중앙데일리

Blind lead the non-blind on fortune-telling street

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 52nd in a series: Mia-ri fortune-teller street]
Even local politicians frequent the area to ask about their chances in upcoming elections.

July 07,2009
A row of shops in Mia-ri, northern Seoul, promote fortune-telling and baby-naming services for newborns.By Jeon Min-kyu
Are you curious when and where you will find the love of your life? Do you want to know if your studious teenage son can get into a good college of his choice? Or are you dying to know if your boss will finally give you a much-delayed promotion this year? Maybe you’re eager to know how much chance you have of getting elected to the neighborhood council.

If so, there’s a place to turn.

Mia-ri, a small street in the northern part of Seoul, has long been a go-to spot for Koreans searching for a bit of comfort and reassurance from the words of fortune-tellers.

The neighborhood is so well known for its fortune-telling businesses that it has long been a common phrase among Koreans to say, “Wow, you could do business in Mia-ri” to someone who correctly guesses certain things that come to pass. Some 70 fortune-tellers, all blind, read the future based on a traditional Asian fortune-telling method. They have survived in the area since the 1960s.

Why are all of them blind?

To find out, one needs to trace the history of Mia-ri fortune-telling street to at least the 1960s. But its roots go back much further.

“For centuries in Korea, the blind were believed to have a sharper intuition that makes up for their lost sight, and to have a talent for fortune-telling,” said Shim Nam-yong, a Mia-ri fortune-teller and the head of Korea’s blind fortune-tellers’ association.

The association, established in 1971, has about 1,600 members across the country. “Even the ancient Joseon Dynasty set up a government office for blind fortune-tellers, who were in charge of prognosticating for royal families and aristocrats and performing royal rain rituals.”

A woman walks in front of a Miari fortune telling shop advertising fortune telling services including spousal compatibility, luck on exams and job hunting, moving decisions, setting a perfect day for special occasions and making business names and names for newborns. By Jeon Min-kyu
The end of this line of fortune-telling came during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of Korea. But in 1966, about 20 years after the Japanese left, a blind seer named Lee Do-byeong opened a shop in Mia-ri, formerly a mass graveyard site, and gained huge popularity among area residents. News of Lee’s thriving fortune-telling entrepreneurship quickly spread among the members of the country’s close-knit blind community.

Soon, more and more blind people started learning the oriental fortune-telling method commonly called saju, meaning “four pillars of destiny.”

The astrological method, widely used among fortune-telling practitioners in Asia, including China, Japan and Vietnam, holds that one’s fate can be largely determined by four components of one’s birth - the year, month, day and hour. “Back then, there were not a whole lot of ways for blind people to make a living. They either told fortunes or gave massages,” said Shim.

The Korean government has long set aside the legal massage industry as a profession exclusively for the blind.

The 60-year-old Shim learned ancient astrology and other oriental fortune-telling methods after he became blind at the age of 30. He has operated a fortune-telling business since 1981.

Soon after the first few shops sprouted, a row of fortune-telling businesses joined the others along the main road of Mia-ri.

They attracted a growing number of people who rushed to the area ahead of major personal events - mostly college entrance exams, upcoming job promotions, moves, marriages and even elections for public office. Many local politicians even frequent the area to ask about their chances in the upcoming elections, said Shim.

Kim Ik-joong, a Mia-ri fortune teller, reads a book on the fortune-telling arts written in braille. By Jeon Min-kyu
“Election seasons are one of the busiest times for us,” he noted.

Many customers come not only to ask about their future but also to just talk about their personal troubles and lives, demonstrating that fortune-tellers can also play a role often reserved for therapists in Western countries. Here, people often share their painful secrets and personal troubles with the fortune-tellers, and many of their stories reflect Korea’s changing social landscape.

“Many people have come here to ask about whether their kids will go to good colleges, and what they should do to give their children a better shake,” said Shim. Others want to know how to get good jobs, make money and secure personal and family health.

But times are changing.

“Today, a lot of people come here to talk about their extramarital affairs and whether to get divorced or not,” Shim said. “I can see, without necessarily listening to the news, that many families are disintegrating.”

Korea’s fortune-telling industry, estimated by some to be worth trillions of won, has spawned many so-called “fortune-telling streets” around the country that are crowded with rows of fortune-telling shops.

But what distinguishes Mia-ri, by far the most famous and most well-known in the country, from other areas is that all the area practitioners are blind. Since the street made its name, a number of non-blind fortune-tellers tried to open their shops, but to no avail. All faced fierce opposition from blind peers.

“This is a very close-knit society where everybody knows everybody,” said Kim Ik-joong, another longtime Mia-ri fortune-teller. “Mia-ri is the base of our livelihood, and we never let others come into our market.”

Today, Mia-ri fortune-tellers not only cater to Koreans, but to foreigners as well. Kim said a growing number of Japanese tourists visit Mia-ri to gaze into their futures.

Yet despite its many successes, the area has deteriorated during recent years as young Koreans opt for Internet-based fortune-telling services or visit younger practitioners who operate in posh Gangnam and other areas in southern Seoul. The number of Mia-ri fortune-telling shops, once more than 100 during its heyday in 1980s, has now shrunk to some 70, and even some of those are inactive.

As the young go elsewhere, the major clientele along Mia-ri is getting older, just like the practitioners.

The area’s community center for the disabled offers a range of classes for the blind, including massage techniques and traditional fortune-telling arts. But the number of students at the fortune-telling classes is shrinking, said Shim. The 60-year-old said he is one of the youngest fortune-tellers in the area now. Few young blind people are joining the profession, he said.

“I don’t think this fortune-telling street will be here 20 years down the road,” he predicted.

In the 1990s, officials of Seongbuk District mulled over the idea of redeveloping the whole area and officially designating the neighborhood as “fortune-telling street,” to further revitalize the area’s fortune-telling commerce. But the plan dissipated amid intense protests by members of the Protestant church, who complained the government is trying to promote “superstition.”

“But some of my customers are church pastors,” said Shim. “Everyone wants to know about the future, and that’s why we’re still here.”


By Jung Ha-won [hawon@joongang.co.kr]



dictionary dictionary | 프린트 메일로보내기 내블로그에 저장