Lu Great Uncle arrives, a bent, wizened figure half my height, 82 years old, with a straggly mystic’s beard and teak-tanned face. He is clutching a long-stemmed pipe and looking around him in a faintly baffled manner, as if he went to sleep in 1896 and is taken aback by the sight of horseless chariots. This figure is the local guishi, or ghost master – a herbalist, feng shui consultant and exorcist.
“What do you make of the building outside?” I yell over the noise of the cement mixer. “Good or bad feng shui..?”
“Good it is,” he beams. “Feng shui’d it I did.”
We relocate to the relative silence of Lu Great Uncle’s house, which is right next to the drum tower. We squat uncomfortably around his fire pit in a grey, cement room, and he talks me through his life, including his poverty-stricken teens, the inheritance of his gift for second sight from his father, and the various elements of parapsychology that he taught himself from books he got on a rare trip to Hong Kong. He speaks Mandarin, but occasionally slips into Kam without realising it. But, oh, he can talk. I have a list of seven questions to ask him and I talk him through them before we start. But when I begin with “So, Lu Great Uncle, tell us a little about yourself…” (using the nin particle for respect that I rarely ever bother with when talking to the Chinese), he gives a 15-minute reply that manages to answer all seven questions in an unceasing oration.
Despite having previously claimed he was not able to tell my fortune, he then proceeded to tell my fortune. He took note of the date and time of my birth, counted on his fingers and thumbs for a while, ruffled through a book, and then began reading out a series of poems and portents, which amounted to: “You are smart, you are diligent, you have a good heart. You have a golden life with few hurdles. At 42, you were sick at heart. You will never want for anything. Your parents are still alive. It is known. You have a son? You will have another. And you will die at 81.”
This all takes a lot of calculation and book-flipping through his meticulous hand-written notes, so much so that the director is already bored and moving the cameraman around us to get cutaways and close-ups. But Lu Great Uncle continues to look at his notes and write observations on a scrap of paper. Suddenly, he leans over to me and whispers: “When you were born, the sun came out.” And my fortune is told.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events features in Route Awakening, S03E01 (2017).