Fortunes of Mrs. Yu
and her lady friends had just finished eating the eight-course
lauriat at the Golden Dragon. The head waiter combined the
remnants of noodles, pork, pigeon, abalone, lobster, and fish
all into one plate and signaled the rest of his staff to start
packing the dishes.
dessert?” Mrs. Ang asked as she brought out her compact mirror
and stared at the reflection of her teeth.
dreadfully tired of mango pudding and sesame seed balls. I hope
we can try something different,” Ms. Tan said.
worry, Ellen,” said Mrs. Yu. “I talked to the manager, and he
had something special prepared for tonight.” Not even Mrs. Yu
knew what the restaurant had in store for them as she signaled
the waiters to bring in dessert.
were distributed around the table, and the head waiter carried
with him a modest tray filled with what looked like crusty conch
cookies! How faux Chinese. I thought they stopped serving
these here,” Ms. Tan said.
“They kind of
you remind you of Pac-Man,” said Mrs. Yu, who admired the curves
of the cookie. “Does anyone still play Pac-Man these days?”
There was a
sharp crackle, and everyone turned to Mrs. Ang. She snapped her
cookie in half and drew out a thin strip of paper. “I’m not too
fond of sweets, but I could always use the advice. Harsh
economic climate and all.”
officially begun, and everyone started eating their fortune
cookie, some taking out the paper beforehand, others drawing it
out of their mouths like snake charmers.
you lost will soon turn up.”
mistake temptation for opportunity.”
like children; there are none so wonderful as your own.”
their fortunes out loud save for Mrs. Yu, who continued to stare
at her strip of paper. Ms. Tan turned to her and asked, “What
does your say?”
smiled and recalled a quote from Confucius. “Forget injuries,
never forget kindness.”
their farewells except for Mrs. Yu, who opted to stay. “Don’t
worry about me. I just need to thank the manager personally,”
left, she approached the head waiter and asked if he had any
fortune cookies left. Hers had been devoid of any sayings, and
she felt a certain embarrassment if she were to admit this to
her friends. While she had successfully bluffed her way out of
that predicament, the night did not feel complete without
finishing this particular ritual. The head waiter motioned for
one of his companions, who then brought out another tray filled
with fortune cookies.
flashed her smile, snatched two of the cookies, and stored them
inside her purse. She felt fortunate that she was a regular
patron and wielded a certain influence with the staff. It was
rumored that The Golden Dragon was barely breaking even and
would be cutting down on its staff soon. It wouldn’t do to
disappoint one of their best customers.
the restaurant, she looked around and made sure no one was
about. When Mrs. Yu was convinced that she was alone, she drew
out a fortune cookie from her bag, cracked it in half, and
pulled out the strip of paper.
It was a
Mrs. Yu, as a
yourself,” she said out loud, as merely thinking about it was
not enough to assuage her doubts. At least she had the foresight
to grab a spare.
She took out
the last fortune cookie, and her hands trembled. She wondered
what would happen if this fortune cookie was another blank.
Shouldn’t it be called fortune-less cookies then? How
preposterous. Or maybe there were defective cookies in the
batch, and she was simply unlucky. But even that fact conveyed a
certain fate, a sign of disharmony in her life.
cracked open the fortune cookie and hoped to see some etchings
in the strip of paper. It didn’t matter if the advice was
written in Hanzi, a language she never mastered with its endless
combination of radicals and reliance on rote memorization, as
long as there was some sort of advice.
previous ones, it was a blank. Mrs. Yu stared at the white piece
At first she
felt rage. She will sue the fortune cookie makers! It didn’t
matter if the cookies contained good fortune or bad fortune, as
long as they actually contained something. Why, what would have
happened to the Ming revolution if the bakers failed in their
simple duty to smuggle messages into their mooncakes? The
citizens would never have successfully rebelled against the
Yu’s fantasy ran its course, her thoughts ran in another
direction. Maybe the blank strip of paper was the message, a
symbol of sorts. White was the color of death, and it was
possible the fortune cookie was predicting her demise.
the implications. Her first thoughts were of Mr. Yu, a stout man
who went to work every day without fail. As industrious as Mr.
Yu was, he was ignorant of life’s basic necessities such as
cleaning, cooking, and accounting. She imagined the police
breaking into their home, finding Mr. Yu’s room cluttered with
various magazines and clothes, and somewhere in the mess was Mr.
Yu himself who had become as thin as a Chinese brush because he
failed to shop for groceries at the market and had mismanaged
his funds with all the take-out he ordered.
there was her Sunday group whom she met on a night such as this.
There would be no one to arrange the dinners, schedule the
meetings, settle the bills, and rein in the various members of
the group. Mrs. Ang would be spending her time watching young
men, even if she was the oldest in the clique and married to a
faithful gentleman. Ms. Tan was too daring and would get
everyone lost, jailed or bankrupt, depending on the particular
thrill she might suggest for the night. And poor Mrs. Yu always
reminisced about the past. If she had her way, they would be
spending their evenings in her apartment, talking about the days
gone by and admiring dusty photo albums.
No, it could
not yet be her time to die. The fortune cookies at the Golden
Dragon were simply a fluke.
She went to
an obscure Chinese take-out in the dark corners of Chinatown. It
had the stereotypical phrase Ni Hao, the logo was missing a few
characters, and the chef wasn’t even Chinese, but it was one of
the few restaurants that still served fortune cookies in Manila.
didn’t even bother scrutinizing the menu. She ordered the
cheapest pack meal and tapped her foot as the staff scrambled to
grab her order. When it arrived, she dumped the contents into a
fly-infested trash bin but not before taking out the fortune
itself wasn’t spectacular. It was brown rather than golden, and
the edges were bent rather than curved. At least she didn’t have
to eat it, Mrs. Yu thought, before she broke it in half and drew
out her fortune.
another blank. Now, she had four such strips of paper. Four was
an unlucky number –- it had the same phonetics as the Chinese
word for death.
was foolish of her to challenge the will of the gods. Mrs. Yu
resigned herself to her fate. Well, if she were to die today, at
the very least it might as well be at a venue of her choosing.
The apartment she shared with Mr. Yu felt too confining.
Besides, she didn’t want to leave him in shock should he
discover her corpse in their bedroom. The local church seemed a
poor fit. True, it was where she met her Sunday group, but she
was never as pious as she appeared to be, and the only reason
she was so faithful in her attendance was because it was where
she chatted with her friends. Maybe she should return to the
Golden Dragon, her previously-favorite restaurant. They deserved
the impending confusion for serving her the fortune cookies in
the first place. Hopefully it would become a scandal on local
TV: the media would dig up the identity of its owners, one of
the waiters would be revealed to have had a secret affair with a
celebrity customer, and the kitchen would be investigated for
violating health codes. She was even willing to settle for an
urban rumor, the type that was propagated through email and text
thought comforted her, and she felt a sense of liberation. It
was only the foolish, after all, who fought with fate until the
The trip back
was arduous. She was accosted by thieves who demanded that she
surrender her money and cellphone. Mrs. Yu simply had a glazed
look as she handed over her purse. Would she die now, the victim
of a street stabbing? While crossing the street, she stumbled on
the gravel that was eroded by tires and the weather. Her right
heel broke, and Mrs. Yu wondered whether a speeding car would
hit her then and there. When all she got was blaring traffic
horns, she got up quickly and walked away with a limp. A few
blocks from the Golden Dragon, there was a sudden downpour, but
Mrs. Yu couldn’t be bothered to look for shelter. Perhaps Lei
Gong would finally strike her down with one of his thunderbolts.
Instead, all she got was disheveled hair, smudged make-up, and a
By the time
she reached the Golden Dragon, the parking lot was empty, and
the head waiter was about to put the chains and lock around the
Yu shouted. She had lost all her composure by then and had only
a yearning to collapse inside the restaurant and condemn its
owners to the eighteen levels of hell. Why did they ever serve
her fortune cookies? It wasn’t even real Chinese food.
At first, it
appeared to Mrs. Yu that the head waiter did not recognize her.
He took a step back and held tightly the chains of the lock.
Perhaps it was her limp that made her movements devoid of poise.
Or maybe the rain had ruined her make-up, and she resembled a
jiang shi more than someone regal. She would have called out
his name to catch his attention, but Mrs. Yu realized that
despite knowing him for the past eight years, she couldn’t
recall his name, even when the official uniform required them to
wear a shiny nametag.
Mrs. Yu could
not tell whether it was recognition or pity that made the waiter
relax his grip on the lock and approach her. She could sense
some hesitation as he came closer, so she decided to reach out
to him when her strength finally gave out and she fainted.
When Mrs. Yu
regained consciousness, she found herself inside one of the
carpeted dining rooms. At first, her vision was a bit blurry,
and she mistook the head waiter for her grandfather, a bald and
gaunt man who often flashed her a toothless smile.
“Why did you
come to the Philippines?” she once asked her grandfather. With
all their stories about China, its language, people, and
culture, Mrs. Yu wondered what would have made her grandparents
leave the mainland.
“I wanted to
start over with a blank slate,” he replied. He didn’t elaborate
further, as if his statement was self explanatory. Mrs. Yu
didn’t comprehend its implications at the time, but right now,
it sounded like an adage for a fortune cookie.
vision cleared up when she heard the sounds of a familiar voice.
“What did you
say?” the head waiter asked.
slate,” Mrs. Yu replied. “A blank slate!”
waiter gave her a look of incomprehension, his typical reaction
when he encountered customers speaking in Fookien, Mandarin, or
Mrs. Yu was
about to rebuke him when she remembered where she was. It was
way past business hours, and the waiter didn’t have to take her
inside to attend to her as if she was his responsibility. There
was no profit to be made.
fumbled through her pockets and found that she still had the
four white strips of paper.
“Pen. Can I
borrow your pen?” Mrs. Yu demanded.
waiter took out the pen clipped to his right breast pocket and
gave it to her.
fortuneless wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though Mrs. Yu
wasn’t particularly good with Chinese characters, she managed to
write on one of the strips of paper the Hanzi for prosperity, a
word with which she was quite familiar due to the numerous
money-filled red envelopes she received during her birthday.
is for you,” said Mrs. Yu. She smiled as she handed the
improvised fortune, the ink still fresh, to the head waiter.
“May you have good luck.”
Ever since I first read this
story, I've wanted it.
Many thanks to Charles Tan for his
permission to reprint,
though he has so far resisted my lobbying on behalf of Mrs.
Yu (and my own pleasure). We think she should haunt Charles
Tan's dreams, and
appear in a series of his stories.
Fortunes of Mrs. Yu" first appeared in
Dragon and the Stars edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi,
published by Daw Books, 2010.
This anthology is a nominee for a
More by and about
in the Virtuous Medlar
A Retrospective on Diseases
chicken spits the cook
Charles Tan Talks
(an interviewish thing)
More has happened since then, so do read:
Charles Tan's books in print
Stalker is also in the running now for a World Fantasy
"Charles Tan has in a very short time, become a major force
in science fiction and fantasy."
– Ellen Datlow