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Lunar New Year

Why the fuss over pulling Hong Kong’s fortune stick at Che Kung Temple for Lunar New Year?

Confusion at a traditional ceremony that has drawn considerable media attention and political commentary makes the ritual look more like a joke

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2018, 11:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2018, 10:37pm

An awkward moment during a ceremony at Hong Kong’s revered Che Kung Temple, where rural leaders annually gather on the second day of the Lunar New Year, made a lighthearted ritual seem more like a joke.

In Saturday’s mix-up, a fortune stick pulled by event organisers on behalf of the whole city was mistakenly exchanged with one drawn for Sha Tin. Quick-thinking New Territories patriarchs saved face by arguing that what transpired might have been exactly what the deity had in mind.

Here’s a look at what exactly happened and the history behind the highly anticipated ceremony.

Who is Che Kung and why is he worshipped?

Kung was an honorific title given to a respected man in ancient China. Legend has it Che Kung was a military commander of the Southern Song dynasty (1127 to 1279). It was said he escorted the dynasty’s last emperor to escape to what is now Sai Kung in the New Territories. His achievements led to his being revered as a god.

The Che Kung Temple in Sha Tin was built around 300 years ago in a desperate move by local villagers to stop an epidemic. According to popular folklore, the epidemic began to subside the day temple construction was completed.

Why is there an annual ritual of Heung Yee Kuk leaders going to the temple to draw fortune sticks for Hong Kong?

Heung Yee Kuk is a government-recognised advisory body that represents the interest of New Territories villagers.

The ritual is held annually on the second day of the Lunar New Year, to coincide with the Che Kung Festival.

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The ritual enables rural patriarchs to thank the Che Kung deity for protecting locals over the past year. But the elders also ask the deity to drop hints about what the coming year holds.

The custom was that a home affairs official would attend the ritual with kuk leaders. After the city introduced a ministerial system in 2002, the home affairs minister represented the government in drawing a fortune stick for Hong Kong.

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The luck of the city for that coming year was thought to be foretold by the message corresponding to the stick, in the form of classical Chinese poetry.

But in 2003, then home affairs minister Patrick Ho Chi-ping drew an unlucky stick. And that year, Hong Kong was hit by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. As for Ho, he is now behind bars in the United States over a bribery case.

Since 2003, the government has not sent a minister to participate in the event. Instead a kuk leader is tasked with pulling a stick for Hong Kong.

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Another embarrassing moment arose in 2015, when veteran politician Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee was accidentally knocked over during the ceremony by a unicorn dancer.

It’s superstition, so why is it a big deal?

Trying to foresee the fate of a city by drawing a stick is plainly superstition. Yet the event is widely covered. Politicians are quick to offer their own interpretations of Che Kung’s message, often seizing the opportunity to attack rivals.

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Media take it seriously too; reports on the deity’s prediction are printed across local newspapers the next day. Fortunes are chosen from a container filled with 96 sticks. Of these, 35 are “good”, 44 “neutral” or “medium”, and 17 “bad”.

What happened on February 17?

Kuk chairman Kenneth Lau Ip-keung and Sha Tin rural committee vice-chairman Lee Che-kee were drawing fortune sticks simultaneously, with Lau drawing one for Hong Kong and Lee for Sha Tin.

Lau’s stick was number 41 – deemed “neutral”.

But the master of ceremonies wrongly announced the stick as having been drawn by Lee. When he tried to correct his mistake and clarified the stick had actually been drawn by Lau, he mixed up Lau’s stick with the one picked by Lee. Then he announced the number of that stick, 21, which is also “neutral”.

Apparently unaware of the error, no one in the ceremony tried to rectify the matter.

But the foul-up was witnessed and filmed by scores of reporters in attendance.

Written as a poem in Chinese, the message on stick 21 was interpreted as “the harder the city works, the more it will achieve”.

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The message on Lau’s original stick, number 41? “Be cautious for everything.”

Lau was later told of the mix-up but said both sticks sounded good to him.

Is the Heung Yee Kuk going to do anything to rectify the mistake or avoid future blunders?

Sha Tin rural committee chairman Mok Kam-kwai has ruled out an investigation into the botched ritual. He said if there had been a mix-up, it had to have been arranged by the deity and that Hongkongers should accept it. However, Mok said the body would look into whether any improvements could be made to avoid similar confusion in the future.