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The Sage of Fortune Cookies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Mendell Street, down among the low warehouses, apartment blocks and alfresco drug bazaars of Hunter’s Point, sits a small, shabby building with a front door that never opens. Locked behind it, Steven Yang sits with a secret he does not wish to share.

We arrived here seeking enlightenment--true enlightenment, not some guru’s pale imitation but genuine illumination, the real thing, the easy thing, the wished-for, dreamed-of blinding flash of unearned knowledge, the stunning insight that knocks us--all Pauls en route to Damascus--clean out of the saddle.

We speak, in other words, of fortune cookies, the slight, curvy sugar wafers enfolding the wisdom of the ages.

Maybe that’s a stretch. Truth be told, fortune cookies were never the font of much wisdom: mere after-dinner entertainments. Who, after all, could ever take seriously an anonymous message tucked inside a sugar cookie?

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Quite a few people, as it turns out, which leads to our current mystery:

Something dreadful has happened to fortune cookies--they almost never contain fortunes.

Think of the last time you opened a cookie. What did the message inside say? Think of the last 10, 50, 100 times. They weren’t real fortunes, were they? They were aphorisms, or silly cliches, or small pieces of lame advice. Or, more recently, perhaps a veiled threat. One recent fortune received in Los Angeles warned: “Choose your enemies wisely.”

What happened? Who took the fortunes out of fortune cookies?

We think Steven Yang knows. We have come to his locked door to find out.

The sun shines from its perfect sky. Mendell Street is fogless in the early morning light. The circumstances couldn’t be more clouded.

Where the Cookie’s Been

The path to fortune cookie knowledge winds through weird places, most notably a machine shop in a Boston suburb and Bob’s Typing Service in San Francisco. It begins with the history and subsequent nature of the business.

As ancient institutions go, the fortune cookie is not all that ancient. The Chinese fortune cookie was invented in the United States sometime in the early part of the 20th century, probably by either a Japanese American gardener in San Francisco or a Chinese American cook in Los Angeles.

There are suggestions that it has antecedents among Chinese moon cakes, which carried hidden messages in the 14th century. Given the 600-odd-year gap, these seem like feeble attempts at undeserved authenticity. Even if they are true, the similarities between the moon cakes, made from lotus nut paste and used to plan an insurrection against Mongol occupiers, and the little gold cracker that arrives on your tip tray is slight enough to melt beneath the dimmest of lights.

Whoever invented the cookies, they remained regional California oddities until 1948, when a San Francisco truck driver, Edward Louie, devised a machine that partly automated the labor-intensive process of making the flour-egg-sugar-and-water confection. Louie then partnered with a local restaurant that began the tradition of serving the cookies as complimentary desserts.

Others improved Louie’s design, and the more automated cookie production became, the greater the distribution of the cookie. The machine now sold most widely throughout the United States was invented by Yong Lee, a Korean-born engineer in Massachusetts, who complains that it was the single worst thing that ever happened to him.

“Wasted all my productive years on it,” he said.

Up through the 1970s, most of the cookies sold in the United States came from California. With the introduction of Lee’s machines, production spread throughout the country and into Canada, Mexico--even China. At one point, more than two-thirds of the fortune cookies baked in the United States were made on Yong Lee machines, which have a “Babes in Toyland” quality to them.

A spigot squeezes dough onto round metal griddles. A turntable passes the dough through a gas oven. The cookies bake in about 30 seconds and remain pliable enough to be folded for another 15.

When a cookie comes out of the oven, an arm drops a fortune into the middle of the warm wafer, then presses the cookie down through a slot, which has the effect of folding it in half. Two more arms then press the cookie over a metal rod set at right angles to the slot, folding it again in the other direction. By the time the cookie tumbles down a conveyor into a box, it has hardened with the message inside.

Today, most large American cities have at least one and sometimes as many as a dozen fortune cookie makers, most of them small, family businesses. With some exceptions, most cater to local markets.

“The low margin has kept bigger companies out of the business,” said Donna Tong of Peking Noodle Co. in Los Angeles, the largest California producer and one of the biggest in the country.

Lee estimates the national output at a billion cookies a month. This seems exaggerated, for the simple reason that fortune cookies are mainly an American item, and in order to consume a billion of them a month every man, woman and child in the country would have to eat Chinese food once a week.

It is not a get-rich-quick business, although it has grown steadily as people continue to eat out more and the use of cookies for promotional purposes accelerates. (Al Gore and George Bush both bought more than a million of them for their conventions this summer, and McDonald’s once ordered 55 million for a special promotion.) The result is an industry with dozens of small businesses competing fiercely, almost solely on price.

It’s a cutthroat industry, said Greg Louie, Edward’s grandson, in which “nobody trusts anybody.” Research for this article supports the notion.

Told that a reporter had visited Peking Noodle, a competitor expressed surprise.

“Peking let you walk through? I’m shocked. They never let anyone in,” he said. He paused, lowered his voice and asked: “What’s it like?”

Conversations with other fortune cookie people tended to go like this: Cookie? Big secret.

Various people tried to explain what exactly was being kept secret.

The machines, they said.

But doesn’t everybody have the machines?

The recipe, they said.

But aren’t they all basically the same recipe?

The messages, they said.

Well, how can messages be secret when they’re read by the thousands every day?

Big secret. Goodbye.

Nature of the Business

As invariably happens when industries grow, specialization occurs. When inventor Lee began shipping his machines all over North America--later followed by a Japanese-made machine that increases production sixfold--many of the mom-and-pop bakers who bought them had little knowledge of what to put inside the cookies. They were businesspeople, not soothsayers.

Many cookie makers simply stole fortunes from one another, accumulating what amounted to an almost universal stock of fortunes written by early cookie pioneers. These were lifted from sources as diverse as the Bible and Poor Richard’s Almanac, and translated into a kind of mock “Confucius say” language.

“In those days, they were all farmer phrases,” Greg Louie said. “We changed over the years, borrowing from Bartlett’s, Yiddish sayings, wherever.”

Lee built a stock of thousands of the traditional fortunes and began selling them very cheaply to the people who bought his machines. That’s when the problems started. Fortunes that seemed perfectly acceptable in one part of the country suddenly became offensive in, say, Decatur, Ga.

“Message says: ‘A handsome young man is in your future,’ ” Lee said. “Southern old lady take it very seriously and complain. They’re afraid of young man. It’s a joke. Still they complain. They don’t take it as a joke.”

It wasn’t just Southerners. Everybody complained: feminists, grammarians, Asian Americans.

“Had to get rid of a bunch of messages,” Lee said. “It all became nonsense.”

Clearly, a wholesale rewriting of fortunes was needed, which brings us back to Steven Yang, a young Shanghai-born engineer whom Lee hired to sell his machines. Yang said he had no trouble selling the machines, but was having great trouble getting paid what he considered adequate commissions.

“Yong Lee has no money,” Yang said. “He say, ‘Next time, Steven. Next time.’ ”

So, in 1993, Yang quit and went into business for himself. He bought Chinese Yellow Pages for the entire United States and started calling cookie makers. Then he got in his car and went to see them.

He sold them fortunes. He didn’t have the wherewithal to start manufacturing cookie machines, but he spied an opportunity in the message business, which was little more than a sideline for Lee. Yang made copies of all the messages he could get his hands on and went to work taking Lee’s message customers away from him.

He set up a printing operation in San Francisco and started cranking out fortunes by the millions. Today, this little shop in a bad part of San Francisco is by far the nation’s biggest content provider for cookies.

Yang is very reluctant to discuss his business. He never unlocks his front door. He and his wife, Linda Qiu, work alone, seven days a week, up to 14 hours a day, printing, cutting and shipping messages all over the country. Sometimes, they sleep in the shop. He almost never lets anyone else in and, to preserve secrecy, doesn’t hire help.

“No one knows how we do this. Chinese are smart. They’re working for you, after one or two years, they leave, taking my business with him.”

Just like you?

He laughed. “Just like me.”

Yang consented to a telephone interview and, later, to a meeting on neutral ground, but never a visit to his shop. The key to his success, he said, is a method he has devised to cut labor costs.

“Over seven years in business, I never show to anyone. It is secret. No one knows how to pack the paper. We do very beautiful packing. I got a very special machine. I saw some company--one people cutting messages, five people packing. Make no money. I have one people cutting. One people packing.”

That’s the big secret, how the paper is packed? This is the reason you won’t answer your door?

“I’m very scared. Too many questions. You going to steal my business,” Yang said.

Lola, Bob and Good Grammar

After Yang figured out the economic key to success, his secret packing machine, he still faced the same dilemma that had perplexed Lee--the messages themselves.

“I copy all of Yong Lee’s messages,” Yang said. “It doesn’t work. Everything is so stupid. That’s no good. I don’t know how to write a message. So one time one lady call me from San Diego. I think she is a schoolteacher. She goes to Chinese restaurant. Opens cookie. . . . Very bad. Message really is for fun, isn’t supposed to make people angry.”

Yang, tired of the criticism, hired the complaining woman to rewrite the messages he had taken from Lee.

So a San Diego schoolteacher writes all the messages? Who is she?

“Lola, I think. I can’t remember. She doesn’t do it anymore. I lost her number.”

Yang eventually recovered Lola’s number. Except she isn’t Lola, and she isn’t a schoolteacher. Her name is Donna Jackson, and she’s a speech pathologist. Jackson said her principal complaint wasn’t the content of the messages, but their form--a singsong Charlie Chan English she found offensive.

“I didn’t know if they wanted them to sound that way or what. Some were incomprehensible. ‘One foot on the moon will be green,’ stuff like that,” she said. So she agreed to edit Yang’s messages. When she couldn’t even figure out what many of them were intended to say, she wrote new ones. Those she mainly lifted from a library book on astrology. She didn’t much care what they said, just that they be grammatical. This accounts for many of the messages you read that ascribe personal qualities to the reader. For example, “You are kindhearted, hospitable, cheerful and well-liked.”

The grammar corrections did little to slow the pace of complaints, Yang said, and after he lost “Lola’s” number, he grew desperate, asking everybody he knew to write new messages.

One day, driving in San Francisco, he saw a place advertising various small-business services--copying, printing, proofreading. He stopped and asked the owner if he would like to write fortunes. The man said, no, he wasn’t really in that business, but he had a writer friend who might. The friend called, met Steven and initially agreed, for a dime apiece, to write 1,000 messages, a deal that would make him the most prolific fortune-cookie fortune writer in history.

Yang thinks we want to steal his packing machine. All we really want to know is who this guy, the sage of San Francisco, is? Yang can’t remember.

How about the name of the business who referred him?

“It’s an English name,” Yang said.

Maybe it had the word “Printing” in it, he said. Calls to more than a hundred printers yielded nothing.

Then Yang, helpfully, said that maybe it’s not listed as a printer, but a copy place. They had copy machines. More calls, more puzzled people who knew nothing.

This went on for weeks.

One day, Yang, by now eager to help find the fortune-writer as a way to throw us off the scent of his precious packing machine, remembered that the business was on Geary, a street that cuts almost entirely though San Francisco, from the Pacific Ocean to the bay. No matter, this was progress.

More calls. Nothing.

Finally, Yang remembered that the shop was near a particular hospital. A quick check of the neighborhood turned up a place called Bob’s Typing Service.

That’s it, Yang said. Bob is the man who knows the man who wrote the fortunes.

We called.

“Bob’s Typing Service,” said the woman on the telephone.

Bob, please?

“Bob sold the business. He doesn’t work here anymore.”

That’s what she said. She might as well have added: It’s not Chinatown, Jake. It’s fortune cookies.

The Oracle, at Last

Yang’s messages come in four broad categories: a few genuine fortunes, aphorisms, advice and those zodiacal descriptions of personal attributes.

A true fortune is one that predicts the future. Here’s one of Yang’s, for example: “A financial investment will yield returns beyond your dreams.” Although, in this dot-com age, it might be hard to imagine what could conceivably qualify as being “beyond” one’s dreams, this is undeniably a fortune.

‘You possess a rare beauty,” more typical of Yang’s current offerings, is not.

It’s a nice thing to say. It might even be true, but it is not a fortune.

Neither is this:

“Pay less attention to your living conditions and more attention to your life.”

This grim admonition was among the fortunes written by the great and elusive sage of San Francisco, the man we finally tracked to Bob’s Typing Service, now absent Bob.

The people at Bob’s, amused, called the original Bob, Bob Cristoph, and relayed our ridiculous question. Unlike everyone else connected to the fortune-writing business, Cristoph actually keeps track of names and phone numbers. He remembered Yang and the man he referred to him. The sage was revealed--a bookkeeper named Russell Rowland.

Rowland was eager to talk.

Rowland’s day job is in accounts receivable at an advertising agency. At night he writes novels, four of them to date, one of which--a Montana ranch saga--is scheduled to be published next year.

A couple years ago Rowland was moonlighting as a proofreader for Bob’s Typing Service. The ad agency job was only part time. So when Bob called and asked if he’d be interested in some extra money writing fortune-cookie fortunes, he said yes.

Yang offered him a dime a message: a hundred dollars for a thousand fortunes. Rowland later countered with a quarter, and Yang preemptively raised it to 30 cents.

“I suspected I was in trouble when he was so eager to go higher,” Rowland said. “So after the first 200, I called him and told him we needed to renegotiate, and he jumped all the way to 70 cents!”

Rowland eventually wrote 700 new messages, quite possibly the highest output in contemporary fortune cookie history. Given the distribution of Yang’s fortunes, Rowland is probably America’s best read and worst paid novelist. If it were his novels people were reading, he wouldn’t care about the lousy pay.

Rowland is tall--tall enough to be a sage--and kindly-looking enough too, with a soft, round face, glasses and a high, wise forehead. He lacks the self-importance we might want in our oracles, substituting a disconcerting Montana prairie aw-shucksness.

Rowland’s been around--in the Navy, where he learned to type, in Montana where he learned to sell shoes, and Massachusetts, where he started to write. He’s had a rough couple of decades. Even the one unqualified success, the acceptance of his novel for publication, dwindled into ambiguity when his publisher was bought by another, his editor fired and his book stuck in limbo for a year. The new publisher eventually agreed to bring the book out, but not until next fall, which will be three years after it was purchased.

Rowland is not a grudge-bearing man, but his difficulties have expressed themselves in the fortunes he wrote for Yang.

He said he tried in his fortune-writing career to give people a sense of hope. Perhaps, but his particular brand of hope can come across as fatalism. For example, one of his fortunes says: “Be confident enough to dance badly.”

Another reads: “Pain indicates injury, while a painful sensation indicates growth; learn to distinguish between them.”

Still another warns: “After today, you shall have a deeper understanding of both good and evil.”

Nobody’s complained about that one yet, maybe because they don’t really want to contemplate what it means.

The list goes on in the same vein. At times, Rowland’s fortunes read like themes for novels--tragic novels. Rowland tried to be funny, he said, but discovered he didn’t know how, and in the end wrote what he felt.

He said he had not set out to eliminate fortunes from fortune cookies, but realized what he was doing as he did it.

Reflecting, perhaps, the role that change has played in his own life, he said: “I don’t like telling people things are going to change their lives.”

Yang, for his part, doesn’t really care what the fortunes say so long as nobody complains. He doesn’t even read the messages. He has about 2,000 of them now. They’re rotated periodically, with about a quarter in circulation at any one time. He is always on the lookout for more.

“I pay 30 cents,” he said. “Can you write some?”

It’s a measure of the economic velocity of our world that a two-person operation in a cubbyhole office in San Francisco cranks out most of the fortunes read across the continent. It’s a measure of the strangeness of that same world that the principal criteria of those fortunes be that they not offend a single person anywhere in it.

Instead, with cosmic irony, the fortune-writing business has been turned over to a man who, despite kind intentions, is apt to end up unnerving everyone.

Where’s Confucius when you need him?


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