SEOUL, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- Like many young South Koreans, Ko Joo-hyun is anxious about her future. She will be graduating from college soon, and she wonders what kind of job she will end up in and when she will get married. Like many others struggling to get or stay ahead in a society that moves quickly, questions about her future are a source of stress, and to help address them, she will consult a fortuneteller that offers a range of services -- including face reading.
Face reading is an old practice where a trained expert assesses the contours of one's face, and the size and shape of the chin, forehead and cheekbones in order to glean insight into one's character and prospects for the future.
Along with palm reading and "saju," which assumes your fate is determined by the date and hour of your birth, face reading is part of a set of old practices believed to have come to Korea from China. They have left the mainstream of Korea -- no longer do job interviews feature face readings (although industry insiders suggest some airline companies do look at facial features when hiring pilots and flight attendants to see whether they have a short life span). But these old practices are still turned to when some people are eager to learn about their chances for the future and how they can get on the right track.
Face reader Byun Gye-hyun studying a customer's face at his booth (Photos courtesy of Matt Douma)
As Ko gets ready to see her fortuneteller, she isn't so sure of the accuracy of what she will hear. "I don't believe in this wholeheartedly," she says. "But I'm interested in what he might say."
Ko, 21, is being seen by Byun Gye-hyun, an elderly man who provides face reading, palm reading and saju services in western Seoul's Shinchon area. He charges customers depending on the complexity of the situation and the range of services requested.
Byun tends to his clients under the light of a bare bulb. His eyes are sunken, with deep bags under them. He has practiced fortune telling since his youth in his hometown, a small village in Chungcheong Province. There, his elders taught him the craft during long electricity-less nights, sparking an interest that he has carried into his old age.
To be able to practice as a fortuneteller, Byun had to study extensive tracts of philosophy written in Chinese characters. The walls of his stall are unadorned except for a professional certification that bears his name and picture.
Clients come to Byun and other face readers with some kind of goal that they hope to achieve and make their life better. Ambition is what compels them: most of his clients are motivated to see him by financial dissatisfaction. "People with lots of money can live well in our country. Those without a lot of money have to find some way of getting it," he said.
Through face reading and other practices, Byun believes he can provide information on how to succeed professionally and find personal happiness.
People in highly competitive lines of work such as politics, entertainment or sports consult face readers for advice on how to better channel their energy toward success. Often before a new challenge, like a promotion or important competition, such figures will consult Janet Shin on any changes that they need to make to adapt to new circumstances."
"Important people come to see me before they take on a new challenge," said Shin, a face reader and president of the Heavenly Garden, a saju research center in Korea.
If face readers are to be honest, they sometimes have to give their hopeful and ambitious clients bad news. As this is a profit-driven service, that can be awkward and risky for the face readers, as they don't want to upset or offend those who come to them for guidance. How do they tell their clients that their fortunes are bad and their dreams will not come true?
"In that case, I need to be very careful in how I deliver the answer," said Shin. "I'll try to give them some alternatives to compensate for that bad fortune. Like I'll suggest they wait and fix an auspicious date for what they want to do, or pick some fortunate colors for their clothes."
Beyond tweaking dates or colors, some people go much further to improve their fortunes by having plastic surgery to change their faces, convinced that a sharper nose or bigger eyes can make the difference in their quest for a better job or more attractive spouse.
This sets up a direct clash with the principles espoused by face readers, as facial features considered beautiful in contemporary Korean society may be different from those that are believed to bring good fortune. Some of the alterations that come with surgery can have unintended consequences.
"By changing the face, the energy we emit is different," said Shin.
Byun examines the palm of Jo Hye-hyun, 20, who came to be told of her future prospects.
Some people get plastic surgery just for aesthetic purposes, or because they believe that after becoming conventionally attractive they will make more money, but face readers say it is important to consider how their new face will affect their fortune.
According to Shin, it is important to understand the complex range of energies, as the old Korean concept of hard work and effort is simply not enough. "Young people believe that just if they try very hard, they can succeed. But if they don't direct their energy in the right way, it doesn't matter how much they try."
As Korean society becomes even more competitive with more people seeking the same spots at elite universities and large companies, face reading is one more way to seek a bit of insight, some guidance that can help one get ahead, or at least find a bit of peace of mind.
Jo Hye-hyun, 20, and her friend have also stopped in to see a face reader. Jo smiles with the glow of someone who just received good, and unexpected, news upon leaving Byun's stall. "He says not to worry about marriage, because I'll have no trouble attracting men," Jo says. She has the narrow face and large eyes of conventional Korean beauty.
"But he told me not to lend money to my family, because I'll never get it back."