Fortune cookies have nothing to do with China besides the fact that they conclude your meal at a Chinese restaurant—notably outside China. In fact, they didn’t come to China until 1989 and were introduced as “genuine American fortune cookies”.
Although the Chinese might not be credited for the invention of this ubiquitous cellophane-wrapped desert, their decedents—Chinese-Americans specifically—are credited with its production. Wonton Food, Inc., based in Brooklyn, New York, is the largest manufacturer in the industry with 4.5 million cookies distributed throughout restaurants across the US, Canada, Latin America, and Europe every day. Its vice-president Donald Lau—profiled by The New Yorker—is the man behind the fortune messages with a career path motto: “Think in ten-word sentences.”
Having graduated from Columbia with degrees in engineering and business, Lau was hired by Wonton Food, a Chinatown noodle manufacturer. His career as a culinary fortune teller began as the company expanded into fortune cookies and needed to update its fortune database.
“I was chosen because my English was the best of the group, not because I’m a poet,” Lau said.
In addition to his daily tasks of scrutinizing spreadsheets and monitoring the company’s inventory of chow mein, Lau gleaned inspiration for his fortune messages. He could crank out three to four messages max per day. After eleven years of contributing to the company’s vast database of 15,000 messages, Lau met with writer’s block and gave it all up in 1995. Worrying about losing its edge the company contracted freelancers to craft new messages under Lau’s supervision as editor.
Lisa Yang from Yang’s Fortunes, a fortune printing company, is another dedicated fortune writer. Originally, her father, owner of Yang’s Fortunes, hired a translator to translate Chinese proverbs for fortune messages and Yang would edit them in her free time. She would also read books of inspirational quotes and pursued daily horoscopes to create new messages. After college, Yang joined the family business and still occasionally contributes to the company’s database.
“I think it’s fun being the person behind this,” Yang told reporters.
Next time, instead of debating the mysterious origin of fortune cookies after your Westernized Chinese meal, you’ll be able to bring up these moguls of cookie-based divining to give the topic a new spin.
Ksayer1 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons