When Wong Ka-lok started his fortune-telling business in Hong Kong in 1992, few college-educated people took him seriously. Some even called him a fraud.
Now, university students are some of his most loyal customers.
The reason for the change, he says, is increasing pressure at work and higher career expectations compared to previous generations. Some have trouble finding the right job. Others feel directionless.
So they come to Wong for advice, just as they might consult a career adviser or life coach.
“Very often, they are not satisfied with the status quo,” he says. “They don’t understand why they are not being properly rewarded for their hard work. That’s why they come to me for explanations.”
He now sees more than 200 customers a month, many of them students, and employs all sorts of Chinese divination methods, including traditional feng shui consultation, palm readings, and tarot card readings.
Fortune tellers, once shunned for their trade, are now positioning themselves as spiritual guides for the millennial generation. Some even provide consultations through social media.
“Pregnant women can contact me on WhatsApp, and I will name their yet-to-be-born babies,” says Wong Chun-fu, another fortune teller in Hong Kong.
The millennials who seek these consultations do not necessarily follow folk religion, says Paul O’Connor, an assistant professor of sociology at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, but they are taking the elements that give them comfort and building stories around them.
“People often recognize that these stories are made up,” he says, “but they’re not concerned about that. It’s about the feeling of constructing your own identity.”
Cheng Wai-yin, 34, lost his parents in a car accident in his 20s and has been regularly visiting a fortune teller since. He pays about $40 per reading.
“Before I sought the advice of my fortune teller, I was clueless about making choices,” Cheng says. “I had no one to ask and no direction.”
He considered going to friends but realized they made bad choices, too.
“Now,” he says, “I have something to follow.”
At one point, Cheng was told to wear red underwear for a week because the color red is considered lucky in Chinese culture. On another occasion, Cheng was instructed to stop eating meat for a month.
“It’s not guaranteed to work,” he says, “but it makes me feel more at ease in making those choices.”
The fortune teller also advised Cheng look for a partner who was born in the Year of the Pig.
After three years of following these principles, Cheng met a girl who fulfilled all his astrological criteria: a Capricorn born in the Year of the Pig. They moved in together and soon got engaged.
Studies have shown that adherence to a belief system—no matter how personalized or abstract—can be positive for a person’s psychological well-being, says Cecilia Chan, a professor of social work at the University of Hong Kong.
“There’s a certain proportion of young people who have a great deal of uncertainty about their future,” she says, “and these systems give them reassurance.”
As for Cheng, his relationship with his fiancee did not last long. They fought constantly, and after two years together, they broke up.
Now, he wonders whether finding the partner with the right sign was so important.
“It is not a guarantee that a relationship will work,” he admits.
Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.