Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Secret Lives of Fortune Cookie Writers

All about the first professional fortune cookie writer, why a lottery scam investigation led to a fortune cookie, and the banned “dreadful day” fortune.

There are varying opinions about who invented the fortune cookie as we know it, though everyone seems to agree that it happened in America. (There is a somewhat similar cookie in Japan --not China-- that is older.) My favored contender is David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in L.A., for the biased reason that Jung seems to have hired the first fortune cookie writer.

His idea for fortune cookies stemmed from his desire to give impatient guests something to do while waiting for their food, so he served them as an appetizer of sorts (which explains their lack of sweetness), with the fortunes serving as both an activity and a conversation starter.

Jung’s first fortune cookie writer was a Presbyterian minister, who wrote condensed versions of Bible verses. He was later approached by Russell Raine, who was selling printing services. Jung told him that he would agree to use his printing if he could also provide the fortunes.

Old-school fortune cookies (called "Tea cakes") from the original Hong Kong Noodle Company.

Raine agreed, remembering that his wife had done some work writing lines for greeting cards. Marie Raines then became the woman that Robert Hendrickson in The Literary Life calls “The Shakespeare of fortune cookies,” crafting thousands of lines in a career that spanned decades.

In a 1970 newspaper interview, Raines said she jotted down ideas as she thought of them, “presumably while doing housework” speculated the somewhat sexist reporter. Many of the fortunes she penned reflect a certain domesticity, though, such as “Orderliness is the quality you most need” and “Are you taking your loved ones too much for granted?”

More recently, the New York Times interviewed David Lau, veep of Wonton Foods, Inc. in New York.  Lau performs the tasks you’d normally associate with being the vice-president of a large manufacturing company, but with one unusual addition: he also writes cookie fortunes.

A lottery investigation led to one of Lau’s creations in March 2005, when 110 people came forward with the same sequence of winning numbers for a 100,000 prize. The reason turned out to be the lucky numbers on one of Wonton Foods’ fortune cookies. The sequence “22-28-32-33-39-40” was backed with Lau’s fortune: “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.”

“We’ve had winners before, but never this many,” said Lau, who admitted that it’s a computer and not himself who picks the numbers. The fortunes, though, are pure Lau. He writes 3 or 4 fortunes a day, influenced by everything from ancient Chinese wisdom (“True gold fears no fire”) to smells on the subway (“Beware of odors from unfamiliar sources.”)

A few years after the interview with Lau, Wonton Foods’ marketing director Bernard Chow had to do a little damage control due to a negative fortune that ended up being pulled from circulation.  "Today is a disastrous day,” read the fortune. “If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.”

There’s no word on whether or not Mr. Lau wrote that one in particular, but Chow said that Wonton has over 10,000 fortunes in its catalogue. After several bloggers and other customers complained --including one who received the “disastrous day” fortune cookie at her engagement party-- the “disastrous day” fortune was retired.

While the unfortunate fortune cookie was an oversight, some modern cookies contain mean fortunes on purpose. Think Geek now sells Cookie Misfortune Evil Fortune Cookies, which contain phrases such as “You will die alone and poorly dressed.” Made to resemble traditional fortune cookies, the opportunities for pranks abound.

Evil fortune from Think Geek.

With more and more Chinese restaurants popping up every year, fortune cookie writing could prove to be a profitable, yet largely untapped, freelance market. If you find Twitter too wordy, hone your aphorisms down to about ten words or less and --who knows? You could be the next Marie Raines.

Try your hand at fortune cookie writing. Leave your own clever prediction in ten words or less.


  1. I can't get past the fun of imagining what the reporter could have presumed beyond housework. "Presumably while slugging back gin." "Presumably between calls on her 1-900 sex line." "Presumably while dancing naked in front of the living room picture window." Why not?

  2. There is a certain delight in pulling out those fortunes and going around the table to hear what everyone else received. Great family fun. As long as we never got any of those mean ones!

  3. Hey, KELLY, this was interesting. I really like the idea of mean fortune cookies; that appeals to my twisted sense of humor. (I am, after all, the guy who, decades ago, came up with the idea of trying to market humorous sympathy cards. Haven't yet been able to find anyone as twisted as I am to collaborate with me on it.)

    >> . . . "My favored contender is David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in L.A."

    Do you happen to know whether or not that is the same as the defunct "Hong Kong" restaurant in L.A.'s Chinatown? (The front of it always showed up in the opening credits montage of the TV show "Moonlighting".) I don't recall the "Noodle Company" part of the name, but the famous neon sign out front simply said "Hong Kong".

    Anyway, I got a fortune cookie from that place once that said something like this: "Your path to glory will be rocky but satisfying."

    The "rocky" portion I've encountered; still waiting for that "gloriously satisfying" part.

    OK, I've tried my hand at a few "mean" fortunes:

    Your significant other is cheating but is in good hands.
    Your lucky numbers are: 0 – 6 – 66 – 666

    If your ship doesn’t come in, ‘Go Greyhound’.

    This last one is too long but I rather like it anyway:

    With luck & the help of people in high places, your talent will take you far.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  4. I happen to like fortune cookies and once went to a bakery in Chicago's Chinatown and bought them in bulk. We were eating them over the next month.

    At my last place of employment (Morris Costumes) we used to sell "dirty" fortune cookies with all sorts of obscene and sexy sayings. I went to a Chinese bakery here in have them made--we had to supply the printed fortunes which they put into the cookies. The product was not a very big seller and Morris eventually discontinued carrying the adult line of gag gifts they had originally inherited from a Chicago company they had bought out.

    Blogging from A to Z

  5. That's cool, Lee. Neat to know a bakery will do custom fortune cookie orders.

  6. K.C.: Seriously! If the writer is going to presume, he might as well have gone all the way.

  7. And then there is the classic game of adding the words 'In Bed' after any fortune you read. Seriously, try it 99% of the time you wind up with a hilariously kinky or even sick statement.

    "A friend asks only for your time not your bed"

    "All the effort you are making will ultimately pay bed"

    1. The top caption should read "Subscribe to Book Dirt, reap good bed."

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