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Life in a Special Zone

The Road of the Fortune Tellers

March 3, 2005

Luck.

To the Chinese it's like water to fish: the element in which they live, move, and have their being, as unexamined and taken-for-granted as the air we breathe.  So when a bright student said to me, "I think the Jews are unlucky" and went on to cite the Holocaust as the fact which led to this conclusion, how could I explain that this was a cultural conflict of mammoth proportions, a confusion of categories, like explaining a physics theorem by magic, or discussing religion in terms of mathematics?

Luck is so important to the Chinese that it has been institutionalized; in Hong Kong, instead of run-off elections, close races are decided by lottery.  Luck knows best.

Given the importance of luck to the Chinese, it's not surprising that Fortune Tellers thrive.  My friend Justin visited one when he and I went to Wong Tai Sin in Hong Kong one day; you can read about it here. But the Oracle Supermarket at this temple is actually the more "respectable" side of this racket.  China hides an interesting little secret on its infrastructural underbelly.

I have written elsewhere about the significance of bridges; they are seen as an access to the other world.  The Pope is "The Supreme Pontiff" because in Latin he is "Pontifex Maximus"--the Great Bridge Builder, linking Heaven and Earth.  Examples could be multiplied (and are, here).

If I walk from my house to the main thoroughfare of Shenzhen nearby, I need to cross the road to catch west-bound buses (a less-common journey now that the subway's running).  The best way to cross is using a tunnel (what my old gal Hailan called an "underbridge").  And there I find a most unusual phenomenon.

This is a dead-end street.

And so is this.

What makes this odd is, these are the two ends of a road that is only as long as the width of the highway.  Though manifestly designed for vehicular traffic, clearly no car can travel this road, unless it can somehow be carried down the stairs.  And here, on a street that literally goes nowhere, the Fortune Tellers ply their trade, reading palms, faces, bamboo chim, and virtually anything else that will bring ease to their "clients"--while earning them a buck.

Here they are, three along the right side, two chatting on the left, waiting for their next reading.  Sometimes 10 or 12 are lined up, beckoning pedestrians as they pass.

The question remains: is it significant that the Road of the Fortune Tellers actually goes nowhere?

 

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