WHETHER IT'S BIG life decisions such as hunting for a new job and dating, or trivia like deciding where to look for a lost earring, 24-year-old product designer Buggy Pun turns to her tarot cards. 'If I want to know when my health will get worse, whether a trip will be cancelled, whether I will be fired or get a bonus, or even where my keys are, I use my cards,' she says. After picking up an interest a year ago, Pun now always carries a pack with her - she's heard she can 'develop a spiritual connection with the cards' this way. Telling fortunes through tarot card reading originated in European aristocratic circles in the 18th century. A standard tarot deck has 78 cards, featuring different medieval characters. Combinations of cards drawn are used to assess a person's situation or predict the future. Despite its relatively recent popularity in Hong Kong, many young people such as Pun are becoming obsessed. They use them for problem-solving, despite the messages in the cards not being clear. Now, hip hangouts in Mongkok and Causeway Bay are hiring tarot card readers, and teenage magazines are running articles explaining how to use the cards. The phenomenon started a few years ago when singer-actress Stephanie Che Yuen-yuen and former singer Anna Yiu were seen on TV using the cards to predict other stars' careers and relationships. Coupled with a sense of uncertainty because of the economic downturn exacerbated by Sars, many people turned to the cards for comfort and advice. Pun's friends and colleagues encouraged her interest - they kept telling her the readings she did were accurate. 'The first time I think I really needed tarot was when I heard rumours that my company would lay off staff,' she says. 'I drew two cards asking the question whether I should stay in that profession. I got the Sun and the World. In tarot, the combination of these two cards refers to a design industry, the World card also has a connotation of completeness. The reader told me it was probably a hint that I shouldn't leave. It really has given me a big boost in confidence.' In the end, Pun didn't lose her job. Like Pun, 27-year-old nurse Carmen Leung became interested in tarot because it sounded chic. Three years on, she uses them all the time. 'Tarot drops you hints - its answers aren't fixed,' she says. 'It just invites you to explore possibilities. It's probably the elusiveness that makes it different from Chinese fortune-telling, which tells you in a straight-forward manner how your life is going to be.' Leung says tarot cards release subtle vibrations that complement the images, and these messages can be picked up by experienced readers. New Age Shop spokeswoman Gigi Kwok Yee-chi says almost 70 per cent of customers using its tarot card reading services are aged between 20 and 30. The shop holds as many as 50 readings a week. 'There are some young customers who visit our practitioners for readings a few times a week, and their questions always revolve around career and relationships,' Kwok says. 'Those who are really into tarot cards might even buy a new set of cards every week.' About 30 per cent of the Central store's business now comes from sales of tarot cards and related books and services. Readings cost from $600 to $1,200 for a 45-minute session. Kwok says tarot has spearheaded a big increase in interest in other fortune-telling practices, such as the pendulum, in which questions are answered by the direction of its swing, and biorhythms, which read physical, emotional, and intellectual cycles. HK Tarot founder Michelle Woo Ka-hei, 30, who started practising as a tarot card reader and teacher in 2001, says most of her students and clients are about 20 to 40 years old. She says she too noticed an increase in people's interest in tarot after the Sars outbreak two years ago. 'It was at the time everyone was pretty lost,' she says. 'None of us knew what our future was going to be.' The number of members in HK Tarot, which holds gatherings and classes, rose to 600 last year from 500 in 2003. Woo's classes now attract up to 50 people - twice as many as three years ago. Chinese University psychiatry professor Lee Sing says the emergence of tarot in Hong Kong appears to be filling a spiritual vacuum among young people and reflects their uncertainties. 'It's just like religion,' Lee says. 'They want to develop a connection to the higher meaning. This is important when parents, religions and teachers cannot play a strong guiding role.' Kelvin Ho Chi-kin, a counsellor and psychic who also teaches tarot card reading at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's School of Continuing Studies, says it shouldn't be something on which young people rely heavily. 'There have been cases where young people keep on picking different tarot card readers because they're just not satisfied with the answers or they refuse to believe them. This way, they're just failing to understand what's gone wrong in their lives or relationships.' Viola Cheung, a professional in her 20s who's learning how to read tarot cards, says she thinks they should be seen as a tool that offers more perspectives on life. 'One of my friends always thought his boss was harsh on him and he lost esteem at work,' she says. 'But the cards hinted that his boss was actually under a lot of stress and had personal problems. So he started to show more understanding. This eventually led to an improvement in his working relationship.'