Warwick Wong’s life would have been at risk in imperial China because of a speciality that he possesses — writing a Chinese almanac, or colloquially known as Tong Sing in Cantonese, the predominant language in the southern region.

People in ancient China believed the movement of the stars could alter the fate of an Emperor or even a whole dynasty. The royal court barred ordinary people from learning astrology, and released its guide to peasants  to facilitate farming across the Emperor’s land.

The almanac did not just present the information in words – pictures often assisted in communicating the message. The picture of a spring ox and a herd of cows, for example, that a Tong Sing frequently features on the first few pages usually offers various climate forecasts. In Chinese culture, the appearance of dragons in the picture means there will be a lot of rain. The number of animals in the picture also carry specific meanings.   

Many Chinese now still rely on Tong Sing to pick the appropriate, or auspicious day, to undertake various tasks as mundane as tying knots to the more serious of life’s journeys such as when to hold a funeral, and even to when is the best day to start shooting a commercial.

Wong is a Tong Sing author with the Hong Kong-based publishing house Kong King Tong, contributing to an edition that is still widely used among Chinese communities around the world.

Wong believes that the Tong Sing has been used through at least 8,000 years of Chinese history, and can “offer you spiritual guidance and a belief system.”

The 66-year-old retired architect encountered divination at a young age. His grandfather used to run a fortune-teller’s stall in an alley off Reclamation Street in the Yau Ma Tei district of the former British colony.

Grandpa Wong predicted the future for his clients by reading palms, or shaking old bronze coins in a turtle shell. The business was so profitable that the money earned could support 14 people in Wong’s family.

‘Chinese wisdom is old wisdom… Young people don’t know what Chinese culture is about’

Young Wong, however, was not interested in his grandpa’s talents at all. “I only saw him shaking the shell, making a lot of  noise,” Wong said. “It was the visual things that attracted me.”

Wong studied hard and made his way into the elite University of Hong Kong, the usual path for one to succeed in colonial times, obtaining a degree in architecture at the age of 24.

A few years later, the young architect had to pick up the his grandpa’s old books because he had to factor in feng shui when working on an interior decoration project.

Feng shui, literally meaning “wind” and “water” respectively in Chinese, is a popular divination method in the Sinosphere. It emphasizes the balance of different components in a given setting to achieve certain goals such as peace or wealth.

The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, for example, decided to add a fountain at the entrance, mainly as a counterbalance to the fire station located opposite it in the same street, said Wong.

Water and fire, among the five essential elements in the universe, cancel each other out, thus reducing the chances of the center catching fire. The five elements – water, fire, metal, wood and earth – keep the world in equilibrium when placed in strategic positions. These elements can be used against or complement each other. 

The Harbor Road entrance of the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center (right) is opposite the  fire station. Photo: Google Maps

Wong has also found similarities between theories in the East and West. Feng shui does not prefer a house in direct sunlight and western designers have started adding shading panels to buildings to achieve the same.

“We call it a ‘solution’ in Chinese and ‘design’ in architecture-speak,” Wong said. “It is the same thing, but just a difference in angles and mindset.” At the end of the day, Wong believed that both methods are trying to achieve the same goal – to create a more comfortable environment for people.

The seemingly superstitious forms of divination such as feng shui and Tong Sing can offer comfort and guidance to people, especially in a world of uncertainties, Wong said.

He recalled how he endured a five-day treatment at Ruttonjee Hospital after quitting a demanding job few years ago. When  he was at home alone, he suddenly threw up blood and was later diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Wong had to fast for five days to empty his stomach so he could recover.

“As you have more experiences in life, you feel frustrated that you can’t be in control of anything,” Wong said. “People may face uncertainties around once a month in ancient days, but today we have uncertainties every day.”

Wong believed that Tong Sing plays a similar role to God in Christianity. “Worshipping god is empowering you,” Wong added. “If there is a god, it helps you. This can be a belief that can help a person beyond their expectations.”

It is the same for Tong Sing, Wong said, as long as people believe in it, and do good things on good days, “then it is okay.”

“Chinese wisdom is old wisdom,” Wong said. “Young people don’t know what Chinese culture is about.”