I randomly picked a man at the No. 35 stand.

“What did you ask for?” No. 35 asked.

“I want to know whether I will win a novel competition,” I responded.

“What’s the stick number?”


“When’s your birthday?”

He opened a drawer, taking out something that looked like a calculator. He pressed the numbers of my birthday and some information jumped onto the screen. Usually, answering a lot doesn’t need birthday information. I hold up my lot paper, reminding him I didn’t ask my fortune, just my lot.

This way of picking a fortuneteller is normally called “eye lot” by visitors. Most visitors to the temple come to have their questions answered. These people, aged from schoolchildren to the elderly, including foreigners, mainlanders and locals, are all fascinated by Wong Tai Sin’s magic power to answer anything they want to know.

Wong Tai Sin the divine is much more widely known in Chinese culture than the shepherd Wong Cho Ping, who is said to have been able to transform stones into sheep 1,700 years ago. The story goes that when this shepherd achieved enlightenment, he became immortal and thus known as Wong Tai Sin, or Red Pine Immortal. Wong Tai Sing is worshipped for his healing powers.

An employee who has worked at Wong Tai Sin temple for more than 20 years said most people come here to ask Wong Tai Sin questions rather than learning about Taoist culture.

Outside of the temple’s main hall, numerous people reverently kneel down, shaking bamboo tubes with a-“cha-cha-cha”-sound. Each tube holds 100 numbered sticks, each corresponding to a lot. Because legend says that Wong Tai Sin cures disease, and in the old days these lots corresponded to Chinese medicine prescriptions. Now, people just use the lots to have their fortunes told, but in the spirit of healing, the temple, managed by the religious charitable organization Sik Sik Yuen, maintains a free health clinic for the needy.

I handed No.35 my lot. His eyebrows rose and he promised that I would soon have good news. Lot 30 is Yang Yuhuan’s lot, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China who was deeply loved by Emperor Xuanzong and became his imperial consort in the 8th century. No. 35 told me I would succeed, just like Yang Yuhuan, who was first made a nun by the emperor before being made his consort.

I felt happy that my lot was good and I paid him HK$25. He told me he has worked at the temple for 12 years and then put his name card and my red lot paper into a red envelope for me.

Turned out, I didn’t win the novel competition. So I went to see No.35 again.

This time he was playing with a big compass. When visitors passed by his stand, he didn’t ask them to come in like his next door neighbors No.34 and No.36 who were soliciting customers by waving their hands and saying “you have a good physiognomy.”

A couple of lovers came by hand in hand. The woman walked to No.34, who attracted her by pointing out the big portrait of his master on the wall and his photos with famous people. The man walked over to No.35.

I saw No.35 withdrew a red paper from the box noted 22 and pressed this paper with three silver ingots. Then he started to talk with vivid gestures. I couldn’t hear their conversation clearly but I saw the man laugh eight times and slap his thigh twice. About 15 minutes later, they were interrupted by the man’s girlfriend who had finished her fortune telling. The man gave No.35 HK$30, saying, “No need to give me the change. This is my gratitude for your excellent answer to my lot.”

I followed them as they walked away to ask the man about his lot.

This man had asked Wong Tai Sin about his job and drawn lot 22. No. 35 said the meaning behind his lot was Wang Wei, a Tang Dynasty poet, and his reluctant parting from a friend. Therefore, No.35 suggested this man not to give up and carry on his job no matter how hard it was, otherwise he might feel regret.  The man said he felt relieved. He added that he didn’t usually believe fortunetellers but now he would come to No.35 again if he had any other problems.

I didn’t understand why people, including me, trusted No.35 so much. While I was thinking, No.35 hailed me and asked me to sit at his stand while he went to the washroom.

I was taking photos of his stand when No.37 came to tell me to be sure to take a photo of the only photo on No.35’s wall, a picture of Cai running in the Hong Kong Marathon. This photo was pasted to the right side of the wall, not so big to be noticed and No.37 told me if I did not ask, No.35 would never mention his running achievements.

When Cai returned, I learnt that he started running at a time when he felt his physical strength and willpower were not strong enough. So said running developed his physical and psychological power. He started training for a half-marathon.

Cai also said he runs every evening after work to keep himself busy and forget about his loneliness. His wife and children live apart from him because of what he calls his “beggar fortune.”

A beggar fortune, as No. 35 describes it, is a life with no money and full of bad luck. Before becoming a fortuneteller, Cai said he had 72 different jobs which he all failed at. For instance, when he was a shop apprentice, he didn’t have enough food and went hungry every day, he said. When he worked in a factory, the factory went bankrupt. When he was an office errand boy, the office closed down. His wife and children left him to get away from his bad luck, Cai said in a tone of self-mockery.

“So you believe in the fate?” I asked. “And does fortune telling work?”

No. 35 said he believes in fate and that your five elements – the Chinese Taoist philosophy that everything, including a person, is made of wood, fire, earth, metal and water — cannot be changed. He said fortunetelling is a spiritual heritage and all fortunetellers do is to give customers positive suggestions. Whether those suggestions are true or not depends on whether one believes them or not. To some extent, having something to believe is a good thing.

No.35 also called fortunetellers psychological doctors. People come to them because they want a prescription. Every fortuneteller gives different prescriptions according to their experiences and their way of telling stories. Because No.35 changed his job so often, having no perseverance he said, he hopes others won’t give up and accomplish nothing.

“Even if you failed this time, you should not give up,” he said in a sincere voice.

No.35 told me to carry on writing. I had imaginative talent and excellent writing skills according to my Four Pillars of Destiny. The problem was that I didn’t have enough experience. He said Wong Tai Sin confirmed that I have the fate of Yang Yuhuan, destined to succeed.

While he was talking, a woman approached the stand and was waiting. I didn’t want to take up any more of his time so I told him I would leave. The woman was an old customer, he said, and he was wanted to be sure I was ok. He asked me to come back if I had any problems. Behind him a large piece of calligraphy with the character “Fo,” meaning Buddhism. He gave me the impression of Buddha, always smiling and helpful. As I left, the woman told me that No.35 was a responsible person. Instead of focusing on money, he would talk with you in detail until you solved your problem.

It was early and I still wanted to know why people trusted No.35. So I walked to No.37’s stand and asked him to explain lot 30.

No.37, Zhang Zi, said I had the worst draw. No. 35 hadn’t mentioned that after Yang Yuhuan succeeded in becoming the imperial consort, she was ordered strangled by the emperor. The emperor lived a life of regret.

“What do you think of Cai Zhijian?”I asked directly.

“What do you mean by that?” Zhang Zi said in confusion.

“I mean do you think he is a master in fortune telling?” I asked more directly.

Zhang Zi praised No.35’s talent in eloquence and his hard work in learning by himself. After all, Zhang Zi said, No.35 only has a primary-school education.

“Besides, if you look at his palm you will see there is a line passing across his right palm without a break. These people are usually easy to go to extremes and are very stubborn,” Zhang Zi added.

“You mean he answers people’s lots according to his own view?” I asked.

Zhang suggested that I ask Cai face to face.

I telephoned Cai one day to ask if I could go running with him. He told me to call back at 5.30 p.m. because he might be having dinner with his son that night. If his son came, he wouldn’t go running.

I called him again at 5.30 p.m. but he was still waiting for his son’ s call. “My son said he would call me today but maybe he is too busy to call me up,” Cai said. Thirty minutes later and he called to tell me to meet him in Shatin at 7 p.m.

Cai looked completely different. He was wearing a T-shirt from the Hong Kong Marathon Commission, running shorts and a pair of sport shoes. He had a yellow towel with him that he believed would bring him energy. He sai that of the five elements, he lacked fire and earth so he often decorated things –his stand, his name card and even himself — in yellow and red to make up for it.

He walked fast and pointed at my camera, worried that it was too heavy for me to run with. I told him it was a piece of cake since I started running earlier in my childhood but he didn’t know until I companied him to Fotan.

Before we began to run, he pointed out a public building to me. He rents an apartment there for HK$1580 a month.” I used to live there together with my wife, son and daughter. But now they all moved out and left me alone in that house,” he said.

When asked why they moved out, his answers were always thin. “I live alone so that I can get up earlier to climb mountains and go to bed late to practice running. It’s good to be alone, and running has driven my loneliness. So I am used to that now,” he said, using his right hand to raise his glasses.

Chinese New Year was around the corner. Usually families come together and eat. But No. 35 said he would be busy making money.

“Usually I will buy a box of rice with chicken in Café de Coral as my New Year dinner after finishing my work since many people will come to Wong Tai Sin on New Year’s Eve and I will work late,” he said.

“Your children won’t come to see you on New Year’s Eve?”

“They are too busy.”

“But they should have holidays as well,” I argued.

“They have part-time jobs to do after getting off from their work,” he said using his hand to raise his glasses again.

“So that’s the reason your son didn’t come to see you today?”

“Who knows? He said on the phone in the morning that he would call me in the afternoon to have dinner with me. But he didn’t call me again,” he said, looking out at a boat in the Shing Mun River. “I used to take my son here for boating when he was young. But after he grew up, he only telephoned me few times to make sure that his father was still alive.”

Cai laughed and began to run. I could hear his breath as I ran next to him. He runs to Ma On Shan and back every evening.

“Running is a good thing because one will feel exhausted after running a long distance and will go to sleep soon. When one wakes up, another day has begun.”

Cai has run the Hong Kong half-marathon twice and was registered again for years, usually held in February or March. His best time was 2 hours 5 minutes in 2011 and last year he finished in 2 hours 10 minutes 52 seconds. This year he hopes to run it in less than 2 hours.

I promised him that I would come to support him on Marathon day. And then Cai departed with me at Fotan and he continued to run to his everyday finishing line Ma On Shan.

I wanted to see whether it was his excuse or not that he was busy in New Year holiday, so I went to see No. 35 particularly on the last day of the New Year Holiday. This time, his seats were full of people waiting. It was nearly 5.30 p.m. but he was still working. No.37 had no customers so I went over to talk to him.

“Zhang Zi, what if I got the lot No.30, how would you answer my lot?” I asked.

Zhang said he doesn’t believe in lots because they are random. Instead, he asks his customers for their birthday to tell their fortune in the traditional Chinese metaphysical way. Because a person’s Four Pillars of Destiny, which are determined by the exact date and time of your birth, will never change, this is the essence of Chinese astrology, he said.

When the couple at No. 35’s stand finished, I asked them why they chose No.35, even though they had to wait.

The woman said she had been coming to No.35 for nearly 4 years. She said the first time was eye-lot and because it was empty. But after listening to No. 35’s explanation, they found him an earnest person, always telling the story behind the lot in great detail. Even when he was busy, he still worked conscientiously and made the woman feel that HK$25 was worth it.

Another customer, a nurse called Miss Zhou, and waited for her turn for nearly an hour and later told me that she chose No.35 because he looked benign and responsible. Besides, his fee was relatively cheaper and he spent a long time talking with customers.

When Miss Zhou left, she turned to me and added that No.35knew she had just broken up with one boy friend for a new one.

It wasn’t until 7.20 p.m. that No. 35 finished. I asked him how he knew the nurse had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend.  The secret was her birthday, he said. This information tells much more than a lot. He said it was the same for me. He knew stick No.30 was a bad lot but instead of simply believing it, he asked for my birthday.

He suddenly took out a big compass and told me his next plan was to master the essence of Feng Shui, also a reliable heritage left by our Chinese ancestors. He said he wanted to go to Taiwan to study it but didn’t have enough money.

“But you are smart. You were able to learn fortune telling by yourself,” I said.

“No. I am not smart,” he said. Cai quit school at 12 in order to earn money for his family. He learned about fortunetelling and history from reading books. He also said he tried to dress himself formally and learned Mandarin by heart so as to make himself look literate.

“Sometimes what one lacks is what one yearns for,” he said.

His business in Wong Tai Sin as a fortune teller started after he did fitment for his wife’s stand, the fortuneteller No. 33. The reason was quite simple in his explanation that he found lots of customers sitting behind waiting for asking fortunetellers. And he thought this business was easy to make money. But after his join, the Wong Tai Sin was never as blooming as before.

No. 35’s initial motivation to be a fortune teller was for making money and he did give himself no rest for New Year golden periods for making money, yet I sat in his stand at least five times talking for long periods with him and he would give me any hint that I interrupted him in making money. However, I talked with his wife, No.33 around two sentences and she would remind me that she had to do business. I paid money for her twice for talking with her in the excuse of asking lots, but when she saw someone else came to sit and would end my business right away.

The way that No. 35 spending too much time on one customer regardless if others are waiting was a sort of stubborn in No. 33’s mind, bad for making money. But No.35 insisted it was his style and he would not change. Just as running was his interest and he would keep it on.

On the day of the Hong Kong marathon, Cai arrived at the starting spot near Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui early. He had great confidence, but in the end, he didn’t break his record.

There was no trace of sadness on his face. Instead, he was happy like a kid, looking at my camera and enjoying taking pictures with his friends who had convinced to run the half-marathon with him. No one from his family was there.

When the picture taking was over, he ran away alone to Wong Tai Sin for work. I watched him run, in his marathon shirt, until I couldn’t see his figure any more.

A version of this story was  published in Embodied Effigies