PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2002, 12:00am

DAYS BEFORE her HKCEE last year, Cheung Hang-yi went to Wong Tai Sin Temple, where she used a batch of bamboo sticks to get a glimpse of her future.

'I was quite nervous. It was an important exam after all,' she recalled. 'The bamboo stick I got said I was going to do well. You can say it was right, but I have been doing well in school all along.'

The 17-year-old admits that the bamboo-stick message helped soothe her mind.

Hang-yi is not particularly religious, but when it comes to superstitious practices (Chinese or Western) she, like many local youngsters, remains open-minded.

The sixth former, for instance, reads the horoscopes only occasionally. However, she checks what lies ahead at the beginning of each year by reading some books written by fortune-tellers.

She also loves ghost stories: 'They are very interesting. Sometimes it can be a bit scary, but that is the fun part.'

Hang-yi is not alone. Each year, thousands of people flock to temples, praying for good luck. Most of them are curious about, if not fascinated with, superstition and the supernatural.

According to Professor Joseph Bosco, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, superstition helps make sense of everyday life.

'These ancient beliefs come from a desire to control the environment. One way to control things is to tell what to expect in the future,' he said. 'Take studies as an example. There are a few random elements that lead to success. So people try to find out what lies ahead and act accordingly.'

Some fortune-tellers make accurate predictions because clients ask the 'right' questions.

'The major rule of the diviners is to tell their clients what they want to know. Very often, when you ask a question, you have already told the fortune-teller what the dilemma is. Their role is to help you explore what you want,' said Professor Bosco.

There are, on the other hand, numerous explanations for ghost stories.

'They reflect that people attach more feelings to life than to the physical presence. For example, when somebody we know has died, the body is the same but it has no life. There is also a hole in our lives. Ghost stories become a representation of that hole in life,' he said.

Professor Bosco also sees ghost stories as symbolic representations in everyday life. 'Schools have lots of ghost stories. There is a story about a headless priest in a school lift that students are not allowed to use. The priest is the symbolic representation of the authority, the source of students' fear,' Professor Bosco explained.

What about the toilet ghosts that seem to have infected so many schools, including Hogwarts, the famous school of witchcraft and wizardry in the Harry Potter series?

'They are related to sexual fear. It arises when students are growing up and not sure what sex is all about,' he said.

Pointing out that every society has superstitious beliefs and irrational tales, Professor Bosco said they are likely to stay forever because there are certain things in life that cannot be explained.

'Besides, life can be boring without all these stories. It's like Santa Claus. We all know that he is not there. But having him around makes Christmas more fun.'