A tale of edible intrigue

Megan Swan/Museum of Food and Drink

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Hi, Patrick Cox here, and this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages, and our adventures with them. We’re a co-production of Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America. And in this episode, a story of intrigue, edible intrigue. Who stole the fortunes in fortune cookies?

So if you live in a country where you get a fortune cookie after your Chinese meal, you know the deal. And you probably have some favorite fortunes. I really like this one: “You will soon achieve perfection.” So nonchalant. Perfection, it’s just round the corner, waiting for you. Psych!

On second thought, maybe this would be better: “You will soon achieve imperfection.” Now that’s something to aspire to.

I don’t think many of us actually think about how these fortunes get written, or for that matter, who writes them. And also, why fortunes sometimes seem to veer wildly off course, like this one: “After today, you shall have a deeper understanding of both good and evil.” That was an actual fortune that untold numbers of restaurant guests opened up, during what might be labelled as the existential period of cookie fortunes.

All of these questions are investigated in today’s story, reported in 2017 by Lidia Jean Kott. You’ll hear from me occasionally, as the disembodied voice of fortune cookies. But mainly it’s Lidia Jean, along with Nina Porzucki. Here’s Nina.

Nina Porzucki: I have a big question about fortune cookies in general, why are fortune cookie fortunes never actually fortunes?

Lidia Jean Kott: I actually went to New York to ask a fortune writer that, and that’s where our story starts.

Patrick Cox: Part One: “Some men dream of fortunes, others dream of cookies.”

James Wong: We’re not the actual fortune tellers. What we like to do is just to give people advice and possibly make them smile.

Lidia Jean Kott: That’s James Wong. He’s in his mid forties and he’s so smiley. He became the official fortune writer at Wonton Food, the biggest fortune cookie company in the US. In December, the writer before him, Donald Lau, he had to step down because he said he got writer’s block. And writing fortunes, it’s actually really hard because the fortunes they have to apply to everyone, they have to be positive, and there has to be no possible conceivable way that they could be construed as offensive. Otherwise people complain. People in the restaurant complain to the restaurant owners who complain to the distributors who complain to Wonton Food. So that’s why it’s bad for business. Still, even though Wonton tries really hard with all of their messages to be basically keep everyone happy. There have still been fortunes that have gone really wrong.

James Wong: This one guy immediately comes to mind.

Lidia Jean Kott: A couple — a husband and wife — went out for dinner and they open their cookies together.

James Wong: The fortune that he got was “Romance is in the air on your next trip.”

Lidia Jean Kott: “Romance is in the air on your next trip.” Unfortunately, he was about to leave on a business trip.

James Wong: We heard from the lady’s lawyer that she is actually blaming everything that happened — that that went wrong with the marriage — on us.

Nina Porzucki: That can’t be true, Lidia Jean. That is insane.

Lidia Jean Kott: OK, Nina, I said that! I told them I didn’t think it was true. But they insisted that it was. It was him and a PR person was there. And they said that that fortune ended up getting removed from circulation because of it. Anyways, regardless, the story definitely indicates the stakes. People take their fortunes seriously. And Wong says that when he’s writing, it helps him to think about his daughter. She’s ten years old and he just thinks about what he wants her to know about life. He had an example, actually, that he dug out of his pocket.

James Wong: I’m going to check out the fortune that I was preparing for this interview, if I could: “The only sure thing about luck is that it will change.”

Lidia Jean Kott: Wong is always writing. He writes down fortunes on gum wrappers, napkins — sometimes, he told me, on toilet paper! And the hardest part, he said, is keeping up with the demand.

James Wong: And then being pressured to be more productive to write more. It’s not as easy as some people would think.

Lidia Jean Kott: Wonton produces 4.5 four million fortune cookies a day. I mean, I can’t really conceive of that number, but the demand for new fortunes, I think, might outstrip the number of positive universal messages that it’s possible to come up with.

Nina Porzucki: Oh, it’s a really troubling problem.

Lidia Jean Kott: And that might explain why fortune cookie fortune theft might be tempting.

Patrick Cox: Part 2:The only sure thing about luck is that it will change.”

Sound of a factory machine

Lidia Jean Kott: That little clack you hear, that’s the sound of a fortune getting inserted into a fortune cookie in one hand factory out in Long Island. Yongsik Lee, he invented this machine, or at least its predecessor. He filed the patent for the first fully automatic fortune cookie machine in 1981. This machine, it revolutionized the industry. But Lee himself, he’s pretty much gone out of business. Here is his story. First off, Lee’s not actually Chinese. He’s a Korean American engineer who lives outside of Boston. He’s about 80 now and he used to sell fortune cookie machines and also fortunes to go along with them. He innovated in that field, too. He’s the guy who added the smiley faces. Then in the late nineties, a disgruntled employee of his photocopied his fortunes, stole his customers and started his own company out in San Francisco.

Sound of ringing tone

Lidia Jean Kott: I tried to get in touch with Lee a bunch of times to ask him about what exactly happened between him and the fortune cookie thief.

Male voice on the phone: “Hello. Please leave a message after the tone.”

Lidia Jean Kott: After a couple of weeks, Lee sent me an email saying this: “I have given many interviews more than 30 years ago. At that time, fortune cookies were not known. Fortune cookies became an American phenomenon. And now all Americans know about fortune cookies. I don’t want the publicity anymore.”

“I get it,” I wrote back. “But did you have a former employee who stole your customers, copied your fortunes and overtook your business?”

A couple of hours later, he responded, “Many guys had gone through me. I treasure to remember only the good ones.”

Patrick Cox: “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”

Lidia Jean Kott: OK, yeah, but I wanted an actual answer. Yongsik Lee has a son named David Lee who used to help out with the company. Now he lives in L.A. He’s a former Google executive and he’s a super big-deal tech investor. Like if you Google his name, you find people saying, “How can I get in touch with David Lee?”

So I guess I was luckier than most since David Lee responded to me, agreeing to a Skype date to talk about his father’s business. But he stood me up, twice. We finally connected one day as he was leaving work and getting into his Uber.

David Lee: Hi, Lidia. How are you?

Lidia Jean Kott: I’m so good. How are you?

David Lee: Good. I am so sorry about all the back and forth. So you get an ‘A’ for persistence, for sure.

Lidia Jean Kott: I told David that I had read about how his father had had this employee who had copied his fortunes, stolen his customers and overtaken his business.

Lidia Jean Kott (to David Lee): So then I asked your dad about this and he said he didn’t remember. But did that all happen?

David Lee: If that’s what my dad said, I’m going to have to respect his wishes. He probably just doesn’t want to talk about it. But for sure, like, I think any great technology, they’re going to be copycats and there’s going to be competition.

Lidia Jean Kott: And that was all he told me.

Patrick Cox: Part 3: “The riches of others make you more valuable.”

Lidia Jean Kott: Fortune cookies, they wouldn’t even exist in America were it not for this other theft, one that happened years and years ago.

Street sounds

Lidia Jean Kott: There’s this famous shrine in Japan and it’s called the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The street leading up to it, it’s full of these little family run bakeries. And these bakeries sell all sorts of cookies, including fortune cookies, because fortune cookies aren’t actually Chinese. They originated in Japan. Takeshi Matsuhisa works at one of those bakeries, it’s called Hogyokudo. It’s actually one of the oldest.

Takeshi Matsuhisa speaking in Japanese.

Lidia Jean Kott: Takeshi says he learned how to fold fortunes from his father, who learned from his father and so on and so on.

Nina Porzucki: Wow, that is amazing. I guess I really always knew that they didn’t have fortune cookies in China, but I always thought it was a Chinese American invention. I had zero idea that it started in Japan. Are the Japanese fortune cookies just like American ones?

Lidia Jean Kott: Yeah, they’re basically the same. I mean, they’re a little larger and at least a little less sweet. But the main difference has to do with the fortunes. There’s way fewer of them. So Hogyokudo has been using the same 30 fortunes for decades. So, yes, fortune cookie writer’s block, it’s not really a problem in Japan.

Hogyokudo Bakery in Kyoto, Japan (Photo: Guendalina Fanti)

Nina Porzucki: Are people disappointed if they get the same fortune over and over and over again?

Lidia Jean Kott: No. Apparently getting the same fortune twice just means you were really meant to get that fortune.

Nina Porzucki: What kind of things do these 30 fortunes say?

Lidia Jean Kott: Well, they’re like these little lines of poetry. They’re pretty hard to translate because they’re written in old fashioned Japanese and they have a lot of puns.

Nina Porzucki: Do you have an example?

Lidia Jean Kott: Well, there’s this one, and this is a very rough translation: “Bow your head when speaking to others so their opinions go over your head.”

Nina Porzucki: OK, I’ll take it. How then did Japanese fortunes come all the way to the U.S. and become associated with Chinese restaurants?

Lidia Jean Kott: So it all started with the gold rush.

Song from “Paint Your Wagon”

Lidia Jean Kott: In 1848, people from all over the world came to California hoping to make their literal fortunes, and a lot of those people, they came from China.

Man singing, supposedly in Chinese.

Lidia Jean Kott: That song, by the way, is it’s from a really racist musical from the sixties called Paint Your Wagon. So then as often happens after big waves of immigrations like this, an anti-immigrant backlash followed and there weren’t very many jobs open to Chinese immigrants except in the restaurant business. So that’s actually why there’s so many Chinese restaurants all over the U.S. now.

Nina Porzucki: How then did the Chinese restaurants start serving these Japanese fortune cookies?

Lidia Jean Kott: When the Japanese immigrated to the U.S., they opened up Chinese restaurants. It was just easier that way. People knew about Chinese food. They were the ingredients there. And then because, you know, Americans love dessert, they started giving out fortune cookies at the end of meals. But then World War Two broke out.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.

Lidia Jean Kott: After the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans into internment camps all across the U.S. Some were forced to stay as long as four years. And by the time the Japanese were allowed to return to their homes, the Chinese had overtaken the fortune cookie business.

Patrick Cox: After the break, Lidia Jean Kott tracks down the fortune cookie thief. And while she’s sleuthing around, she comes upon another mystery to be solved: Why did the fortunes in some fortune cookies become so full of doom and foreboding?

Patrick Cox: I’m jumping in here to remind you to please rate and review Subtitle wherever you listen. We love reviews, and so do other potential listeners. They’re more likely to hear about Subtitle after you review us with however many stars you think we are worth. So give the algorithm gods at Apple Podcasts and elsewhere a little nudge! Thank you.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke podcast collective, which is home to a bunch of other wonderful podcasts. One of them is The Briny, which tells stories about the sea — our love for it, our fear for it, and many other things too. Listen to the recent episode about a woman who tries to overcome her anxiety about shark attacks by competing in an ocean swim. That’s just the start of the story. The Briny is hosted by Matt Frassica.

Patrick Cox: Part 4: “A hero is a man who does what he can.”

Nina Porzucki: So who stole these fortunes?

Lidia Jean Kott: Well, he’s now a West Coast fortune cookie magnate and his name is Steven Yang.

Steven Yang (on the phone): Hello.

Lidia Jean Kott: Hi, is this Steven Yang?

Steven Yang: Yeah, hi.

Lidia Jean Kott: How are you? This is Lidia Jean. I’m working on a story about fortune cookies.

But this is not the part where I catch the fortune cookie thief.

Steven Yang: Uh, I’m a little busy right now, so can we talk another time?

Lidia Jean Kott: I called back again and again. But Yang was always busy. Or at least he never answered. There’s this other guy, though, and he did meet with Yang almost two decades ago. And after their conversation, well, fortune cookies, I’m not going to say they were never quite the same, but they were different, at least for a while. On November 4th, 2000, “Something dreadful has happened to fortune cookies,” read the front page of the L.A. Times. The fortunes had turned dark. People in L.A. and all over the West Coast were getting messages like…

Patrick Cox: “Choose your enemies wisely.” “Pain indicates injury, while a painful sensation indicates growth. Learn to distinguish between them.” “After today, you shall have a deeper understanding of both good and evil.”

Lidia Jean Kott: The man responsible for these dark and distressing fortunes was a soft-spoken novelist, originally from Montana named Russell Rowland. He heard about a job writing fortunes from a friend. So he applied.

Russell Rowland: That was just the weirdest experience, This guy — the interview basically lasted about five minutes. He said, “Do you want to do it?” And I was like, “OK.” He was just desperate basically.

Lidia Jean Kott: That desperate man was Steven Yang, fortune cookie thief and current fortune cookie baron. You know, the one that won’t answer my calls. He commissioned Roland to write him a thousand fortunes at around like 70 cents a fortune. I don’t know the going rate for fortunes, but that doesn’t seem like a lot anyways. Roland took the job because he could use the extra cash, but even more than that, he could use the distraction. He had just sold his first book to a publishing company and that company had gone under, and he had no idea what was going to happen to his book.

Russell Rowland: I was kind of a kind of a mess, you know, a nervous wreck about whether it was ever going to get published.

Lidia Jean Kott: So, yes, it was that that was like a dark period in your life? the fortune.

Russell Rowland: Yeah, I was. I guess it showed in my fortunes.

Lidia Jean Kott: Ron cribbed a lot of the messages from books, especially this one called The Great Thoughts, that’s full of quotes from thinkers who helped shape the western world.

Russell Rowland: All the famous ones, Plato and Voltaire and even politicians. I mean, this book was just full of great quotes. Mark Twain, the whole deal.

Patrick Cox: “A hero is a man who does what he can.”

Lidia Jean Kott: French playwright, Romain Rolland.

Patrick Cox: ”Words are the only things that will last forever.”

Lidia Jean Kott: English essayist William Hazlitt. But Rowland had more messages to write than there were great thoughts to steal.

Russell Rowland: When I got to the last couple hundred, I was so burned out on it that I would just take a phrase like “Love is the secret to happiness,” and I would cut and paste different words in there. So it was, you know, “Serenity is the secret to happiness,” “Family is the secret to happiness.” I guess I was just cranking out a bunch that were pretty similar.

Lidia Jean Kott: Rowland never did make it to a thousand fortunes. He stopped at 700. Russell Roland went on to become a well-respected and successful author. Still, his most widely read work and the one that had the greatest impact on the American psyche was that set of disconcerting fortune cookie messages that he wrote back when he thought that maybe he would never even make it as a writer, as Rowland wrote me in an email.

Patrick Cox: “The twists of fate are very unpredictable.”

Lidia Jean Kott: Oh, you shouldn’t actually be reading that. I don’t think that fortune ever made it into a cookie.

Patrick Cox: Part five: “You will be unusually successful in business.”

Lidia Jean Kott: So this is a leafy, kind of more quiet street, but it’s not his street yet, is it?

Annie Hollister: I think we’re we’re definitely approaching.

Lidia Jean Kott: My heart’s kind of racing!

Lidia Jean Kott: Having exhausted all of my options, I flew 3,000 miles from Boston to San Francisco hoping to talk to Steven Yang, the fortune cookie thief in person. My friend Annie Hollister agreed to come with, ostensibly to hold the mic, but actually to calm my nerves.

We arrived at what looked like an office building. It was white, Pagoda style. All the windows were shuttered. Around back, there was a parking lot and a garage. The door was left half open. The garage was filled with cardboard boxes — so many that it would have been impossible to close the door without some serious rearranging. And next to one of the boxes, I noticed a little white rectangular slip of paper.

Annie Hollister: Oh, my God, yes. There are fortunes all over the floor.

Lidia Jean Kott: I ducked into the garage door to pick one up.

I found a fortune: “You will soon hear pleasant news of a personal nature.”

This is it. And I stole a fortune!

Steven Yang, it turns out, was just having lunch next door.

(To Steven Yang) Can I come in?

Steven Yang: Yeah. Please.

Lidia Jean Kott: Yang is more soft spoken and more welcoming than I expected. He runs this company with his wife. Five people work here total. Pretty much all the fortunes in America that don’t come from Wonton — that company in New York — they come from this warehouse. They weren’t written here necessarily. Most companies at this point have their own stockpiles of fortunes. But they send in their orders and the fortunes get printed here, cut up and shipped off. The hardest part is the cutting.

Yang showed me a sheet of paper with messages from Panda Express before they’ve been cut up into fortunes.

Patrick Cox: “Beautiful things await you.” “You will find hidden treasures where you least expect it.” “Be daring. Try something new.”

Lidia Jean Kott: Yang took us from the cutting room to the garage, the one I broke into earlier, where boxes of fortunes are waiting to get shipped to companies all over the United States, and also abroad.

Steven Yang: I have a three three customers in Canada. I have a one customer in Germany, also one in France.

Lidia Jean Kott: So this ancient Japanese cookie that became known as a Chinese dessert in America is now getting served an American-style Chinese restaurants in Germany. I wonder if Lee, the inventor of the automatic fortune cookie machine, has any idea about all the places that his cookies are now going? Andy and I, by the way, had been strategizing for days about how to ask Yang if he stole Lee’s fortunes.

Annie Hollister: You used to live in Boston, right?

Lidia Jean Kott: We brought up Boston any chance we got. But actually Yang seemed to want to tell us about Boston.

Steven Yang: You know in Boston a company…

Lidia Jean Kott: …that sells a fortune cookie machine?

Steven Yang: Yeah. Korean people. Still alive?

Lidia Jean Kott: He’s still alive.

Yang got quiet, but when he started talking again, it was like he was telling us about something that had happened just the other day as opposed to over two decades ago.

Steven Yang: You know, I tried selling a machine for this guy.

Lidia Jean Kott: Yang worked for Lee as a salesman. He says he would find customers and sell them Lee’s newfangled machines. And then the customers would go back to Lee over and over again to get refills of fortunes. Yang felt taken advantage of. He felt like he was putting in all this work, finding customers for Lee, and all he got was this one commission, while Lee was set for years.

Steven Yang: I said, “You’re smart. I find a customer, selling her a machine, she then she goes to you.”

Lidia Jean Kott: So Yang decided to start his own business selling fortune cookie fortunes for cheaper than Lee’s. And yes, to start things off, he stole these fortunes.

Steven Yang: First time I got a fortune from Boston guy. I copied them. I copied them and sell them.

Lidia Jean Kott: Copied and sold them. Yang says he doesn’t feel like he did anything wrong. To the contrary, he’s proud. He feels like he won.

Was the Boston guy, was he mad that you copied…?

Steven Yang: Of course. I don’t care. All markets were mine, not the Boston guy. The Boston guy: no more.

Lidia Jean Kott: But at the end of the Boston guy was not the end of Yang’s problems. Yang didn’t tell us what those stolen fortunes said, but he said as his company grew, he started getting negative feedback about typos, grammatical mistakes, repeat, etc.

Steven Yang: So many companies said, “This is no good.” This is not the future.

Lidia Jean Kott: That’s why Yang hired Russell Rowland to write more fortunes. You know, bummer fortune guy.

Patrick Cox: “Pay less attention to your living conditions and more attention to your life.”

Lidia Jean Kott: “That didn’t go great either. So Yang shifted focus from producing fortunes to printing and cutting them. Companies turned to him because he uses the special nontoxic ink and nontoxic paper that’s pretty hard to get. So if people eat their fortunes, nothing bad will happen to them.

Nina Porzucki: Wait a second. People eat fortunes? What are you talking about? Nobody eats the little paper fortune!

Lidia Jean Kott: Some people actually only think it comes true if they eat them. Anyways, he told me that he likes it the work.

What do you like about your job? Why do you like it?

Steven Yang: Yeah, you know why? No competition.

Lidia Jean Kott: Are there other businesses?

Steven Yang: No.

Lidia Jean Kott: You’re the only one?

Steven Yang: The only one. No competition.

Lidia Jean Kott: At least for now. But as Lee’s son said back when I asked him if someone stole his dad’s fortunes…

David Lee: I think any great technology, they’re going to be copycats and there’s going to be competition.

Lidia Jean Kott: I realize now, though, or at least I think that what he was trying to say is that that’s OK. That’s how things get better, even. And that’s why his dad was willing to let this whole thing go. I mean, stealing those fortunes, it was definitely a little ethically dubious on Yang’s part. But doesn’t every innovation, every piece of art, every fortune cookie fortune owe something to what came before it? I think my conclusion after all this is that it’s not where you take things from, but where you take them to.

Patrick Cox: Lidia Jean Kott. And yes, of course she stole that last line. Shamelessly and gleefully.

Thanks to Lidia Jean, and to Nina Porzucki.

Also to Terry McDermott, whose LA Times article, The Sage of Fortune Cookies inspired the story about Russell Rowland.

To Jennifer 8. Lee, the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. All of the history in this episode Lidia Jean got from Jennifer’s book.

And to Guendalina Fanti for going to that bakery in Japan and sending us back the audio.

We’re going to be starting a weekly newsletter soon. It’ll be a pretty short email rounding up some language-related items that are in the news. Also new linguistic research, — and maybe a translation fail or two. We’re still working on the format. If you’d like to know more, or want to tell us what you might be most interested in reading about in a newsletter, drop us a line. And you can always find us on Twitter.

Sorry that it’s taken a while to get this episode out. I’d been good about publishing every two weeks, but this one got away. A lot of stuff going on. Not bad stuff, just stuff.

Anyway, Kavita Pillay and I will be back with more episodes in September. We have a couple in the works already.

See you then! And thanks for those ratings and reviews!

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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