A rural leader drew a prophecy urging the Hong Kong government to "listen to the people" at a fortune stick ritual on Sunday, following months of protests against Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's administration.
Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, also a pro-Beijing legislator, said "fairness and justice" offered a way out of the social unrest gripping the city as he interpreted the omen for the Year of the Rat.
He drew an "average" prophecy during the traditional ceremony at Sha Tin's Che Kung Temple in the New Territories, which neither bodes well nor ill for a year that has started with major challenges facing Hong Kong.
The city has marked Lunar New Year on a quiet note with almost everyone who ventured out wearing masks, fearing a wider spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, which has already killed dozens of people in mainland China.
But Saturday night, the festivities took another turn when protests that broke out in the shopping district of Mong Kok were met with tear gas, signalling the unrest that had rocked the city over the past seven months was not abating.
Triggered in June by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, the street demonstrations have since morphed into a wider anti-government movement.
Lau, who chairs the Heung Yee Kuk, a powerful rural body, officiated at the fortune stick drawing ceremony at the temple, which was named after Song dynasty commander Che Kung, who had a reputation for ridding villages of plagues and suppressing uprisings.
The draw uses a bamboo cylinder containing 96 numbered sticks. Each stick refers to an omen, usually presented as four lines of text.
Of the omens, 35 bode well, 17 bode ill, and 44 are average. During the ceremony, participants shake the cylinder. The first stick to drop out denotes their fortune.
The first stick to fall from Lau's cylinder on Sunday was No 92, an average one.
Written as a poem in Chinese, the omen roughly translated as: "In life, why boast and seek to be a hero? The laws of God and human relationships are all about fairness and justice.
"The watchful eye of God does not miss a thing. The heavens will shower one with blessings where blessings are due."
Lau interpreted the omen as a call for the whole government, not just Lam, to listen more, as well for greater unity within society.
"The most important thing is the government has to be active in listening to the people in policymaking, in order to forge a consensus and move the society forward," Lau said.
"The police force can't keep law and order in society alone. Hong Kong has to be united so we can begin afresh."
The crisis-hit city is also suffering from a coronavirus outbreak that originated from the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The Sars-like (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus has infected six people in Hong Kong, as of Sunday afternoon.
The rural politician said Che Kung was a renowned general from the Song dynasty known for his achievements in fighting epidemics, and he believed the deity would bless the city as it battled to contain the spread of the virus.
Temple visitors were divided on the meaning of the prophecy. A secondary school teacher surnamed Chan said Lau got the wrong end of the stick and believed the omen meant bad luck for the city leader.
"Carrie Lam has been boastful and arrogant, and she needs to step down now. The time for listening is over," the 38-year-old said.
Retiree Wong, 65, said the omen meant a second chance for Lam, as long as she "genuinely listened and restored justice at the heart of her government."
The Kuk's chairman has been tasked with drawing a lucky stick since 2004, a year after then Home Affairs Bureau chief Patrick Ho Chi-ping drew number 83 " one of the worst possible omens.
The Chinese Temples Committee, which manages the temple, said 6,778 people had visited the site by noon on Sunday, just half of last year's attendance.
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