The prolonged economic downturn in Hong Kong has prompted some of the jobless to turn to the ancient Chinese art of fortune-telling, writes Margaret Wong.
Hong Kong’s biggest bank gave Alic Pang a choice: Take a buyout to quit or face deep cuts in his benefits.
The 14-year employee decided to leave HSBC Holdings to pursue a new livelihood – the ancient practice of Chinese fortune-telling, guided by the placement art of feng shui, astrology and other factors such as the exact time of a client’s birth.
Pang hasn’t looked back. He says fortune-telling offers him an unbeatable combination of self-enlightenment, job security and a satisfaction he had long since lost in the drudgery of banking.
“It’s a career about making money and helping others at the same time,” he says.
Feng shui master So Man-Fung using a ’24 Mountain’ compass, a gauge for determining a building’s energy, or qi, outside a client’s apartment in a Hong Kong estate. So is a former hairdresser who, after more than 20 years as a professional feng shui consultant, is now regarded as one of Hong Kong’s masters.
He’s just one of many.
Hong Kong has been suffering through high unemployment, which hit a record 8.7% last year due to the SARS outbreak. The joblessness has stirred a crisis of confidence in the once-booming economy that has many people looking for new careers.
Long-time feng shui masters fret that the rush into fortune-telling as a business will degrade the ancient art.
“If people are just doing this for the money, they will end up being frauds,” says So Man-fung, a former hairdresser who after more than 20 years as a professional feng shui consultant is regarded as one of Hong Kong’s masters. “If you just think about money, it just won’t come to you.”
Pang had been taking fortune-telling classes for a few months when HSBC offered him severance two years ago.
Now 46, he is still studying under his feng shui master, Au Chung-tak, and has a job helping Au establish a fortune-telling training centre. Pang hopes someday to teach full time, passing on knowledge to others suffering a career crisis.
“Many people in their 40s face the risk of being laid off,” Pang says. “We hope to introduce to them the true concepts of this Chinese art and train them to become consultants.”
Hong Kong has been in a prolonged downturn, draining away its old optimism over the past few years. Some people thrown out of white collar work have moved down in the job market – taxi drivers who can tell you about former management positions abound in Hong Kong.
There are no official statistics on the number of fortune-tellers in Hong Kong, although some veterans estimate a few thousand. Lee Shing-chak, a feng shui consultant, says their ranks have “multiplied by many times” with the rush of newcomers.
Anyone can set up shop as a fortune-teller or feng shui master since no operating licence or certificate is required.
Some practitioners are adept marketers.
Aside from telling fortunes and offering feng shui advice, they publish books and cartoons, predict political developments and stock market fluctuations, or teach students in universities. They comment on celebrity relationships. Some appear on TV or act in movies.
Clients range from ordinary citizens to the rich and famous, making fortune-telling lucrative for some. Newcomers charge around HK$200 (RM98) for a life prediction based on the exact time of a client’s birth, while some veterans can get 20 times more for the normally one-hour consultation.
Mak Ling-ling, a former law firm executive, has been a full-time feng shui and astrology consultant since 1998 and says she earns around HK$250,000 (RM122,500) a month.
“It’s good to have another skill for survival,” says Mak, a 38-year-old who began learning the fortune-telling arts when she was 15.
Chinese fortune-telling has its sceptics, of course. And Mak admits predictions aren’t perfect, but says that is true of many professions.
“The weather observatory comes out with poor predictions from time to time even though it is well equipped with all kinds of scientific instruments,” she notes. “How can we guarantee our predications to be absolutely correct? They’re based on manual calculations according to the ancient principles.”
So, the feng shui master, says an ethical consultant knows there are times to acknowledge they can’t give advice.
“Some women come up to me, right before they get married, and ask who they should marry,” So says. “How I can help them to decide in an hour of consultation? They are the ones who know the correct answer.”