I first heard of fortune teller Lam Chuan-ming from a friend with the usual student's disdain for the unscientific and superstitious. Her mother had dragged her to see the man before a trip to the United States, and my friend finally lost all patience when Lam said she had a birthmark on her buttock, she had a birthmark on her buttock.
"Certainly not," she protested, Lam suggested that she check it out for herself in the washroom. To her astonishment, there it was.
Despite strong Western influences on this tittle colony of 4.4 million Chinese, fortune telling remains a passion here, as it does in much of the rest of modern Asia; and local practitioners are finding more and more American and European tourists and scholars eager to sample their product.
Fees range from loose change to a few hundred U.S. dollars, depending on how well known the fortune teller is and the type of fortune one seeks. The Hong Kong government does not license fortune tellers and is is difficult to assess the actual number of practitioners and their total annual take. Many fortune tellers say there are fewer of them now, but one can locate several concentrated in busy parts of town like Quarry Bay, Nathan Road and favorite tourist spots like Harbor Villae.
The nature of clientele seems to be changing. Five fortune tellers interviewed recently said that their clients consist mostly of young and middle-age working people with considerable education, while 20 years ago they saw mostly elderly people with little or no schooling. Then there is the surge of foreigners, comprising up to 20 per cent of the clientele of some fortune tellers, in a city where only 2 per cent of the populaton is non-Chinese.
Generally, young Chinese men ask if they will be rich or if they will succeed in their professions. Young women often ask about their marital situations or prospects. Elderly Hong Kong residents ask if their sons will be kind to them and when they will die. The Westerners, on the other hand, seen removed from the realities of life that interest so many of the Chinese here. They ask about less tangible things. Will they be happy? Will they be content in life?
The fortune tellers perceive two distinct types of Western clients, the tourists and the academics. This later group consists mostly of American university professors, scientists, students of philosophy and even some clergymen.
"A doctoral student writing a thesis on Oriental philosophy came to me for advice," said one fortune teller. Another recalled: "Several Catholic priests came to me and we have had intensive discussions. They apparently know a lot about Chinese fortune telling."
"I have a foreign client who comes to see me every year," one fortune teller said. "These foreigners, they are really genuine believers, even more so than the Chinese."
Some of the foreigners, fortune tellers said, come not only with a desire to foresee the future, but with a sense of curiosity, an openmindedness that sees fortune telling as a possible and credible phenomeno that can be subjected to scientific study and research.
I was not sure what I thought when, remembering my friend's story, I went recently to consult Lam Chuan-ming myself. It was a hot spring afternoon when, with great skepticism, I walked into the Alhamabra Building on Nathan Road, where Lam lives.
Lam's apartment serves as both a home and a consulting office. It resembles the usual four-room flat of a middle-income Chinese family in Hong Kong. As I sat waiting in the living room, I heard a sudden gonging of temple bells. The serence and refreshing resonance vibrated throught the air and counteracted the noise from subway construction outside.
A woman led me to a chamber resembling a miniature temple. An altar placed at the back end of the room held a number of Buddhist statues, candles and burning incense. Two display cases, filled with exquisite ceramic wares and Buddhist statuettes, flanked either side of the altar. Dimly lit and immaculately clean, the room had a solemn air.
I saw Lam facing the altar, apparently chanting some prayers. He turned to me, motioned me to sit down and asked for my surname and the time and date of my birth. Nonchalantly, he flipped through an old "Huang Li" - a calandar which contains all you want to know about your past, present and future. The pages of his copy seemed to have been frayed by constant thumbing.
Hong Kong is a supermarket of different fortune telling systems catering to various types of clients and with different prices. They include numerology, predictions based on the numbers of a person's name, birth date and time; palmistry, predictions derived from the lines, markings, shape and the size of a person's hand; and phsiogonomy, predictions based on a person's facial features. Fortune tellers believe that these three systems correspond with the support one another. Some fortune tellers will make predictions based on story cards picked up by a bird, or a number of Chinese characters selected by the client.
Like many fortune tellers, Lam does not claim to have an extraordinary power of clairvoyance. He says his ability to predict the future is based on years of training and a conscious search for knowledge combining a thorough understanding of I-Ching, Chinese medicine, statistics and the working of the five elements - metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Every prediction, he says derives from precedence and experience.
Lam began studying under a Buddhist monk in the southwest Chinese province of Szechwan at age 6 and started fortune telling when he was 11. Although unmarried, Lam has adopted a number of children and many are now studying in the United States. Now 59 and working in the jewelry business, Lam calls himself an amateur in the trade. He says he donates all his fortune telling fees to the Buddhist Association.
He had finished his examination of the Huang Li calendar, and began to retell the story of the first 20 years of my life.
"At the age of 5, your family move to a new resident, is that correct?"
"From the age 10 to 17, you confronted a number of family problems, is that correct.?"
"From age 17 to 24, you went abroad.If this is correct, then I must congratulate you, for your father will have long life . . . Your mother loves you dearly and you respect her a lot, but because of conflicts in ideas, you can not really communicate with her."
With a note of warning in his voice, he spoke of my future: "Avoid getting married before the age of 26," he says. "In your mid 30s, you will encounter some disagreements with your in-laws, try to be tolerant and patient . . . In your early 40s try to go on vacation and take as many trips as possible and leave your husband at home. Be sure not to become too emotionally dependent on each other, otherwise one of you will be seriously ill."
"At 68, you must engage yourself in a lot of charity work, otherwise you will die. But you can not escape death at 72 or 73."
The predictions of course I could not check. The rest might well have been clever guess work based on my mannerisms, attire, vocabulary and reactions. Here was a man I have never met and the only information he has of me was the surname I left when I called to make the appointment. Yet he told me something that left an impression I could not shake off later I paid the U.S. $20 fee and walked backed to the busy street.
"According to your birth date and time," he said, "you actually had nine brothers and sisters, but your life could only allow to have five." My mother gave birth to 10 children and four did not survive.