Outrageous fortune

For five decades the fortune cookie, a true immigrant success story, has been the crunchy, cryptic completion to any Chinese-American restaurant meal.

Published February 20, 2007 12:50PM (EST)

On a 98-degree day in New York last summer, I took the 7 train to 33rd Street in Long Island City, Queens, to meet Derrick Wong. I didn't go to the end of the line that morning -- that would be Main Street, Flushing -- but if I had, I would have landed smack in the middle of New York's biggest Chinatown, home to the city's largest Chinese population, and the place I was born.

It was a day in which power grids went down and subway trains stalled after their third rails warped from the near-record heat. Wong, a compact 39-year-old with an easy laugh and thinning hair, picked me up in a silver Acura at the corner of Queens Boulevard, a heavily trafficked area with an industrial pedigree, adjacent to the subway line. From there, you could see the old Swingline stapler factory, recently repurposed to house the Museum of Modern Art's library and archives.

Though he carries the decidedly mundane title of V.P. of sales and marketing, Wong is actually the de facto fortune cookie scion at the helm of the largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the world, the family-owned-and-run Wonton Food Inc. We were on our way to visit the heat and heart of the cookie oven itself: the company's 24-hour factory and warehouse, which is dedicated entirely to churning out 4 million cookies a day, seven days a week, and shipping them out to more than 400 distributors in the U.S. and overseas.

Fortune cookies are arguably the most important restaurant staple not on menus in Chinatowns across America. Enter any Chinese restaurant and you'll spot them: in a bowl near the door, atop a check tray at the waitress station, cracked open and littering a table full of diners finishing their meal. Last year, the fortune cookie turned 90 -- that is, if you believe that Cantonese immigrant David Jung started distributing message-filled cookies outside his Los Angeles noodle company in 1916. Or it hits its 100th birthday this year, if you subscribe to the theory that Makoto Hagiwara, a caretaker of San Francisco's Japanese Tea Garden, created the cookies in 1907. A trail of documents at the U.S. Patent Office pertaining to the fortune cookie supports the theory, at least, that it was invented in San Francisco early in the 20th century. Still another branch of cookie mythology traces it to Chinese immigrant laborers in the 19th century who created makeshift moon cakes to celebrate the lunar festival. Whichever story you buy, one truth persists -- the fortune cookie isn't really Chinese. In fact, when Wonton Food opened the first fortune cookie factory in China in 1994, it promptly closed. "It didn't work," Wong told me. "Fortune cookies are too American."

More specifically, they're Chinese-American. In post-World War II America, they have become the dominant icon of Chinatown and the Chinese restaurant business. And in New York, the growth and movement of the fortune cookie business over the last four decades -- from innumerable mom-and-pop shops that sold cookies locally to one monolithic factory in Queens that feeds the world -- reflect the economic and geographic movement of Chinese-American populations from Manhattan's Chinatown into the surrounding boroughs and beyond. The cookies themselves are still most beloved in the U.S., but Wonton Food has also begun shipping to such far-flung destinations as Panama, Morocco, Portugal, Greece and Belgium. Like many other American cultural icons -- from Mickey Mouse to Coca-Cola -- the fortune cookie has gone global.

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Wonton Food's primary business is noodles, but the company's most well-known product sells under the brand name Golden Bowl. Thirty-five percent of Wonton Food's business is fortune cookies. The 40,000-square-foot factory in Queens takes up one entire square block, and on the approach to the main building, a delicious, vanilla-tinged aroma wafts out to greet visitors. It is the scent one might imagine as the olfactory accompaniment to Tchaikovsky's dancing sugar plum visions. Though the fragrance was already familiar to me -- throughout my childhood, my grandfather worked at one of the early fortune cookie plants in Manhattan's Chinatown -- I couldn't help commenting on its warmth and sweetness.

"Sugar," Wong said simply, as we dodged trucks pulling into the loading bay. He meant, of course, that sugar is the leading ingredient in fortune cookies, the other main components being flour and water. The standard recipe is no secret. Dozens of culinary Web sites and cookbooks offer do-it-yourself instructions that play on some variation of the sugar-flour-water ratio; some include egg whites, oil or butter to help bind the cookies (though Wonton Food uses lecithin and soybean oil). That simplicity defies the aura of mystery that has been created around the entire concept of fortune cookies, a fact that has not been lost on Wong. Indeed, the fortune cookie is something of an edible anomaly -- what interests most eaters is not the cookie itself, but the cryptic message inside.

Factory protocol dictates that all visitors to Wonton Food's fortune cookie factory sign into a logbook and don white caps before entering the facility. This is hardly a tourist destination -- the vast majority of those who come are bulk-buy customers wanting to see how the products they purchase are made. We began our tour of the facility in the battering area, where stacks of cardboard boxes labeled "Intermediate Cake Flour" lined the walls. The fluorescent lighting, white tile, snaking tubes, and metallic tables seem like something out of a mad scientist's laboratory, an impression reinforced by the presence of an oversize vat of viscous, bright-orange liquid.

"It's so ... orange," I said, straining to be heard above the low-level buzzing of the giant mixer.

"It is orange -- that's the color of fortune cookies," Wong replied matter-of-factly, gesturing at the vat of finished batter. Wonton Food's bestselling cookie is citrus, which requires the addition of citrus flavoring and Yellow No. 5 and No. 6 to the basic recipe (hence the orange coloring). The second most popular version is vanilla, but cookies can be flavored with anything from chocolate to amaretto. Levels of flavoring are adjusted to produce different grades of cookies.

Over time, different regions of the U.S. have developed particular tastes for what might be called the basic fortune cookie. The East Coast prefers the citrus varietal, while the Midwest always requests vanilla. The West Coast market gets a mix of both. Every once in a while, Wonton Food will experiment with an oddball flavor -- cinnamon or amaretto, for instance, as when Wong tried a joint venture for a South American audience. And as with most of the company's trial deviations away from basic cookie flavor or shape, the response was poor. "People like what they know," Wong says. "They don't like change, especially when it comes to fortune cookies."

In 1983, Wonton Food bought a small mom-and-pop fortune cookie plant in Manhattan's Chinatown, on Chrystie Street. And that was how Wong Ching Sun -- Derrick Wong's uncle -- went into the fortune cookie business. Now well into his 70s, the elder Wong is semi-retired, but he remains the chairman and owner of Wonton Food. The company has been the dominant force in the American -- and international -- fortune cookie business for more than 10 years. There are no other big fortune cookie manufacturers on the East Coast; Golden Dragon in Chicago and Peking Noodle in Los Angeles may come closer to Wonton Food in production capacity than the traditional mom-and-pop shops do, but Wong brushes off the suggestion that the two operations might be his competitors. Approximately 40 other fortune cookie factories in the U.S. also distribute to the country's 40,000 Chinese restaurants.

Wong is intimately familiar with every aspect of cookie production. He was born in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, where much of the Chinatown community originates, and moved to New York when he was 14 years old. He joined the company in 1991 after he graduated from Brooklyn Polytech, where he was trained as a civil engineer. "Back then, the economy was not so good," he says. "There were no jobs when I graduated. Then my father asked me to come back and join the company. Once I joined it and settled down, that was it. I did almost every job, production job, all the baking, the warehouse, drive the truck, salesman -- everything." His training in civil engineering, he says, has been put to use "not at all."

Wong's father, a mechanical engineer, ran operations at the fortune cookie plant for much of its existence. Because of him, the company builds and repairs all of its machines on-site. "He started it all," Wong told me. "But now he's retired and back in Guangzhou." Downstairs from the battering area, 14 machines do the bulk of the work on the factory floor. Batter gets piped into each machine from lines in the ceiling, and workers dressed in white uniforms and caps monitor the cookies' progress, from the moment the perfect doughy circles leave the ovens to when they are individually sealed in plastic, boxed away, and sent to the warehouse. "All our cookies need to be shipped every day -- it has to be in and out, in and out, right away," Wong says. "The whole inventory only lasts us about 36 hours. If we stop production for 36 hours, we have nothing to sell."

Over the last 40 years, cookie production has become largely automated, but manual labor remains part of the job. Wong still has chronic back problems from his earlier years spent hoisting boxes of flour and other cookie ingredients. These days, the temperature on the factory floor normally exceeds the outside temperature by at least 10 degrees. On my first visit, the arrow on the circular thermometer by the ovens hovered somewhere in the colored region above 100 degrees. But no one seemed to mind -- for once, the temperature inside wasn't much different from outside.

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Wonton Food's fortune cookie plant manager, Lui Wai Pa, is from Toisan, a town in Guangdong that fueled much of the immigrant wave to New York's Chinatown in the '60s and '70s. On our first meeting, he asked, in Toisanese dialect, where my family was from. When I told him that my mother and her family come from Toisan, he nodded vigorously. "I knew it," he said. "You look like a Toisan person."

I grew up speaking Cantonese. To my child's ears, when we visited my grandparents every Sunday in Flushing, their Toisanese ran seamlessly into the Cantonese that the rest of my family spoke. These days my language skills are rusty, but I was happy for the chance to chat with Lui in a dialect hodgepodge. In response to my mostly Cantonese offerings, he made a clever joke in Toisanese and said not to worry -- "I'm Toisan, too, and I only speak English."

When Wong's family first started the business in the '70s, all of their employees spoke Cantonese. Now, Wong says, it's different. The office and mechanical staff speak Mandarin and English -- their training today demands it -- and 90 percent of Wonton Food's factory workers are from Toisan. Many of them live in Sunset Park, a recently settled Chinatown in Brooklyn that attracts new immigrants. It was a surprise to find an almost exclusively Toisan employee pool, since so many new immigrants now come from other regions of China. But, as Wong explains it, "Chinese people go where they know someone."

What you see in the fortune cookie factory today is not like 20 years ago, Wong says. Most of the early factories were tiny basement affairs in Chinatown, employing low-wage workers and using primitive machines that cranked out dough but still required hand-folding. "The small factory that we took over in 1983 used a very traditional type of fortune cookie machine, the rotary type," Wong says. "The cookie rate was low."

The rate was even lower in the '60s and '70s, when my grandfather, Dong Suey Lin, worked at three of those mom-and-pop cookie plants in Chinatown. He told me that one of the first factories to open its doors in New York was Tsun Tsun, on East Broadway. One of its partners eventually left to open up a new factory down the street in Chatham Square, called Tsun Mei. It was at Tsun Mei, on the advice of friends in the business, that my "gung-gung" began a 20-year career in fortune cookies. With fingers bandaged to handle scalding dough more deftly, he and the other workers each averaged two buckets an hour. Five hundred cookies a bucket, two buckets an hour, eight hours a day, five or six days a week. It was the very definition of manual labor, since they used their fingers to fold each and every cookie.

"Factory" might be an optimistic word for Tsun Mei's cookie operation, since there were only two machines on the premises, and two shifts to occupy them -- two people working during the day, and two changing in to work at night. My gung-gung worked the morning shift for five years before moving on to Duk Hing, on Bayard Street. Duk Hing was also small, and also in the basement, but it had three machines. To earn spending money as a teenager, my uncle John joined my grandfather for summer stints folding cookies in Duk Hing's subterranean workspace.

He hated it. "It was so hot, and we always got burned and had to tape our fingers," he says. He only lasted two summers, and he still grimaces and shakes his head whenever I wave a fortune cookie at him.

My gung-gung, on the other hand, kept at it. The third factory he worked at had an auspicious name: Lung Fung, or dragon and phoenix. It was located on Centre Street, near City Hall, and he stayed there for 12 years, beginning in 1972. By this time, he told me, fortune cookies were "ho sang-yee" -- extremely good business. There was a lot of demand, and despite all the shops that had sprung up in Chinatown, they couldn't make enough, since New York's fortune cookie operations had begun supplying other states as well.

"When we folded them by hand, none of the cookies were the same," my gung-gung says. "You could speed up or slow down, and they would look different depending on how much time and care you took to fold them." When the cookie mixture was good -- when all the ingredients struck the right balance -- his days were better; the cookies almost made themselves. When the mixture was bad, it produced gloppy, wet messes or a burned char -- nightmare cookies that hardened and broke before they could be properly folded. When my uncle and grandfather describe the process to me now, I think of that famous episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucy works the assembly line in a chocolate factory, shoving chocolates in her mouth and down the front of her shirt to keep up with the machine. Instead of shoving the reject cookies down their shirts, my relatives tossed them into a can at their feet. Reject canisters eventually got filled and the bosses got angry and clicked their tongues. The error-ridden cookies were wrapped up in plastic bags and brought home to my brother and me. It was how my gung-gung's life in the fortune cookie business began to bleed into my own life as a Chinese-American kid growing up on Long Island.

Fortune cookies occupy a complicated place in the American imagination. "For Asian-Americans, the fortune and the fortune cookie can be a little bit of an embarrassing stereotype -- that there is this stupefying thing," says Peter Kwong, an Asian-American studies professor at Hunter College and an academic authority on Chinatowns. But he admits that while the cookie's flavor doesn't interest him much, his wife still always asks for them in a restaurant.

Often the first introduction to Chinese culture for many Americans, Chinese restaurants and their ambassador, the fortune cookie, have been an important influence on American dining over the past century, says Cynthia Lee, the curator of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York. "Chinese restaurateurs acted as cultural brokers by introducing and accommodating Chinese food traditions to American culture," says Lee. In the process, they invented distinctive Chinese-American fare. "The fortune cookie is one example of the balance between the exotic and the familiar."

For the museum's recent exhibit on the Chinese restaurant in America, Lee researched the fortune cookie and its disputed origins. The consensus states that the cookie was probably invented in California during the teens and twenties. It became widely popular in the U.S. during the post-World War II era, says Lee. "American GI's, who encountered the cookie while on leave in San Francisco, began asking for them in Chinese restaurants in other parts of the country." The cookie's infiltration of American pop culture took off from there; in the cookie manufacturing of the 1950s, fortunes were written as exotic Chinese "proverbs," establishing the common stereotype of "fortune cookie wisdom."

For me, fortune cookies are tied explicitly to my family's history in America. My nostalgia for them has to do with the simple fact of their ubiquity in my everyday life as a child. My brother Andy and I found the misshapen cookies my grandfather brought home funny. They were flat and round, or half-folded, or filled with multiple paper fortunes grabbed by hasty hands on the assembly line. We gobbled them while we watched cartoons, mining the cookies for favorable fortunes and throwing away the rest, the paper slips scattering around the room like so many unwanted peanut shells.

The cookies also showed up in my lunch bag at school. Though I sometimes wished my mother would slip Oreos in with my sandwiches instead -- in the way that children are, I wanted to be like everyone else, and fortune cookies seemed conspicuously novel to my suburban peers -- I didn't mind much. In our house, they had always been as common as the breakfast cereal in the pantry.

By 1980, my grandparents moved to Flushing, though they continued to commute to their jobs in Manhattan's Chinatown. When they finally retired, it was to Long Island. At their house in Massapequa today -- paid for in large part by America's predilection for the fortune cookie -- I find Golden Bowl cookies on the kitchen counter, evidence of a visit to this or that Chinese restaurant, on Main Street in Flushing or in a nearby suburb. A quarter of a century later, the cookies are everywhere, no longer exotic.

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A couple of years ago, a funny thing happened to Wonton Food -- it became famous. After a Powerball lottery drawing in March 2005, 110 people came forward with five of six winning numbers to claim a total of $19.4 million in prizes. Usually, there are only about four or five second-prize winners. What did this round of winners have in common? They'd all played numbers printed on a fortune in a cookie manufactured by Wonton Food. A glut of media attention followed, and everyone from Martha Stewart's daughter to the New Yorker came to pay a visit.

"Before the lottery, everyone knew fortune cookies, but no one knew Wonton Food," Wong says. "Now everyone knows Wonton Food."

Part of the appeal of fortune cookies for Americans is that mystery behind them. "People really want a fortuneteller," Wong says, with a note of surprise in his voice. His company originally started printing "lucky numbers" on the back of its fortunes to separate itself from competitors; the numbers are selected by computer.

The fortunes themselves are now printed in English, Spanish and French. In the front office, a member of Wong's sales team shuffled fortunes in a folder and showed me a stack of orange plastic printing plates. "This is the fortune database," he joked. Every two years, new batches of fortunes are written and rotated in. Wong is deliberately vague about where the fortunes come from, saying only that they are "outsourced." He asks me not to take pictures of the fortune machinery, or the record books.

Wong receives hundreds of e-mails a week asking for the coveted job of writing the company's fortunes. Everybody, it seems, wants to be the writer of other people's destinies. Some applicants even send résumés. "All kinds of people want to do it -- full-time, part-time, freelance. They all offer themselves for the job. And it's not like we even posted a job officially! Writers, teachers, artists. All kinds of people want this job. People have it in their heads that this is real fortunetelling."

And if they want to continue thinking that, Wong is OK with it. He gets it. He likes eating fortune cookies -- "especially when they're warm and fresh, the texture and mouth feel are big difference to those already packed" -- and reading the fortunes. Some fortune messages, he says, are inspiring. He has never tried to write one himself.

Though the fortune cookie industry is still tied to Chinatown in terms of history, location, and distribution, it is quickly being mainstreamed -- and in some ways is already there, with regard to consumption and marketing cachet. And the addition of customized messages has, in recent years, turned the cookies into popular sales gimmick, and what could be more American? Now, instead of being wrapped in crinkled cellophane wrappers, some come dipped in chocolate, perched on martini glasses, encrusted with sprinkles, baked around bawdy fortunes or engagement rings; they're found in the context of a party, an election campaign.

Fortune cookies are still a big part of the identity construct that follows the Chinese in America. Like the American Chinatowns where its basement manufacture grew over time to become a worldwide industry, the fortune cookie smacks of self-invention. Heed its advice, and you might win big. You can be whoever you want to be. That's not one of Wong's fortunes, but it could be.

By Bonnie Tsui

Bonnie Tsui writes regularly for The New York Times. She is currently working on a book on American Chinatowns, to be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press.

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