Crack open a fortune cookie, and you may find a strange message from the universe or a wise piece of advice. Whatever your interpretation of that slip of paper, fortune cookie writer Donald Lau only hopes it leaves you happy.
“I don’t think I’m a fortune-teller,” Lau says. “I don’t think fortune cookies are meant to be like a horoscope. It’s a way to end a meal in a Chinese restaurant and be happy when you leave.”
Lau works as the chief financial officer at Wonton Food Company, the largest manufacturer of fortune cookies in the world. But he has also become the unofficial CFW, or chief fortune writer. Lau has been the sole hired fortune writer since the company acquired fortune cookie factories more than 30 years ago.
Finding inspiration from all aspects of life, from taking the subway to participating in business meetings, Lau used to write two or three axioms a day. Due to writer’s block and the company’s expansion, Lau now writes two or three fortunes a month.
“I feel that I will never be able to write the great American novel, but I can write the fortunes,” he says. “I am the most read author in the United States.”
This slowdown of fortune writing hasn’t affected production. Wonton Foods has a database of thousands of fortunes, gathered from the ones Lau has written over the years, open submissions and the Internet.
Lau says the job was given to him by default, because he spoke the best English when the company was founded. But current Wonton Food CEO Norman Wong believes the job carries deep responsibilities in upholding Chinese tradition.
“We are a Chinese-American company,” Wong said. “We see it as our mission to spread Chinese culture and philosophy around the world.”
The origin of fortune cookies is much debated. Some say they’re actually an American invention, originating from either a Chinese or Japanese restaurant on the West Coast in the early 1900s. Wong says they are rooted in Chinese history, when Chinese patriots rebelling against the Ching dynasty passed messages hidden in pastries.
Despite the company’s fortune cookie distribution around the globe — in the Middle East, Europe and South America — the cookies still remain widely unknown in China. In the 1990s, Wonton Food opened a factory in Guangzhou, China, only to close it after a few years when the cookies failed to pick up steam in the country.
Wonton Food started as a noodle factory in Manhattan’s Chinatown in 1973 and expanded into the fortune cookie business in the 1980s. Passed down from a father, Ching Sun Wong, to son Norman Wong, the business now produces 4 million cookies a day out of its factories in Queens, New York, and Houston.
In the early 1990s, Wonton Food was responsible for adding the Chinese lesson and the lucky numbers on the back of the fortune. The database of fortunes itself continues to be updated to make sure messages are kept modern while still being infused with traditional Chinese principles. An element of Chinese tradition Wong said he hopes the fortune cookies emphasize is taking time during a meal to have meaningful discussion with friends and family.
Throughout the years, the company has considered getting other writers, even reaching the interview stage, but Wong says they have not been able to find anyone who has the same cleverness and humor as Lau.
“It’s a search that we have the luxury of doing slowly, making sure we find the right person,” Wong says.
He’s likely turning to one of Lau’s fortunes for solace: “The opposite of stressed is desserts, need relief, order some more.”