bird feed. Though seemingly more rare these days, bird fortune tellers can still be found along the mystic section of Temple Street. These stalls are fun to visit even if you don’t believe that fowls could be granted powers of foresight!

Reading tarot cards

Lastly, tarot card readings have gained much popularity in Hong Kong over the last decade or so. We have people in this city who have made full careers out of divining fortunes from tarot, oracle, and angels cards, shops dedicated to this practise, as well as some tarot readers and Western fortune-tellers of note such as Letao Wang. Here is a more in-depth article to continue your exploration into the mystic arts!

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Catharina Cheung

Former senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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