An Unusual Medium: Fortune Cookies

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At Smoke Creatives, we’re all about storytelling. An Unusual Medium is our series where we take a look at some of the more unconventional storytelling mediums and celebrate them in all their glory. First up, fortune cookies.

The History

Fortune cookies have a bit of a disputed origin. Researchers have concluded they’re most likely a Japanese invention - an illustration of a man preparing tsujiura senbei (‘fortune crackers’) was found in a 19th-century story book. But the version of the cookies we eat today hail from California. As to who created them, there are two main claimants: Makoto Hagiwara and David Jung.

Makoto Hagiwara was a Japanese immigrant working at the Japanese Tea Gardens in San Francisco. He began serving cookies based on senbei (rice crackers) in the early 1900s. Instead of containing fortunes, the cookies had thank you notes to customers. It’s said Hagiwara did this to thank the public for reinstating him after he was fired by a racist mayor.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Chinese immigrant David Jung founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company in 1916. The story goes that he created the fortune cookie in 1918, filling them with inspirational passages of scripture and handing them out for free to the unemployed on the streets.

While nobody takes the official title of original fortune cookie creator, their fame can be attributed to the rise in popularity of Chinese-American cuisine.

The Noteworthy

No fortune cookie manufacturer can match the might of Wonton Food in the USA. The company produces 4 million cookies each day and has over 10,000 fortunes in their database. Until recently the CFW (Chief Fortune Writer) was Donald Lau, Wonton Food’s CFO who landed the role due to having the best English out of the company’s employees at the time. Lau found inspiration everywhere – from newspapers to subway signs - keeping a notebook with him to write down ideas whenever they struck. In an interview with CNN he said, “I may never be able to write the great American novel but I can write fortunes and be the most read author in the United States.” Lau stepped down this year due to writer’s block; the demand for fortunes to be inspirational, yogi-esque messages not being his style.

Changing up the fortunes shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Wonton Food; the company are open to some experimentation. In 2007, they tried a run of realist messages with pearls of wisdom like ‘It’s over your head now. Time to get some professional help’ and ‘Your luck is just not there. Attend to practical matters today’. Needless to say, not every diner took them well.

Wonton Food’s fortunes have also brought huge fortunes to customers. In 2005, the March 30th Powerball draw saw 110 players get 5 out of 6 numbers correct. After some investigation from the Multi-State Lottery Association, they traced the winning combination back to a batch of fortune cookies produced by the company. Each winner received a sweet sum of up to $500,000 depending on the amount they had bet.

Why Smoke Loves Them

Who doesn’t love a little glimpse into the future or appreciate some sage advice every now and again? Fortune cookies are basically horoscopes in dessert form (and remember you have to eat the cookie for the fortune to come true). For the writers of fortunes, it can be a challenge to craft the perfect prediction. There’s a strict word count and a wide audience to cater to. And for the cookies served in restaurants, fortunes can be a highlight of a diner’s evening. After all, is there a storytelling medium that gets people more excited to read and share?

Read the next post in our Unusual Medium series on obituaries.