Ever wonder who wrote your fortune cookie fortunes? Odds are pretty good those pastry prognostications were penned by Donald Lau, a former corporate banker who served as chief financial officer — and chief fortune writer — of Queens-based Wonton Foods, Inc.
Now, after more than 30 years, Lau is retiring, handing off the reins to 43-year-old James Wong, nephew of Wonton Foods’ original founder, who’s been training under Lau for the past six months.
In an interview with Time, Lau said he used to write as many as 100 new fortunes each year, but suffering through a bout of writer’s block has knocked that number down to three or four a month.
Who can blame him? One hundred new fortunes per year for three decades would burn out even Confucius.
When Lau took over in the 1980s, the fortunes he inherited seemed outdated, like “vague horoscopes,” so he began to change them, over time offering more and more what he saw as practical advice for being happier and more successful.
Coming up with new fortunes each year isn’t easy; Lau said he takes inspiration from the world around him.
The recent U.S. presidential race, for example, prompted this fortune: “Don’t run for president, you’re not a good liar” — a proposal that was nixed by Wonton Foods’ employee board, which selects new fortunes.
According to a 2007 piece in the New York Times, Wonton has a catalog of 10,000 fortunes, a quarter of which are in rotation at any given time, in the fortune-telling, humor, motivational sayings, riddles and translated Chinese idiom categories.
“They can’t be offensive, got to be positive, and rated G,” Derrick Wong, vice president for sales at Wonton, told the Times.
They don’t always go over well with the public; the same Times piece details Wonton’s forays into “brutally honest” fortunes; turns out much of the public didn’t love finishing their meal with quips like “Today is a disastrous day. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” “It’s over your head now. Time to get some professional help” and “Your luck is just not there. Attend to practical matters today.”
Other times, they work too well; they company was briefly investigated in 2005 after more than 100 Powerball lottery players won approximately $19 million playing the numbers 22, 28, 32, 33, 39 — “lucky numbers” they found on the back of fortunes printed at — where else? — Wonton Foods.
In another article from the Times investigating the win, Derrick Wong was quoted as saying, “That’s very nice, 110 people won the lottery from the numbers.”
That snafu actually changed Wonton’s policy. Until that point, workers put numbers in a bowl and picked them; after, Wong sprang for a computer to do choosing for them.
Wonton’s incoming fortune writer James Wong told Time he has a personal stake in the new gig; he’ll keep in mind things he would need to say to his 10-year-old daughter when composing new fortunes.
“One thing that came to me fairly recently is based on an old Chinese proverb: failure is the mother of success,” he told Time. “That’s something that I really want my daughter to embrace — that it’s okay to fail, but if you learn from every failure, you will become successful. Maybe the things I want to say to my daughter will be useful for other people.”