The last word: Why Confucius quit the cookie business
Writing wisdom fit for a fortune cookie is harder than you
Wonton Food, of Brooklyn, N.Y., is the largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the United States, at least twice as big as its nearest competitor. It churns out more than 4 million cookies a day—more than a billion cookies a year. All of which have fortunes inside them.
I called Wonton while tracking down another story recently. A vice president named Derrick Wong called me back. “Who writes your fortunes?” I asked.
Well, that was a sad story. One of their executives, Donald Lau, had been their main writer for years. But a decade into his soothsaying career, Lau had been stymied by writer’s block. “He told me it was the hardest job he ever got,” said Wong. “He ran out of ideas. He can’t write anymore.”
Lau, who had been awarded the job because he was the only employee who spoke fluent English, later explained to me why fortune writing is so taxing. First, the epigrams have to be short enough (about a dozen words) to fit on a 1/2-inch-by-2-inch slip of paper. What’s more, a happy tone is required. “At the end of the meal you don’t want people to be angry at the restaurant,” he said. At his peak, Lau wrote maybe 400 fortunes a month. But the work drained him. He couldn’t meet America’s constant demand for good news.
Lau’s experience isn’t unique. More than a decade ago, fortune cookie manufacturers around the country realized that their core competency lay in food processing, not professional soothsaying. So dozens of them outsourced their message writing. Aside from those from Wonton Foods (which can be distinguished by the small hole punched into each one by their paper cutter), nearly all the fortune messages you encounter in the United States today will have passed through one of two men, Steven Yang or Yong Sik Lee, who once worked together as a team.
Interestingly, Yang and Lee no longer speak to each other.
Lee, a Korean immigrant who works outside Boston, has held the patent for the first fully automated fortune cookie machine since 1981. Aside from distributing those machines, Lee’s biggest contribution to fortune cookies in America may be the elimination of Confucius from inside the crispy vanilla wafers. When Lee first started the business, Confucius said a lot. “Confucius is the best-known philosopher, respected, a good person. Making a joke of him is not right,” he told me. “I don’t think it’s nice to say, ‘Confucius say,’ I took them all out. That set a trend.” Lee’s other contribution? He added the smiley faces.
Yang, who is Shanghai-born and operates out of San Francisco, once worked for Lee as a salesman. Somewhere along the way, Yang decided that there was more money to be made in supplying the fortune cookie papers than in selling the machines. Machines are sold only once, but the messages are needed on a continual basis; it’s the confectionery equivalent of the razors versus blades business model. Starting his own fortune-printing business, Yang apparently won customers from Lee (or stole them, depending on who is doing the telling). Though Yang had copied Lee’s repertoire of fortunes wholesale—typos and all—he managed to overtake Lee’s business.
Yang now ships out 3.5 million fortunes each day, over a billion fortunes a year. He and his wife, Linda, can’t take a day off because the demand is incessant. Yang has a droll sense of humor and an (only somewhat) exaggerated sense of his role in American society. “If one day I couldn’t do this anymore, if I retired or died, it would be a big problem for America,” he told me. Yang’s position in the fortune oligopoly is impressive, given that he doesn’t speak much English. Instead, he has the help of his daughter, Lisa, a sweet-tempered 20-something girl who majored in finance at San Jose State.
Writing new fortunes is a tricky thing. People are easily offended. You have to eye the messages with the paranoia of an adult trying to childproof a home—taking into consideration the possible recipient’s gender, age, body type, and religious outlook.
“You will soon meet handsome young man,” caused problems, Yong Lee told me. “We took that message out because old ladies in Southern states complained quite a bit.” They were old. Why would they want to meet a young man?
Other fortunes that have drawn complaints, and the complainers: “Lighten up a bit”: a man and his wife, both overweight. “You will soon inherit a large sum of money”: people who interpreted it as auguring the death of a loved one. “It’s your turn to pick up the check”: Californians guffawed; Southerners found it gauche.“You’ll be going on a long voyage”: a woman whose husband died shortly after getting that message. Anything religious: anyone not religious.
During my visit to Yang’s company, he had just received another complaint about a fortune: “Be as sexy as you want to be.” Lisa knew that their quality control would have caught that one. When they hunted through their printing plates, it turned out to have come from a customized list that had been put together by a cookie manufacturer himself. I would never have let it get by, she insisted.
Yong Lee’s son, David, echoed many of the Yangs’ thoughts on fortune writing. In America, fortunes work best when they are life-affirming, he noted: “It’s about the possibilities of life.” The best kind say things like, “Dance as if no one is watching.”
He told me that things are different in Asia. “They take the good with the bad,” he said.
Back in the heyday of the fortune cookie boom, during the 1950s and ’60s, a handful of fortune writers actually did look to the East for their inspiration, drawing from the I Ching, Confucius, and Chinese proverbs. But others did not. Twixt, a Japanese-owned New York company that was a precursor to Wonton Foods, once invited the National Association of Gagwriters to submit fortune cookie sayings. Others combed the works of such Western philosophers as Goethe.
Still others looked more locally—to the people they did business with, for instance. The Hong Kong Noodle Co., a Los Angeles business sometimes credited as the birthplace of the Chinese fortune cookie, agreed to buy paper from Moore’s Business Forms only after the company salesman agreed to write fortunes. In the 1970s, the company’s primary scribe was a 20-something Mexican-American named Faustino Corona.
So what did Confucius really say?
While researching the fortune cookie business, I downloaded a translation of the Analects (known as Lun Yu in Chinese) and read through it, trying to glean bits of wisdom. It turns out that only a fraction of what Confucius said would resonate with an American audience. There is a lot about virtue, filial piety, and ruling small kingdoms. He did not say, “May you live in interesting times.” Scholars have scoured Chinese literature and not found evidence that any Chinese sage is responsible for that one.
Around the same time, I went out to lunch with my mother to gain a modicum of understanding of Chinese philosophy and classics. My mom had been a high school literature teacher in Taiwan before moving to the States. She handed me two books filled with Lao Tzu’s sayings translated into English. Lao Tzu is a better source for pithy aphorisms than Confucius, she explained. Confucius was more concerned with governing; Lao Tzu was focused on self-improvement. My mom had also brought a book of Chinese proverbs, and flipping through the two books revealed some contrasts between English and Chinese. English speakers use the expression “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” But my mom pointed out the Chinese perspective for getting one’s due: “Qiang da chutou niao,” she said. The bird who sticks its head out gets shot.
Then she read off a whole bunch of proverbs that just sounded odd to my American ears. “When in a melon patch, do not bend down and tie your shoes. When under a plum tree, do not adjust your hat.”
She glanced up. “It means, ‘Don’t do anything that looks suspicious even when it’s not.’ ”
Maybe it’s inevitable that common wisdom from one culture is perplexing in another.
The biggest problem with Chinese sages is that they stopped spewing their aphorisms centuries ago, while the American appetite for pithy, exotic maxims has not stopped. In 1959, Twixt had a repertoire of but 1,000 fortunes. Today, Wonton Food’s database exceeds 10,000.
Where, then, are fortune cookie writers getting their inspiration from? Poor Richard’s Almanac, the Bible, a book of Jewish proverbs, and song lyrics, said Greg Louie of San Francisco’s Lotus Fortune Cookie Co.
A book called The Great Thoughts by George Seldes, which compiled sayings from a lot of the movers and shakers in intellectual history, said Russell Rowland, who churned out 700 fortunes for Steven Yang.
Movies, inspirational Hallmark-type sayings, and forwarded e-mail messages, said Lisa Yang, Steven’s daughter. “If I was watching a movie and they came out with a very neat line that got stuck in my head, I would end up writing it down,” she told me. She’d gotten a lot of chain letters in college; she liked the ones that were touchy-feely.
This all coalesced for me one Thanksgiving, when I ate with a friend and his family at a Chinese restaurant in Bernalillo, N.M., just north of Albuquerque.
At the end of the meal, when the requisite plate of fortune cookies was placed in front of us, we each plucked one, cracked it open, and began the sequence of reading our fortunes around the table.
Mine was bland and forgettable. Then my friend’s mother read hers:
“Do or do not. There is no try.”
I looked up with a mixture of recognition and disbelief. “Oh my God. That’s from The Empire Strikes Back,” I said. I knew the scene by heart, one in which Luke Skywalker struggles with his Jedi knight training on the mist-shrouded planet of Dagobah.
Yoda our new Confucius is.
The purpose of fortune cookies became startlingly clear to me then: This is Western wisdom recycled for an American audience. The Chinese are just the middlemen.
Adapted from The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee. ©2008 by Jennifer 8. Lee. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, N.Y. All rights reserved.