Hong Kong Articles by Abney Associates: Only time can tell what to make of this 'wicked' lot
Depending on your political inclinations, you might either be grief-stricken or chuckling over the unlucky message from the fortune stick drawn by rural patriarch Lau Wong-fat in a Taoist ritual last week.
In the annual ceremony at Sha Tin's Che Kung temple, the Heung Yee Kuk chairman drew a stick bearing the number 95.
The luck of the territory for the Year of the Snake is believed to be foretold by the deity Che Kung in a message corresponding to that stick, written in Chinese poetry laden with allusions to Chinese history and literature.
The message on the stick, loosely translated, read: "In a splendid carriage you embarked on your journey. Today, you came home barefoot. Is it that you failed the imperial examination? Or did you lose all your gold in business?"
The message also reminded Hongkongers to "beware of wicked people", and said "nothing is going well" in the Year of the Snake.
You don't need to be an expert in Chinese poetry to see that Lau had drawn a bad stick.
But if politics is known as the art of equivocation, perhaps the same applies to fortune telling.
If you stretch it far enough, as Lau, a veteran politician, did, you could transform the ominous warning into a platitudinous blessing.
In response to the message, Lau said: "It means Hong Kong will continue to be prosperous and stable ... An unlucky stick can be good, too."
Trying to foresee the fate of Hong Kong by the mere drawing of a fortune stick is sheer superstition, but the annual ritual has been a major political event in the city for decades.
The media takes it seriously too - reports on the prediction were splashed prominently across local newspapers the next day. Politicians were also quick to offer their own takes on Che Kung's message, often using the opportunity to launch an attack against their rivals.
Legislator Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of the Beijing-friendly Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, told reporters he believed that the "wicked people" referred to the opposition pan-democratic camp, while the pan-democrats thought it referred to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
Labour Party legislator Lee Cheuk-yan even suggested a vote on who Hongkongers think is the city's most wicked person.
Ironically, these politicians were among the fiercest critics of the Applied Science and Technology Research Institute in 2007, when it became known that the agency spent more than HK$180,000 on fung shui advice for its office layout.
Only time will tell who the "wicked people" are and whether Che Kung's predictions are in any way accurate.
But to the deity's followers, Che Kung has made some startlingly accurate predictions before. This year was the third time since 1997 that an unlucky stick was drawn in the ritual.
The first time was in 2003, when Hong Kong was hit by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak.
The second was in 2009, when the city was hit by global financial turmoil.
The annual ritual is supposed to be for rural patriarchs - mainly senior officials with the Heung Yee Kuk, which represents the interests of indigenous villagers in the New Territories - to thank the Che Kung deity for protecting locals in the year just past.
But the patriarchs also ask the deity to drop hints about what's in store for the coming year. There are 96 fortune sticks in the container used for the ritual, of which 35 are good ones, 44 neutral, and 17 bad.
No one has yet suggested that more good sticks be added to the container, or the bad ones be removed, to save face for the politician who is drawing the city's fortune for the year.
So when the ritual doesn't have a good outcome we can at least see that the temple management is upholding the core value of Hong Kong - to do things in a clean and fair manner. And that is perhaps why Che Kung continues to watch over and bless our city.