Wanugee hovers over the mahjong tiles, eyes closed, chanting a mantra. He moves his hands like magic moons—waning and waxing over the little white squares—to summon his soothsaying power.
My request is unusual. Instead of his customary targets—love, health, wealth—I ask him to tell a fortune for all of us, a world upended by the coronavirus, still, at this point, in its early stages.
“That’s pretty macro, not really my sweet spot,” Wanugee cautions. But he’s game. “I’ll try anything, you know. How about we look towards the next six to eight months?”
Perfect. With his purple and gold shawl and reassuring tone, Wanugee seems about as good an authority as any on the uncertain days ahead. After all, fortune-tellers have been called upon to predict the future in times like these. From the oracles of Sumer to the shamanistic priestesses of Delphi, the seer has survived as a mainstay of culture, today encompassing an eclectic industry of tarot, astrology charts, and more, with revenues totaling over $2 billion annually in the United States.
In the days before California shut down its schools and businesses, I found myself seeking guidance from an old-time San Francisco fortune-teller. I imagined wading through the beaded curtains and cheap incense of a dusty Chinatown parlor to receive a dose of ancient wisdom. Googling around, I found Wanugee and his Golden Dragon Fortunes. But alas: he was not located in Chinatown.
“I’m not based anywhere,” he told me. Like many in the gig economy, his office is basically his laptop. “I’m not just sitting in a building waiting for two kids from the suburbs to come in and want to get a fortune for 10 bucks,” he explained.
He wasn’t always known as Wanugee. As a student at UC Berkeley, he was playing a game of hearts in the dorms one night. “We got ’em by the gnards,” his teammate said. “No, we got ’em by the wanugees,” he replied, inventing a word that became his nickname. (Wanugee declines to reveal his real identity to protect himself from potentially vengeful clients.)
He taught himself the trade while working as a product manager at a tech company. “I was very left brain, business kind of logical,” he says. A friend had introduced him to tarot, which he found gratifying. Years later, when he lost his tech job after a company buyout, he began driving for Uber to make rent, all while giving tarot readings to friends on the side.
An aha moment followed. Why drive an Uber, he thought, when he could earn income by telling fortunes full-time? Tarot was a crowded field, so he began reading mahjong tiles, a modern twist on the I Ching, an ancient book of wisdom used to predict the future. He started charging for his readings and soon adopted SEO and CRM techniques from his tech days to attract customers and pursue bigger clients.
“I do a lot of corporate,” he says, recalling parties he worked at Facebook, Google, Salesforce, and more. But now, with California on lockdown, his events have been canceled and he is conducting his readings through video calls, which is how we meet and where I hear his fortune for the world.
He tilts the camera on his laptop down so I can see his virtual stage. My screen shows a cloth mat of red with gold piping and a large Fú, a Chinese symbol that means good luck. The mahjong tiles—once crafted from bone and lined with bamboo, now colored plastic—lie facedown along the edges. Silence ensues. He starts his mantra again, then selects six tiles at random and lines them up neatly at the center of the mat.
“This is the North tile,” he says, turning over the first of them and revealing a Chinese letter scripted in blue. “This tile represents the direction of the cold wind. So there’s going to be some cold wind blowing across the world in the next few months.”
His fingers fumble over the next tiles, turning over the Four of Jade, with its four circles, and East, another Chinese letter. “The Jade suggests it’s going to take preservation and effort,” he says, like crafting a raw stone into fine jewelry. “And East represents the querent, so in this case the world. So it’s really up to the population to figure out what to do to resolve the anxieties and the cold wind.”
Then comes the Three of Bamboo.
“It’s called the Three-Legged Frog,” he says, noting that its green bamboo symbols look like frog legs. “It means that frog has got to regrow that leg and recuperate. So, I guess, the world has to take things into their own hands, and the healing can start to happen.”
It’s all tracking. Kinda.
“This suggests a lot of activity,” he says of the Insect, the next tile, which is also known as the Beehive. “It’s collaborative and cooperative. All the bees know what to do in a beehive.”
The last tile is the Flower, a rare piece and wild card, he says, which means he can pick another. We enter a second moment of silence as he floats his hands over the tiles and dives for one, the finale, a last predictor of what’s to come for us all.
“The Scholar,” he says, resting his hands on the mat and clasping his fingers together. “New knowledge, new learning. So there’s going to be an opportunity to learn from what happens…”
And with those words, we’re done. He tilts the camera up to his face and he looks pleased, chuckling to himself. “I have a logical background, and so it doesn’t make any sense,” he says of reading mahjong tiles. “I lay them in a certain way, and somehow that’s supposed to tell the future? You can’t explain it, but somehow it works often enough.”
Indeed. The combination of Beehive, Scholar, and Three-Legged Frog seems like an unusual beacon, but the idea of a collaborative, medical solution in the next six to eight months (hopefully sooner) is good news enough, and more comforting than the day’s headlines.