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Destiny and divination: Online fortunetelling booming among young people in Hong Kong

"Divination is like a shot in the arm when making decisions," said Wong Fung, 26, who turned to online fortunetellers after losing his job.
Image: Hong Kong fortuneteller
A fortuneteller, using a smartphone and a magnifying glass, at her stall in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong, in 2016.Imaginechina / via AP file

HONG KONG — Every day during his lunch break, Sean Cheng, a fortuneteller, pulls out his phone, logs onto Instagram and checks his messages for new client appointments.

He replies to comments from online followers and gets ready to run his divination side business, right after he gets off work at a marketing company in Hong Kong.

Cheng, 25, began teaching himself tarot card reading in college a few years ago and set up his own online fortunetelling business in February. He says he's tapped into a growing clientele of young digital natives hungry for spiritual guidance with major life decisions.

"The reason why they come to me is because people don't trust themselves. They hope they can get the right answers from me," Cheng told NBC News.

His side hustle has taken off.

Cheng conducted psychic readings for more than 80 customers in the last two months alone, he said.

Image: Hong Kong fortuneteller
A fortuneteller in her stall in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong, in 2016.Imaginechina / via AP file

The cultural shift of the ancient art of divination in southeast Asia from in-person consultations to online platforms has spawned new opportunities for swift connections over smartphones and introduced the practice to a young, tech-savvy generation.

The popularity of social media, combined with growing economic insecurity, has also meant that business is booming.

Before every appointment, Cheng meditates for at least 45 minutes to prepare for a tarot card reading. He then sends his client a list of available services, with fees from $9 to $25. Once the client makes the payment online, he shuffles his cards, takes a photograph and sends it to them via Instagram. He then analyzes the cards and answers their questions.

"I feel happy when I hear people commenting after divination that it is accurate and really helps them," he said.

The pandemic has also proved to be a good time to start his business, Cheng added, with people spending more time online. It's also upended lives and caused many to reflect more deeply on life, love and career choices, he said, calling fortunetelling a pandemic-resilient line of work.

After losing his job last December, Wong Fung, 26, said he felt constantly insecure and turned to online fortunetellers for guidance.

"If you can know your future destiny anytime and anywhere with just 100 HKD ($13), why not?" he said. "I feel more comfortable typing behind the screen. It's easier to talk about what you think of deep down."

Wong, like many in Hong Kong, has childhood memories of taking part in incense-filled ancestor worship ceremonies to pay respect to deceased family members, and has folded spirituality into his daily life since becoming a Buddhist at age 11.

Buddhism, along with Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity, are the most common religious beliefs in the region, according to the government of Hong Kong, with fortunetelling a historic part of social culture.

Like millions of others, Wong tunes into Chinese New Year celebrations on TV each year, during which a Hong Kong government official takes part in a divination ritual called "Kau Chim," drawing Chinese fortune sticks. A Feng Shui master then interprets the message the official has pulled out, which is said to determine the city's fortunes for the year ahead.

"When a person is in a relatively negative state, they want to seek advice from the diviner. Feeling uncertain about the future and experiencing difficulties makes you want to know what will happen next," Wong said. "Or perhaps we want to peek into our future for solutions to our present problems."

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For fortuneteller Cheng, about 80 percent of people who seek an online tarot card reading ask about career choices.

"People always ask me whether they should change their jobs or try to seek directions from tarot cards," Cheng said. "The lack of security makes them want to find something to rely on."

Hong Kong's unemployment rate rose to a seasonally adjusted 7.2 percent in the December-February period this year, up from 7 percent from November-January, according to government data — the highest level since 2004.

For Vivian Leung, 28, online fortunetelling has become a monthly routine.

She consults two fortunetellers on Facebook regularly, spending about $100 each month for their services.

"I see fortunetelling as spiritual comfort," Leung said. "A fortuneteller is someone who can walk in my shoes and understand my struggles. She gives me huge support and helps me make some difficult decisions in my life."

Trapped in a complicated romantic relationship, Leung had her first consultation with an online tarot card reader two years ago. Rather than talk to family and friends, she said she felt safer speaking to a stranger and leaving her destiny up to what she called "spiritual energies."

Historically, fortunetelling has been a significant part of everyday life in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China as far back as written records go — dating to the Oracle Bones of the Shang Dynasty that lasted from 1600 to 1046 B.C., which ancient kings used when seeking divine guidance, said William Matthews, a fellow in Chinese anthropology at the London School of Economics.

Although the concept may feel unfamiliar in the West, where people are aware of fortune cookies and newspaper horoscopes, fortunetelling tends to be much deeper and based on dates of birth, cosmic principles and ancient books such as the Yijing or "Book of Changes," a divinatory text at least 2,000 year old, Matthews said.

Image: A fortune teller with customers at a stall near the Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong.
A fortuneteller with customers at a stall near the Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong.Isaac Lawrence / AFP via Getty Images file

Fortunetelling commonly takes the form of coin throwing, drawing lines, annotating charts, palm or face readings and relying on lunar calendars to help people "assess compatibility" with a potential spouse or decide whether to take a new job or move to a new house, he said, and is not the same as spirit-mediumship.

"People use it really as a decision-making technique, for significant life events," Matthews added. Most fortunetellers are men, and its popularity in cities is in part fueling demand for fast, online services.

Despite going back centuries, fortunetelling went through a turbulent time in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), after the ruling Communist Party officially deemed it "superstition." That pushed the practice underground or concentrated it in certain neighborhoods, Matthews said.

It was "suppressed" under leader Mao Zedong, who sent many fortunetellers to re-education camps. While still "frowned upon," Matthews said, it is more tolerated today and freely practiced and recognized in Hong Kong.

The main factor driving it online is most likely convenience coupled with functionally, he added, with digital users like Wong seeking quick solutions to everyday problems.

"Divination is like a shot in the arm when making decisions," Wong said. "Living under an uncertain environment, you try to at least find some certainties in yourself."