Coronavirus: Hong Kong’s famous fortune tellers feel left behind in the pandemic

Jul 31, 2020

Hong Kong’s famous Temple Street, where locals and tourists alike go to consult fortune tellers, now falls quiet amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Every night, for over three decades, Lam Chun-sang, 71, has set up his stall on a street full of fortune tellers in Hong Kong.

Popular with locals and tourists alike, Temple Street is where soothsayers congregate to deliver advice on everything from the most auspicious day for a wedding to the best name for a newborn.

But this normally busy block now falls quiet after foreign tourists were barred from entering the city in March and locals avoid outside leisure amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve never seen this in 30 years,” Lam says. “I’ve lost half my business.”

Although Hong Kong is a modern metropolis, ancient beliefs from Chinese folk religion permeate every aspect of people’s daily lives. They’re a part of the city’s cultural identity.

(Read more: Directionless millennials in Hong Kong are flocking to fortune tellers for advice)

People pay feng shui consultants thousands of dollars to balance the different energies at home and create a harmonious environment for good luck. Even calendars here will tell you the lucky hours of the day.

Hong Kong’s normally busy Temple Street now falls quiet as tourists and locals stay away amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Hong Kong’s normally busy Temple Street now falls quiet as tourists and locals stay away amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo: Mantai Chow/SCMP

Fortune tellers like Lam are popular with locals, especially young people who yearn for reassurance in a world of uncertainty.

“Some people ask, ‘Are you guys that mystical? Are you that powerful?’ No,” Lam says, “but if you come chat with us, we can make deductions based on your destiny. We can give you hope.”

Practitioners of Chinese divination believe their field is misunderstood.

“We are not gods.”

Lam Chun-sang, fortune teller

“Sometimes people say, ‘You’re just making things up,’” says Grace Ng, another fortune teller on the street. “In the past, I didn’t believe in fortunes either before I learned about this discipline. But after I studied it, I now think that your destiny is fixed.”

In the world of Chinese divination, there are many methods to decipher the future. The street fortune tellers tend to focus on a popular few.

Most take palm and face readings, combined with an analysis of a person’s birth date and time. The belief is that one’s fate is fixed based on these axioms.

In a palm reading, the fortune teller looks at the length, shape, and character of four palm lines believed to represent one’s love life, personality, health, and career.

A palm reading guide.
A palm reading guide. / Photo: Mantai Chow/SCMP

Then there’s face reading. The popular belief goes that different parts of your face can reveal how you would fare in different stages of your life. The forehead corresponds to your life before 30, the middle of the face for ages 30 to 60, and the bottom part to later life.

“Some of my clients tell me they want to start a business. I tell them they won’t succeed,” Ng says. “But with some other clients, I can see riches in their lives, and I know they can really succeed.”

(Read more: Why do Chinese people seem so obsessed with fortune?)

The roots of Chinese fortune telling can be traced to one of the oldest books in China, the I Ching, or Book of Changes.

The 3,000-year-old divination book lays out different variations of a set of symbols. These symbols are said to represent the universe.

While many street fortune tellers say the I Ching forms the foundation of their work, others argue that they deviate widely from the text and only borrow lightly from it.

Fortune teller Grace Ng gives a palm reading to a customer.
Fortune teller Grace Ng gives a palm reading to a customer. / Photo: Mantai Chow/SCMP

Street fortune tellers like Lam and Ng also claim they cannot predict everything. They’ve had no shortage of customers asking when the pandemic will end.

“I say, ‘Wow, I don’t know,’” Ng says. “I really can’t answer you, because this isn’t a situation that can be controlled by a single person.’”

“I tell them that we are not gods,” Lam says. “Only the gods will know. We are just fortune tellers.”

CoronavirusHong KongChinese traditions


Producer: Mantai Chow

Script: Venus Wu

Narration: Jessica Novia

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña