Sunday, 29 September 2013

Prophet and loss: In the hall of the White Dragon King


It's amazing what a bit of self-belief and snappy patter can do for your prospects. Chau Yum-nam started out as a jobbing electrician in Pattaya before plugging in to a different power source which would see him become the unofficial prophet of Cantopop and the high priest of Hong Kong show business as the self-styled White Dragon King.

When Chau popped his white dragon clogs earlier this month, more than 5,000 fans and disciples gathered for the funeral. This who's who of Hong Kong showbiz royalty included businessman Albert Yeung, movie director Meng Yao, Cantopop king Andy Lau, movie stars  Shu Qi and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Thailand's King Bhumibol even sent some 'holy mud' for the burial. 

The White Dragon King was still at the height of his powers when I visited his lair  seven years ago for a brief and deeply weird audience. 

Hours before dawn they begin to assemble. Buses and cars form an orderly queue, disgorging white-clad figures who drift about like ghosts in the gloom. As dawn's fingers clutch at the bruised sky, a spark of excitement jumps from vehicle to vehicle. A small, bent figure has emerged from behind the spike-topped red gates and silently passes from group to group, handing out numbers.

At exactly 6am, the gates will be thrown open and this pale cavalcade will proceed along a winding driveway, stopping in the shadows of an impressive Chinese temple topped by two huge, bejewelled dragons rampant. The true believers will be ushered into an anteroom, where they will trade the number assigned their vehicle for individual numbers for each of their group. They will shake incense sticks at grotesquely rendered deities and purchase amulets and charms. They will quaff coffee and greasy, fried cakes. Then they will sit patiently and wait for their allotted minute or two with Thailand's most eccentric sage, an illiterate former electrician who has a growing portion of Hong Kong in his thrall, including Cantonese pop and movie royalty. Enter, if you will, the lair of the White Dragon King.

I had stood before the same red gates two days earlier, oozing sweat under a violent Pattaya sun. 'I'm sorry,' said the voice that answered a telephone number emblazoned on a sign by the fence. 'The master doesn't give interviews.'

I pleaded, stammered and grovelled, explaining I'd driven all the way from Bangkok and my editor wouldn't take no for an answer. 'I'm sorry,' said the voice again. 'No interviews. Ever. But you can come back on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday and wait in line with everybody else. The master might decide to speak with you.' And you would be? 'I,' said the voice, 'am Mr Lo.'

And so it is that at 4.30am one Friday I find myself waiting with the rest of the devout in the White Dragon King's driveway, dressed in my least-stained white T-shirt, whey-faced from lack of sleep. The mysterious Mr Lo, I had learned, is no faceless lackey: he is the master's right-hand man and translator, the chap who decodes the Dragon King's pronouncements for his Cantonese, Putonghua and English-speaking supplicants.

Indeed, it was Lo whom the Dragon King sent to the fatal shores of Hong Kong during the height of the Sars scare to bestow a blessing on the 'camera-cranking ceremony' to mark the commencement of filming Infernal Affairs 2, the $40 million prequel to the smash hit starring Andy Lau Tak-wah and Tony Leung Chiu-wai. 'The master wanted to come, but he was worried about catching Sars,' revealed a spokesman from production company Media Asia at the time.

The White Dragon King had blessed the first instalment of the planned trilogy, and it went on to become the year's top-grosser, collected countless awards and is soon to be remade by Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt.

But who is this self-made seer, fast becoming a one-man tourist attraction? Hong Kong and Singaporean travel agents are now offering package tours - 'Bangkok, Pattaya and the White Dragon King' - which explains the busloads of blue-rinsed matrons in the queue. Finding fans is simple: there are scores of them waiting with me outside the temple gates, clutching their numbers, many prepared to swear he has changed their lives. But ferreting out the facts of his provenance proves more difficult. Days of searching have not turned up a single press article in English containing any useful information on the 65-year-old man whose passport records him as Chau Yum-nam.

The guru is in, but he has cloaked himself in mystery, rumour and legend. His website divulges little of substance. He is name-checked often by Hong Kong's Chinese-language press, and asked to predict all sorts of things, the authenticity of his credentials unchecked and his most anodyne utterances treated as holy writ. But a close reading of his predictions reveal a cunning linguist who has made an art form of the non-answer, the contradictory ramble, and the all-purpose forecast. He is bombastic and a bit of a bully, to keep people off balance and the agenda in his control at all times.

I try to reassure him that I just want a short interview and some time on site to soak in his world.
We read, for instance, that the White Dragon King believed the late Canto-pop legend Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing had been possessed by ghosts, which is why he committed suicide. Cheung's face indicated he could have a long life if he could only fight off the ghosts, proclaimed the master, who said he had been asked to see Cheung in March, during his last visit to Hong Kong. The master refused, saying Cheung could make the pilgrimage to Pattaya if he wanted advice.

We learn Tony Leung is reportedly an avid disciple, and has been told by the White Dragon King he must pay back kindness from the dragon accumulated in another life. Singer Daniel Chan Hiu-tung had been at a low ebb in his career following a friend's suicide, but after a visit to the master was back on top. Other famous visitors to kneel before the dragon's throne include Carina Lau Ka-ling, Jackie Chan and his manager Willie Chan Chi-keung, the late Roman Tam Pak-sin, lead-footed bad boy Nicholas Tse Ting-fung and affable, bull-necked Everyman Eric Tsang Chi-wai. I'd meet the latter on my second visit to the temple, a week hence.


We also know Chau was born near Pattaya of Chinese parents, has worked as an electrician and possibly a bicycle salesman, and claims to have had visions of an obscure Chinese deity that have appeared to him as a great white dragon since he was 13. When he was 28, he almost died in a car accident, and was told by the dragon to build a temple. Chau would become the god's portal to the living world. He taught himself palmistry, soothsaying and fung shui. He made some money on the stock market. He is married, with four daughters. His birthday is May 5.

This, then, is the sum total of my knowledge as the gates swing open and we file in to wait before the dragon's throne.

ARRIVING AT 4.30AM PROVES no guarantee of a fast track to the master - there are dozens of cars ahead of mine, and inside I discover I am number 68, out of more than 100 visitors. So far there is no sign of the master - he normally appears at about 7.30am, and ascends to the golden throne at exactly 8am, when the (punctual) White Dragon King possesses his body.

On one wall are plastered dozens of large colour photos of corpses in varying degrees of mutilation and decomposition. They are the detritus washed up by Pattaya's depraved tides - deceased persons with no families to bury them. The idea is you sponsor a funeral and gain some merit.

It is already sweltering and getting hotter by the minute. The air is thick with a choking mixture of incense and fertiliser fumes wafting off the expansive, manicured lawn. 'Don't come here if you're not a good person. Otherwise your clever questions will get stupid answers,' warns a sign in Thai and Chinese next to the corpse wall.

I drift outside for a coffee and meet Maisy Ho, 48, of Tin Shiu Wai. She has come in one of the big tourist buses with four of her friends. 'This is my first time but my friends have been before,' she says. 'My husband lost his job and my brother-in-law caught Sars. It's been a terrible year and I hope the master will have some good news for me.' Does she really believe a Thai guru could say anything of relevance to a Hong Kong housewife? 'Jackie Chan comes here,' she says in response.

At 7.30am, I go in search of Lo, to see if there's any chance of rescinding the 'no interview' rule. I'm directed to a thin, nervous man with a high forehead and spectacles. 'Ah yes, the journalist. What would you like to know?' I ask about the crowd, which he says is usually 80 per cent Hong Kong Chinese, 15 per cent Singaporean and Malaysian, with a smattering of locals and the occasional Westerner.

I ask if the master is about, and Lo nods at a short, sprightly chap with a full head of hair the colour of iron filings perched behind a desk near the throne, puffing furiously at a cigarette in a yellowed ivory holder. He seems to have simply materialised - he certainly hadn't been there when I'd last looked, mere seconds ago.

So what's the score? I ask Lo. Does the guru really have special powers? 'You must understand that he is not a fortune-teller,' he replies. 'But since he was 13, he has been able to look at people and instantly know everything. He isn't doing this to get rich or to be famous. He simply wants to help people. Now, are you ready to meet the White Dragon King?'

I explain that I'm number 68, but Lo gives me a knowing smile and ushers me into the master's presence, past the seated faithful who check their numbers and glare and tut. The master regards me for a moment then pulls out a bundle of small twigs and whacks me over the head. I'm instructed to kneel. 'You are a journalist, but you're too impatient,' he begins, as Lo translates. 'You must learn to be more polite, to speak softly, don't be in such a rush. If you're nice to your boss, you might get a good promotion.' He's silent for a moment, then begins to bark. 'You must respect your mother. Be nicer to her. You are not nice enough to your mother!' A long silence. 'You're still young. You're clever. But you're not rich. In two years, you can start to make money. At 40, you'll be rich. But don't get greedy.'

Predicting great future wealth is one of his stock sooths to be sayed, and indeed who would argue against such heartening visions. I begin to ask him who his favourite film star is, but he barks 'Silence' and flutters his eyes  bit. 'You must write with more feeling. You must write better. And keep your clothes in order. Your shoes are too messy. You're the sort of person who comes home and throws his shoes around. Stack them neatly instead. That's very important. When your wife gets angry, take a picture of her. She's easily upset. If you speak too sharply, she will cry.

'Now, do you know Sondhi Limthokul? He's a journalist. He comes to see me all the time. He's a good friend.' I allow that I know of the Bangkok-based former publisher of Manager magazine and the defunct Asia Times, but have never met him. 'Hmm, well, be more like him. And you must have a baby soon. So, now you go. Go and do what I told you. Goodbye.'

I bite my tongue, thank him and get to my feet, bemused and head spinning from this typhoon of weird homilies. Neater shoes? Be nicer to my mum? I'll be rich at 40? Lo escorts me away from the master and his throne and off to a side room for a post-session debrief.

Lo walks off with me, and I ask who are the master's money men. 'We have many people who make donations and the master made some money on the stock market when he was younger,' he says, but will reveal no more. The master has owned the property at Sri Racha, near Pattaya, for more than 30 years and the current temple was built 15 years ago. So what does a dragon king do on his days off? 'He takes a rest, he does other projects, he visits schools in the provinces and does charitable works.'

Outside the temple I meet Percy Lau, a cigar-puffing Hong Kong stockbroker who looks like David Tang Wing-cheung's more handsome younger brother. The Robinson Road resident has been visiting the temple for eight years, currying the White Dragon King's favour.

A huge gong thunders, followed by a drum tattoo. 'Don't worry,' says Lau, 'that's just the god descending to take over his body. He's now truly the White Dragon King.' Does his advice count if he's not possessed? 'His advice is always good. You should listen to what he says. He has put things into perspective for me many times, when I was at the crossroads in my life and career. Some of his advice is general, some of it is quite specific. Has he helped me make money? Absolutely.'

What of the Canto-pop connection? 'As far as I know, a wealthy Thai-Chinese businessman named Wong Chong-son has known the master for a long time and introduced some influential people to him. From there, word has gradually spread.'

Wong, better known in Thailand as Keree Kanjanapas, is the head of Tanayong, the company that runs Bangkok's Skytrain. He is unavailable for comment, but Lo says: 'Wong Chong-son was the first person from Hong Kong to visit the master, many, many years ago and he still comes to see us sometimes.' Wong's older brother, Anant, is the boss of Bangkok Land, and his younger brother, Joseph Wong, runs Stelux Holdings in Hong Kong, including the chain stores City Chain and Optical 88. The family, whose patriarch Mongkol Kanjanapas died recently, was listed by Forbes magazine as one of the world's 100 richest families before over-expansion and the Asian crisis sent its fortunes into a tailspin.

I am back outside the temple at the crack of dawn with the patient throng a week later, part of a busload of Hong Kong and Taiwanese press. My SCMP credentials are sufficient to get me on board with the boys on the bus. I'm also intrigued by his reputation as a showbiz King Midas who turns everything he touches into sparkling gold. The cast and crew of Infernal Affairs 2 have just finished shooting the movie's climactic gun battle in a market on the outskirts of Bangkok, and have come for a blessing session with the master, with Asian paparazzi in tow.


True believers insist the White Dragon King's talismanic touch was the difference in making the HK$55 million grossing film a runaway success. It was a tale of graft and betrayal, a cat-and-mouse saga of a triad informant posing as a policeman and an undercover cop who infiltrates the triads. Its success befuddled respected veteran Cantonese movie critic Paul Fonoroff, who described it as 'formulaic' and an 'echo of the 1990s glossy, big-budget, all-star blockbusters that formed the tip of the iceberg on which the once-titanic industry crashed'.

Enter the dragon. Fonoroff  may not have known the White Dragon King was consulted on everything from casting to characters to dialogue.
The prequel has Canto-tyros Shawn Yu Man-lok and Edison Chen Koon-hei as the young Tony Leung and Andy Lau characters, and also stars Eric Tsang, Anthony Wong Chau-sang, Carina Lau and Francis Ng Chun-yu.

With the exception of Wong and Lau, they have all assembled at the temple to await the master's blessing, along with producer Peter Lam, co-directors Andrew Lau Wai-keung and Alan Mak Siu-fai, and a gaggle of minders and fixers from production company Media Asia. It's raining, and mercifully cooler than a week ago, as the stars preen, the cameras pop and flash, and the crowd gawps.

There is gong-thumping and bell-ringing, then a bucket of large green pomelos is brought before the master, who mumbles something and stamps each one with bright red ink. He lights a bundle of small white candles and the stars come forward one by one to receive their blessing.

He bellows benedictions at each of them, sticks the candles in his mouth and gives them a blast of smoke and guru breath full in the face. Some get hit with the sticks as well. Each is given a pomelo. When the blessings are complete, the journalists stampede after the stars, leaving the guru unattended and a little nonplussed.

Tsang, in white shorts and his trademark upturned collar, is eager to speak about his relationship with Chau. 'The first time I met the master was more than 20 years ago,' he says. 'He always has good things to say. I come over to see him once or twice a year. Do I think my career has been blessed because of him? Sure. Some people might find him a bit aggressive, but I like it. He says what he thinks and it's always right. He tells me to slow down, to stop and think, don't run ahead like a bull.'

Producer Peter Lam says he has also known the master for a long time, perhaps 15 years or more. 'I come back every year. He's definitely a part of my success. I can't explain his powers but I do believe in them. The Chinese title of the first film was originally going to be Mo Gan Heng Tse, but the master was adamant it must only have three characters, so we changed it to Mo Gan Doh. The film was a hit and it's hard to argue with success.'

But at least one of the retinue seems less than enamoured of the guru. This is the first time Mak has encountered Chau in the flesh, and he reveals he wasn't happy when he was told the first film's name would be changed on the master's say-so. 'I didn't see the point and I still don't,' he says. 'I don't know why Hong Kong people respect this guy so much. I wasn't that keen to come, but he didn't ask us to do anything ridiculous, so I guess it's okay.'

The stars are herded into their limousines and the fixers begin shooing the journalists towards their bus. Inside the temple, the White Dragon King is on his throne, shouting something about a great fortune soon to fall from the heavens at a middle-aged woman who gazes up adoringly as he belts her over the head with his twigs.

You might choose to swallow his story whole, and accept the White Dragon King as divinely inspired seer and sage as an article of faith. Or you might suspect him of being a mere confidence trickster with more confidence and tricks than most.

His charisma, chutzpah and pitch-perfect ear for telling people what they want to hear are apparent. The self-made sage who built his own stage is now the star; a demigod who entertains the entertainers, dispensing fantasies about their futures, seen through a twisted veil of Confucian mumbo jumbo and underpinned by a greed-is-good credo that is pure Gordon Gecko.

In the White Dragon King's rose-tinted future, we're all nicer to our mums, keep our shoes in neat piles, and are a few shakes of a joss stick away from getting unfeasibly, filthily rich.

You might choose to believe in the divinity of the dragon formerly known as Chau Yum-nam and quake before his Blake-like becoming. You might glimpse a chimera, a shapeshifter, a liar full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or you might see a strange little man with a handful of sticks, beating around the bush.


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