All photos by Liz Chow

The Oracles of Columbus Park?

Do you want to know your future? Do you want to know when is a good time to move to a new house or to shift to a new career? These ladies may have the answers.

By Liz Chow
November 18, 2016 | , , , , ,

You can always see them without fail in Columbus Park whenever the weather is good.

Everyday, around 10 in the morning, a group of middle-aged women set up their respective small “offices” right by the entrance to the park. Almost simultaneously, everyone of them unfolds a small folding table, lays several plastic chairs down, and arranges pens, papers and calendar on the table

Once the tools of their trade are all laid out, they hang a piece of red cloth with a sign in Chinese characters that read: “horoscopes, zodiac, fortune teller, feng shui…” Their names and phone numbers are written in small letters at the bottom.

 

“The xiangus can be likened to the ancient Greeks’ Oracle of Delphi. According to Greek mythology, people from all over Greece and from faraway places consult the high priestess of the God Apollo in Delphi about their major decisions and their future.”

 

They call themselves Xiangu or “fairy ladies”, which means they were sent by the gods to predict the future for others, as well as help people recall their past lives. With their tables is all set up by the park, they wait for their customers while they chat, sip tea, snack on sunflower seeds or oranges, or play cards. They believe in their ability to predict people’s fortunes and foresee whatever problems lie ahead for those who consult with them. Having seen the future, the xiangus believe that they have forewarned and helped prepare the people who asked for their help to face the difficulties they may encounter down the road.

The xiangus can be likened to the ancient Greeks’ Oracle of Delphi. According to Greek mythology, people from all over Greece and from faraway places consult the high priestess of the God Apollo in Delphi about their major decisions and their future.

“I am here to help you,” Liu Xiangu said.

Sometimes they sit together in a small group, a chattering circle that resembles a small community public meeting. When it’s lunch time, they eat together, each bringing out her lunch that she packed for the day – and at times, they share a pot of soup that one of them brought for the day.

Sometimes they go together to a nearby supermarket to buy food for dinner. They return with carts overflowing with fruits and vegetables. If you see there’s no one sitting next to the tiny folding desks, you will always find a note: “ Wait for a moment”, “Will be back soon” or “Call my number”.

There are five or six of them xiangus in Colombus Park. Their group seems a lot bigger, because they are always surrounded by other elderly people. Each fairy lady has four or five old folks who hang around with her. They form a very interesting community there. When customers sit down and ask to have their fortunes told, these friends of the xiangus stay and listen to the advice given to the customer. Sometimes they even help translate the reading.

 

xiangu-3

The sign says, “horoscopes, zodiac, fortune teller, feng shui…”

 

Most of the xiangus range in age from 55 to 65 years. All of them claim to have done fortune telling for the past 20 years.

So, how do they tell one’s future?

A Xiangu uses several techniques to read a person’s fortune — palm reading, physiognomy or facial features, horoscopes, birth time reading, etc. By synthesizing all these elements, a xiangu can tell a person’s path in the world. Xiangus swear that their readings can guide people map their future work, define their personalities, find perfect spouses, and even advise them on feng shui.

“When is the best time to move out or sell your house? When is the best time to change job?” Liu Xiangu said. “Basically, I can tell you how to avoid the bad days.”

Last year, Liu, 56, moved to the United States from Taishan, a city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Like the other xiangus, Liu says she has over 20 years of experience doing “xiangu work. She migrated to New York and lives with her mother in Chinatown.

One day, she was walking in Columbus Park when she saw xiangus doing fortune telling in the park. It was then that she realized that she could earn a living doing her old fortune-telling business in the park.

She said people are always anxious to know what’s in store for them. But she said that what men want to know is different from what women want to know. “Men love to ask about their financial prospects; women are eager to know their love life,” Liu said.

“People who are not happy with their present life will come to ask for a better fortune,” Chen, another long time xiangu who also hails from Taishan, said.

Chen has been reading fortunes by the entrance of Columbus Park for more than 10 years now. She said being a xiangu is not her choice, but rather, the gods selected her. She said during the old days, business was better, with more than 10 customers a day. Now, only one to two people stop by to consult them about their fortunes. She wasn’t sure why. “Maybe the economy is bad, people don’t want to spend money,“ Chen offers, while watching people walk by.

They charge $15 dollars for each reading. It seemed to be the standard fee for every fortune teller in the park.

So what’s involved in a reading?

“Tell me your birth year and date, I can read your whole life from that,” Chen said.

 

xiangu-2

Plastic chairs, a small table and an umbrella are the basic tools of the fortune telling trade.

 

I gave her my date and year of birth and she immediately begins to count on her fingers and murmur something in Taishanese. I have no idea what she is saying but her elderly hangers-on inform me that she is connecting with the gods.

The Xiangu asked me, “Do you have a brother? Sister? Any siblings?”

“Yes, I was the middle. I have a brother and a sister,” I said.

“That’s good,” she said. “If you have a brother or sister, it’s good for your life.”

She counted her fingers again and asked, “Do you have two mothers?”

I sat in silence as I didn’t understand what that meant. She asked again: “Do you have two mothers? Maybe a godmother or mother-in-law?”

“I do have a mother-in-law,” I answered.

Then she said two mothers are better than one.

I was still skeptical. Then she checked on the lunar calendar and ran through numbers on her hands again. She came to a conclusion and said, “you are very kind and friendly and you were a good student.”

I began to roll my eyes and said to myself, “Of course, I am friendly.”

Then she counted once more and said, “You need to get married late. It’s not good for you to rush into marriage early. If you get married in your 20s, it won’t last long,”

Here comes the good stuff: my love life.

“It’s better for you to marry in your 30s,” she continued. “Also, look for a younger man. Is your husband younger than you?”

“Yes.”

“How many years younger than you?”

“Two years.”

She laughed. “That’s very good. You are on the right track then.”

Chen then looked at me and pointed to my nose, “You have a money nose. You will have lot of money because of your nose.”

“But when I will be rich?” I asked.

She replied that after I reach 43, I would be very successful and rich.

I remember once, a few years ago, someone told me I would be a millionaire once I turned 37. However, I will be 40 soon and I still have no savings in my bank account.

After paying the $15-dollar “consultation fee”, I left and went home still dismissive and full of doubt about the xiangu. I shared this experience with my best friend, Claire. She thought it sounded interesting and pointed out that the things the lady said were mostly true.

 

“Now who is the Seventh Sister? According to mythology, Zhinu the weaver, the seventh daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, fell in love with a mortal cowherd Niulang. The weaver was then ordered by her mother to return to heaven. The cowherd followed her but the Goddess scratched a wide river in the sky to separate the two lovers forever. But on the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese calendar, all magpies form a bridge to allow Zhinu and Niulang to be together.”

 

So we decided to take another trip to the park the next day. This time we wanted to know something about Claire. We decided to seek out a different “xiangu for her reading.

We decided on Liu Xiangu. After we sat down and gave her Claire’s birth date and year, she asked Claire, “Do you have brother or sister?”

I said to myself, “What a coincidence, the same question.”

Claire is also a middle child, so Liu said, “It’s good for you if you have brothers and sisters.” Then, she asked if her parents are still alive. She said if one of her parents were deceased, it’s actually better for her.

Claire’s father passed away a few years ago. “Your life should be better or smoother after that,” Liu Xiangu said.

Claire doesn’t agree with that. It didn’t seem right.

Then Liu told her, “You have a good heart. You are very kind and friendly. You love to help others, regardless of your own suffering.” She explained that if Claire only had $100 and a friend asked to borrow it, she would willingly lend her the money.

Then she came to the topic of Claire’s love life. “You should not get married when you are young. It will not go well. Instead get married in your middle age. It will last forever,” she said.

It seems eerie, but that sure sounds similar to the advice that I got from Chen. In the end, Liu told Claire that she would be very rich in the future.

After Claire paid the $15-fee, we wondered why we had almost the exact same fortune. It must be just a coincidence.

So then we decided to try and get another reading from a third xiangu. I gave her my year and date of birth again.

Kwong Xiangu asked me, “Do you have two mothers?”

This time, I said, “No.”

“In that case it’s better to get a godsister for you,” she said.

“How?” I asked.

 

xiangu-4

A xiangu patiently waits for a by the entrance of the park.

 

She informed me she can help me get the Seventh Sister to be my godsister through some intricate rituals.

Now who is the Seventh Sister? According to mythology, Zhinu the weaver, the seventh daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, fell in love with a mortal cowherd Niulang. The weaver was then ordered by her mother to return to heaven. The cowherd followed her but the Goddess scratched a wide river in the sky to separate the two lovers forever. But on the seventh day of the seventh month on the Chinese calendar, all magpies form a bridge to allow Zhinu and Niulang to be together.

But going back to my fortune… So, Kwong can help me to get this “Seventh Sister” to be my celestial companion. Then I will have a better life. Kwong said she will burn some paper money in offering to the sister. Then, everything would be much smoother in my life.

“Is it free?” I asked.

“Of course not! The ritual for getting the Seventh Sister on your side costs $100.”

I balked at the price.

She said she could give me a blessing note that I need to put in my pocket or wallet. If I carried it around all year, then I would be prosperous and happy. It costs only $5.

I politely declined.

Kwong offered one last proposal: “Do you want to donate money for the community opera in the park?” It’s for the ghost month celebration this year.”

“How much is it?”

“Only ten dollars. It’s very cheap and you can even put your name on it.”

Seems like it’s a good strategy, selling the cheapest lucky notes and then asking for the more expensive donation. But I am not yet a millionaire so I paid only the $15 for the fortune telling. I haven’t reached 43 yet so there is no fortune to speak of.

As we were leaving, Claire got curious and asked her, “So do you have any advice for me? What should I be aware of for the rest of the year?”

“Be careful when crossing the street. Make sure you cross with the light, ” Kwong said.

 

 

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Liz Chow is a documentary filmmaker. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Liz came to New York in 2003 and worked for Sing Tao Daily. She holds a MFA in Media Studies from the State University of New York- Buffalo. She has won numerous awards for her reporting on immigration issues. She is currently an Open City Fellow.

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Posted in , Chinatown, Chinese Americans, Columbus Park, home 3, home 4, Stories

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