The Bad Stick

The unfortunate fortune of the “Number 27” stick drawn at Che Gung temple

Nobody I know in Hong Kong is rending their garments in despair over the very, very bad Chinese fortune stick drawn by Lau Wong Fat at Che Gung temple in Shatin last Tuesday.

My buddy, Ah Wong, in fact, is laughing. “What did they expect? The most important ritual of the Chinese New Year for the Hong Kong Government, and who do they send to kau chim? A guy who’s under investigation by the ICAC!”

Really, Ah Wong has a point. If I were sending a proxy to pull the stick that determined my fortune for the forthcoming year–pulling it, mind you, in front of the entire assembled Hong Kong media corps–I certainly would hesitate before sending the shifty, scandal-ridden “Uncle” Lau, head of the clannish, secretive and powerful village chief’s association, the Heung Yee Kuk.

Let me backtrack a moment for you non-Hong Kong readers. “Kau chim”, 求簽
, literally “request a sign” is one of the hallowed rituals of our Chinese New Year. I’ve never been tempted to try–it involves unpleasant waiting in line for hours with throngs of people in the cold weather at one of the kitchy “auspicious” Taoist temples like Wong Tai Sin.

The drill goes like this: you get to the head of the line, you are handed a cup filled with 64 (sometimes 96) flat wooden sticks, each one engraved with a number and one of three Chinese characters–seung, ha, jung: up, down, or middle. You shake the cup until one stick jumps out, and take it to the fortuneteller, who pulls out the slip of paper that corresponds to the number of your stick, and reads the fortune printed on it. Whatever it says, that’s your “year”, on a stick.

How seriously do people take this? Well, I’ve actually seen people quickly shove a bad stick down in the bunch when no one’s looking, and start shaking over again. A few years ago, a local district councillor drew such a bad stick, on behalf of his district, that he immediately re-did his pick.

And what was the number of the stick that caused this fellow such distress that he saw no alternative but to beg the gods for a do-over?

Number 27. The same number on the stick that Lau Wong Fat drew on behalf of the Hong Kong Government at Che Gung temple the other day.

“Evil and Calamity Is Coming And Going All Around You: And it Comes from You.”

Soothsayers and oracles, in all languages and cultures, derive their power from maddening un-specificity. The companion text to the Chinese fortune sticks, true to its genre, is written in flowery, dense poetry filled with allusions to Chinese literature and history. In other words, there’s enough interpretative wiggle-room in here to make the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference blind with envy. No surprise that the team of fortunetellers at Che Gung temple, along with the pundits at twelve or thirteen Hong Kong dailies, representatives of various Hong Kong political parties, and Lau Wong Fat himself, have been spinning the result like it’s Sunday morning on Meet the Press. (There’s an excellent digest of all the armchair oracles, and a translation of the fortune poem, on ESWN.)

My Chinese is not up to literary standards, so I’m not going to try to analyze the 28 character poem with its allusions to demons and phantasms, and traitors from within. But you don’t need an M.A. in Chinese Literature to notice that there is one, and only one, specific historical figure referenced in the frame of Stick Number 27.

Qin Shi Huang

Okay, here’s where I admit that most of what I know about the first Emperor of a United China comes from the Zhang Yimou movie, HeroBut his nasty cinematic character, I’m told, is pretty true to the history books. Qin was a manipulator, a single-minded tyrant, who justified slaughtering and repressing the people (he banned dissenting books, buried scholars alive) in order to pull competing fiefdoms together into a Chinese nation. The Great Wall of China is the man’s legacy–he started its construction to keep China safe from outsiders. Hero makes the very controversial case that Qin was, in the end, a good guy–that the violence and extreme political repression he unleashed was an unfortunate but necessary means to achieve the higher goal of nationhood.

Does this argument sound familiar?

Anyway, Emperor Qin is right smack in the middle of Bad Stick Number 27:

秦王徒把長城築

“Emperor Qin built the Great Wall in vain…Evil and Calamity are Everywhere, and it’s Because of You.”

Now, if you wanted to stretch and spin-doctor a lot–a whole lot–I suppose you could transform that ominous warning about the dangers of arrogant, absolute power into a DAB-ready platitude for the Hong Kong People. Something along the lines of “We must stay united as a community and beware of dissent and disharmony within.”

At least, that’s what “Uncle” Lau Wong Fat did.

But nobody in Hong Kong is buying it. Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s popularity rating is not quite as low as George Bush’s was in the Final Days, but it’s heading to Tung Chee Hwa territory. The HK government’s missteps and political failures are there for everyone to see–as clear and vainglorious as Tsang’s very ugly “Great Wall” of a government complex that’s being constructed over in Admiralty.

Like Ah Wong, everyone is chuckling, because they know who pulled the bad stick, and it isn’t the Hong Kong public. Of course the pro-government spinners want to pin this bad mojo on Hong Kong and the community–that “we” are to blame for our “internal squabbles” (that is to say, for insisting on being able to actually elect our representatives, instead of letting the Emperors in Beijing call the shots).

“We” is a word that tends to get thrown about when uncomfortable realities are being avoided. It often works: my countrymen in the U.S. so far seem quite happy to go along with Obama’s inaugural suggestion that “we” citizens are the ones culpable for the current evils and calamities facing the U.S. (instead of, say, the yet-to-be-prosecuted corporate and financial industry crooks, plus George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzalez, et.al.).

Thank god Hong Kong people–no doubt sharpened by their love for chao dao fu— have a nose for that kind of smelly “we”.

That is to say, Hong Kong people understand that when politicians start throwing around the “we’s” you really have to take a close look to determine who, really, is “We”.

And in this case, the “We” is not us. It’s them. The really, really bad fortune stick Number 27 belongs to the un-elected officials of Hong Kong’s government.

Serves them right, I say. What were they thinking when they dispatched Lau Wong Fat to Che Gung temple? Actually, I’m pretty sure I can figure what they were thinking. Usually, the Hong Kong government sends one of the Secretary-level cabinet ministers to do the deed each year. This presents problems, since many of the top brass are Christians who really don’t want to be involved with such a superstitious practice, or they’re sophisticates who jet off to Paris or New York the instant the Chinese New Year holiday begins. What’s more, nobody in the government wants to be saddled with the bad press of making an unfortunate stick pick in this most unfortunate of years.

From that perspective, traditional old “Uncle” Lau from the New Territories must have looked like a great solution to this knotty, perennial problem. What’s more, probably the government figured it would be a way to give him face. The week before Chinese New Year, Lau was given a seat on Hong Kong’s Executive Council amid a storm of accusations that his appointment was a political tit for tat. (Lau Wong Fat, you may remember, turned his back on his own political party last August to campaign for a government-supporting DAB candidate).

Ah, but how inexorably the wheels of karm
ic justice spin! As it turns out, the traitorous and scheming Lau Wong Fat got exactly the fortune that he–and by extension, his masters–deserved.

Ji San Bat On. You got that right. In 2009, the year of Financial Tsunami and the 20th Anniversary of Tienanmen Square, there will be no rest for these guys.

And that, in plain English, is the lesson of the bad stick: believe in the illusion that your power is righteous and justified, and it will eventually come and bite you in the ass.

I’ll need a few more years of study before I can translate that elegantly into Chinese.

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