New York Daily News
January 8, 2008
By Maureen Ker
The middle-age man with a weather-beaten face crouches over a red book in a corner off the sidewalk and scribbles on a notepad, while a young woman sitting across him wears a worried expression.
After an agonizing few minutes for the fidgeting woman, the man looks up from under his worn straw hat and speaks to her in soft, reassuring tones. She nods and reaches into her purse to pull out a $20 bill. The man accepts the money and bids her farewell.
Master Li has just seen his first patient of the day.
Li Feng Jun — or Master Li, as he is more commonly known on the crowded streets of Flushing — is not a doctor. He is a Chinese fortune-teller.
He sits outside the LIRR Main St. station in a recess off the busy sidewalk seven days a week, rain or shine, to advise the worried and the dejected.
The beginning of the new year marks the peak season for fortune-tellers. This is the time when anxious souls approach Master Li to find out if Lady Luck will beckon in the year ahead.
Fortune-tellers such as Li play a unique role in Chinese society. They are often respected professionals who advise businesses about deals and mergers.
To troubled individuals, they also act as discreet street psychotherapists. Their methods are unorthodox — usually invoking superstitions about a patient’s karma and consulting arcane manuals to divine the future.
But for those who fear the stigma of mental illness, their services can be invaluable.
Li, 56, claims no special powers but rather relies on years of experience in reading faces — and a little red book containing astrological data — to ascertain a person’s fate.
“My job is to reduce their stress,” said Li, who believes that much that stress comes from adapting to a new country.
“They are worried about money and finding a job. They talk of suicide and turning to crime to make ends meet,” Li said of his customers.
After 28 years in the business, Li has heard it all. “Love, money, family and work. What else?” he said. “People have the same problems everywhere. In China and in America.”
The big difference in America, Li said, is that the cops let him be. “In China, the government would harass me constantly and I have to keep moving about in the marketplace. Here, no one bothers me,” he said.
So he camps outside the LIRR station on a rickety stool his eyes scanning the passing faces. In the summer, he steels himself against the heat with a bottle of water and a battered straw hat with a band that reads “Good Luck.” In winter, a velvet fedora, a heavy wool coat and thermos of tea protect him from the elements.
But Li isn’t without his critics.
“Such superstitions can harm people,” said Susan Wu Rathbone, known in the neighborhood as Auntie Wu. She is the founder of the nonprofit Chinese Immigrant Services.
Like Li, Auntie Wu helps people with their problems. But she relies on more practical methods.
“We provide English classes and help immigrants find jobs and housing,” said the outgoing octogenarian. “Everything is free of charge.”