Dressed in a dark suit and tie, 45-year-old Chen Yen-shan looks more like a businessman than a fortuneteller. He is obviously a man who takes care of his looks. His permed hair is slightly wavy and has been dyed a dark brown, with only a bit of gray showing at the temples. On his middle finger is a medium-sized sapphire ring, which he says symbolizes hope and peace.
Like most fortunetellers, Chen is confident and articulate. Although he has only a junior high school education, his Chinese is full of expressions from the Chinese classics and Buddhist scriptures. When he speaks, his voice is full of energy and his friendly gaze is concentrated on the other person.
Chen grew up as an ethnic Chinese in Burma. He came to Taiwan fourteen years ago with his twin brother, Chen Feng-shan, also a fortuneteller. They set up their business, Wonder Ring Fortune Divination, shortly after arriving. Their approach to fortunetelling is based mainly on astrology, but also relies on theories from the I Ching and palm reading.
Their business is on the sixth floor of an office building in downtown Taipei, across from The Ritz Taipei Hotel. The two brothers work in neighboring rooms, which are divided by a large fish tank set into the wall. The Chen brothers are married to women from their same hometown in Burma. Both wives help out in the office, greeting customers and taking appointments over the phone. Each couple has a son in high school.
My brother was born five minutes before me. The five-minute difference doesn’t make too much difference in our fates. (He laughs and lights a cigarette.) Yes, we are identical twins.
How we became fortunetellers is hard to believe. (He inhales deeply on his cigarette.) My family had nothing to do with fortunetelling. My father was a minister and my mother was a true believer in Christianity. Generally, Christians don’t believe at all in fortunetelling, you know. I think our fate [of becoming fortunetellers] was arranged by the gods. And it was my fate that my father would leave me early. He died when we were only three. If he was still alive, I think we wouldn’t have had the chance to become fortunetellers.
I went to a Chinese school in Burma. When I turned fourteen, the movement against Chinese began. We were forced to close down our store and the family property was confiscated. Our family used to run a department store in Burma. We had lots of money. Everything changed overnight. So I left home and wandered around. For many years I worked as a menial laborer. Well, it’s a long and sad story. Let’s skip the details. Until I was twenty-three, I was still wandering around. I couldn’t understand why my fate hadn’t turned out as I had expected. There’s a Chinese saying: “When you’re poor, you go to a fortuneteller. When you’re rich, you burn incense and pray to the gods to protect you.” I was no exception. So I went to a fortuneteller with a sense of guilt. You know, I was a Christian. But hey! I was lucky. The fortuneteller I went to was no crook. My life was changed completely.
The fortuneteller was almost completely accurate about my life up to that time. (Lights up another cigarette.) How could it be possible? Couldn’t it be pure coincidence? To test him, I brought friends to see him. All together, I brought over thirty friends to him. And they all found him incredibly accurate. Finally, my brother and I went to ask him to teach us the skill. Well, he had told me the first time we met that we would become fortunetellers someday. At that time I thought he was joking. Who could have believed that he was right! Ha!
Frankly speaking, our meeting right now is also fate. And fortunetelling is all about fate. When you were born, your fate was being decided by the gods. When you decided to interview me and when I decided that I wanted to be interviewed by you, the starting points correspond to our respective fates. However, most people still cannot accept this kind of fate theory. Fortunetelling also is a matter of looking at cause and effect. Yesterday’s effect results in today’s cause, which will result in tomorrow’s cause. Therefore, to know what is going to happen tomorrow we must first look at what we do today.
A lot of people say I’m a fortuneteller. I’m not; I’m a fate reader and translator. (He writes down the two Chinese characters for “fate reading” on a piece of paper.) Because, you see, life is like a play. Each person’s life has its own script. Fate is the script of everyone’s life. And each script has a file number. That number is your birth date and hour. When people come to me, I take out each one’s script from the library based on their respective birth date and hour.Then I read and translate the contents of the script to them.
I don’t think what we say about anyone’s fate is completely accurate. I hope our friends who come to us for help don’t expect everything we say to be 100 percent accurate. No one can be 100 percent accurate in fortunetelling. You’re lucky if you can be 90 percent accurate. We don’t know everything. Astrology is far too deep and complicated to grasp it all at one time. We know only a little more than you guys.
We have to be patient with our customers. Usually they come to us because they have a problem in life they don’t know how to handle and they expect us to give them some direction. We must be sincere with them. If there is something bad about their fate, we must be honest. But if their fate is so bad that the person is bound to die, we don’t need to tell him everything. Only if it’s an important person like the president or a heavyweight political figure, then we must tell the truth so he can prepare for it.
A man who looks almost exactly like Chen Yen-shan, except with darker hair, walked in a few minutes ago and sat down next to his brother. He elaborates on what Chen has been saying: “We tell what we know. Of course, most people want to hear only the good things about their fate. But I also have customers who say, ‘Just tell me the truth, the bad part. I don’t want to hear the good part.’ To someone who wants to hear only the good things, we must be very careful with our words. If we tell the truth, would it create a negative effect on the person? Fortunetelling must give people confidence and constructive suggestions.”
I think our job is a very meaningful one. If I am born as a human being again in my next life, I would still want to be a fortuneteller. Being a fortuneteller gives me a lot of joy. Every day I feel I have a broader view of the world. My spirit has more freedom every day. After dealing with so many people’s problems, I realize that life is after all to live, to age, to get sick, and to die. No one can get away from that.
Chen’s wife enters to refill everyone’s teacups. “They are constantly thinking about the universe, the movement of the planets,” she says with a laugh. “Their spirits are wandering up there in the universe.”
It’s a hard job. The money we make isn’t easy. I start around ten in the morning. Normally I take seven customers a day. Each takes at least an hour. Every case is different. My customers pay only for the first visit [NT$3,000 or US$115]. After that it’s free. They can always come back to me. So I usually save three hours to serve the old customers who I call the “parents of my clothes and food.” I don’t take too many new customers. I’m not as energetic as before. I get tired more easily. I don’t really care if my business turns bad.
My business generally is not affected by seasons. People come anytime and for various reasons, good and bad ones. People come to ask me if it’s OK for them to set up a company. People also come when they plan to immigrate. This business is affected by what’s going on in society. For instance, before the annual school entrance exams, fathers and mothers whose children are planning to take the test show up. Now the elections are getting closer [referring to the provincial and municipal elections that took place in December 1994], so some candidates or other people involved are coming in.
Unfortunately, those well-educated people seem to be afraid of people finding out that they’ve been to a fortuneteller. That really upsets me. Why do they have to be embarrassed about it? Well, they think fortunetelling is superstitious. No, it is not. Ours is not superstitious. A lot of educated people don’t believe in fate because they think fatalism is passive thinking. (He writes the Chinese character for “fate” hard on the paper.) If you believe in fate, you’ll lead a very down-to-earth life. You’ll experience things and fulfill your duty at the right time. You won’t try to do things you’re not supposed to do or are incapable of doing.
I like most of my customers. But there are ones I don’t like. I don’t like customers who are too stubborn, too subjective, too defensive. People all like to hear they have a good fate and refuse to acknowledge the bad. But nobody can have good fate all their life. You may not like winter, but winter comes every year nevertheless. I can’t change life for you. I don’t mind if they argue with me, because when they do they help me learn to interpret fate better. I learn to be more humble because sometimes the questions they raise are really worth thinking about. One customer asked me: “If you say there is fate, where does it come from?” Ah, good question! Then I must explain to him in a more convincing way that fate comes from all one did in his past life.
Chen’s brother, who is now also smoking, adds, “I’m most afraid of hysterical customers. Some female customers are like that. I told one that her husband would have an affair in 1998. After she left, she started having fights with him. Later she came back and cried. She shouldn’t have done that. There must be a reason why her husband might be likely to have an affair. Instead of fighting with him, she should have thought about how to avoid it. But she didn’t.
“I’ve met some gangsters, of course. Generally they trust us. One even told me that he planned to kidnap a guy. He said, ‘The guy is loaded. If I could get five million [US$190,000] out of him, he’d still be OK. What do you think? Can I pull it off? Can I get away with it?’ I knew I must try to talk him out of the plan. So I said, ‘You can get away with it now. You can’t get away with it in your next life.’ Of course, this doesn’t always work. Some customers later wrote to me from Tucheng [a prison]. Their letters are full of repentance.”
We own this office. We’re still paying off the mortgage.We bought it four years after we came to Taiwan. Our homes are next to each other. That’s it. I have some small investments. But they’re really nothing. We started from scratch. Today I have a house to live in, food to eat, clothes to wear—I must thank the “parents of my clothes and food,” the society, and the country. I still have a long way to go before I can relax. It’s better not to have everything. When you have all the things you want, you become arrogant and people start to envy you.
Read more about fortune telling in Taiwan