Today is the Chinese New Year (for a few more hours at least, here in California). This year will be the Year of the Rabbit. Naturally I was compelled to commemorate the auspicious occasion with a visit to that quintessential restaurant of Chinese cuisine, Panda Express. Well, maybe not so authentic, but it was quick and cheap, and it just so happen that they gave me not one but two fortune cookies.
Fortune cookies are fascinating. About 3 billion fortune cookies are made each year, and the vast majority are consumed in the United States. They are an american invention, a derivative of a Japanese cookie co-opted and popularized by Chinese Americans. You won’t find them in China. And you can even order cookies with custom fortunes, although that seems a bit deterministic.
Even more fascinating is the psychology behind our fascination with those flimsy little strips of paper with whimsical wisdom and prophesies. I don’t know anyone who takes them seriously, but at the same time, even people who don’t eat the cookies will break them open just to read their fortune.
I’ll admit that I read them as well, and sometimes I even forget to append the words “…in bed” at the end.
Some fortunes I enjoy, and others irritate me. But most of all, I wonder… who writes these things? Is someone locked up in a room somewhere knitting their brow as they try to come up with a new twist on fortunes? Have they parlayed this into a full-time career?
The short answers are: Donald Lau, yes and no.
The New Yorker ran a story on Mr. Lau back in 2005. Lau was vice-president of Wonton Food, Inc. where he managed the accounts payable and receivable, negotiated with insurers, and and composed the fortunes that went inside Wonton Food’s cookies.
It’s a role he fell into without intent. The noodle manufacturer he worked for expanded into fortune cookies, buying a plant on Long Island and along with it, it’s aging collection of fortunes (“Find someone as gay as you are.” read one fortune dating back to the 1940’s).
Lau was chosen not for his writing ability, but simply because his English was the best of the group.
The full story is still a great read.
And my fortune today? “You will gain admiration from your peers…”