Entering Songjiang Road Fortunetelling Street is feels a little like stepping into Diagon Alley, or descending into a subtle realm. It sits in a tunnel underneath the busy intersection of Mingquan East and Songjiang roads in the Zhongshan district of Taipei where passersby and those from all over the city come to visit.
Location: 10491, Taipei City, Zhongshan District
For the writer, the spiritualist, or even the everyday tourist, the symbolism of the place is immediately apparent. The row of fortune telling stalls are located a level below the surface of the everyday world. One must descend away from the familiar, away from the known, to get there. You walk down a set of tiled, subway or passage-like, stairs to a space that is separate, liminal even, where those who are rumored to see the future sit in wait. In the same sense, the same time, these stalls sit at a crossroads, an intersection, that thousands of people and vehicles pass through each day. It is in this confluence of beings, motion, and energy that spiritual, magical, past, present, and future coalesce as well as those who can read it. The more cynical among us might point out that it is just a different type of fume inhalation than that found at Delphi. Nonetheless, it was here that I found myself last Friday evening, descending to the fortune tellers row, feeling, perhaps like those who encountered the sphinxes and oracles of old, a sense of uncertainty, confusion, and even a little hope.
Before continuing, I should make clear, I am not overly spiritual or religious. Nor, is this my first brush with having my fortune told in Asia. I once, on a whim, had my palm read in my early twenties on a warm, humid night in Hong Kong. The experience left me confused and slightly rattled with sweaty hands. And watching the way the currents of my life have played out it is one that I have thought back on now and again over the ensuing years.
Some things have come true, others hadn’t and having mustered my courage, quieted my skepticism, I was returning now to seek a second opinion and as an assignment for this blog.
I am also not overly superstitious, I don’t put stock in crystals, voodoo dolls, or talking with spirits. I lay my chips closer to the side of free will than a preordained fate. But, as the late Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska once wrote, “I prefer to knock on wood” and I still make my wishes on shooting stars; just in case.
It was a Friday night and I arrived early in anticipation of beating the crowds to come. I quieted my breathing, tried to step into a state of flow and relaxation, to let go of the author running the script, to be open to the universe and whatever else is out there.
Some of the stalls weren’t even open yet, the first one with an English sign was run by a young man in his early 20’s. Bad sign. I am firmly of the belief that anyone can and should be able to do any job at any age, but I have to admit I was inwardly dismayed because some small part of me requires that a viable fortune teller be wiser than I am, at the very least, older. Taking a breath and attempting to step past my bias, I entered the stall. The young man appeared to be watching a video on his phone. Seeing me, he immediately smiled and said in English, “Looking for English? Go to the east side, stall number one,” while also pointing to the hallway behind me. I thanked him while feeling inwardly relieved and walked further into the fortune telling street that sits underneath the Mingquan and Songjiang roads.
Stall number one had an older woman with glasses and partially greying hair. She wore a string of mala beads and had a large calendar picture of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion, on her wall. Seeing me she smiled and offered me a seat. “One reading is 1000 NT$” she said. “You can choose palm, birthdate, face, or rice casting.” I had had a palm reading prior, so I went with birthdate – let’s make this a double-blind type of test.
Writing down the year, month, day, and time I was born she took the information and began looking up or cross checking the information with a book that she had in front of her, occasionally making different marks in each column. She then began to turn her attention to me, making predictions about business, marriage, health, and more. Perhaps she was simply reading my responses to her statement, but there were times when I wondered if, perhaps, she was reading something else that flowed unseen around us both. She then looked at my palms, face, and even had me cast some rice (largely because I didn’t come with a specific question) and gave me more details.
The whole reading took about a half hour although I wasn’t all that aware of the time passing. Despite not trying to give away much with my responses, some of the information resonated, and in some cases echoed what I had been told all of those years ago in Hong Kong. Shoot enough arrows towards the night sky and odds are you bound to shoot one or two in the direction of the moon, yes, but perhaps not. Perhaps we prefer to knock on wood just in case.
While I am not certain I want to divulge my the entirety of my fortune for mass consumption, I will say that I have been told twice now that I will marry a woman from Asia, that I will live to old age, and that I will make money later in life. Fairly safe predictions, but it is still nice to hear them in a world that can at times feel so uncertain. Other elements of this fortune were incredibly prescriptive or precise, instructing me how to buy a house and go into business. One admonition could simply be summed up as make sure not to over think things.
There were elements of my fortune that left me wondering, as I walked away, if the true value in fortune tellers is not in whether they can see the future or not, but rather their ability to speak to that deep need within all of us for a sense of security. Like bartenders, therapists, and priests, perhaps what fortune tellers do best is provide a sense of reassurance and prescription to those trying to find their way in the world. Perhaps we create the rest as we go. Emerging from the fortune teller row, I entered the stream of people making their way back from work or heading out to begin their Friday night. The people around me seemed completely unaware of the world beneath their feet, and I found myself becoming swept ack to the world of Taipei, the known, with memories to ponder for sometime to come.