Seoul’s Tarot Readers

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Photos by: Steve Smith
Photos by: Steve Smith

Seoul’s Tarot Readers

by: Ali Saleh | .
Groove Korea | .
published: November 17, 2016

Your Future in The Palm of Their Hands.

Cheong Myeong, owner of Myeong Ga Tarot, hesitantly eyed me and the photographer. She turned her head and sighed before spreading her deck of cards along the smooth brown cloth cloaking the table. “Select three cards,” she said.

Myeong’s quiet establishment operates in the heart of Hongdae, adjacent to a number of tarot card shops and other mystic venues. It’s small and modest, housing only two tables and a few chairs with minimal decoration. Myeong flipped the last card and looked at me.

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“This month, September, was okay for you,” she said. “Next month will be terrible and November will be good. But December will be very good. It’s best for you to start dating at the end of next year and you should only date someone the same age as you or younger. Anyone older will turn out to be a disaster. Also, your wife will be unsuccessful, poor, and have lackluster looks at best.” This, in short, was Myeong’s account of my love life in the months and years to come.

Tarot card readings, originally a game originating in 15th century Europe, have managed to find their way to the Korean peninsula and gain popularity over the past two decades. The cards have, since their conception, become a means of divination for those eager enough to seek a glimpse into their future. Services have quickly sprung up throughout the country and can be found in street-side tents and vans, in cafes, or, like Myeong’s business, in small tarot shops stationed in busy areas.

“Love is the most requested category,” Myeong said. “The next most popular are health, financial/work life, and family or social questions.”

While Myeong was convinced that the reason for tarot reading popularity has mostly to do with its “scientific accuracy,” other readers had a different take.

Just a few meters away, I met Han Cheong-Weon, owner of Bae-Ga Tarot.

“If you don’t believe in the cards,” she said, “nothing will come of the reading.”

Unlike Myeong, Han believes that tarot cards serve a more psychological and emotional function.

“The cards are simply there to guide you, not as complete truth” she said. “The practice is best served for those who are alone or who have some crisis in their lives.”

Han thinks of herself as more of a counselor, and the cards as a means to direct her clients towards solving their problems or concerns. She’s also been reading tarot cards for almost two decades.

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Despite her tarot reading also suggesting that I should wait until next year to date, there were some distinct differences between Han and Myeong’s predictions. Han stated that my future partner should be older, could be rich, and will be open-minded. She also said that I’m pure when it comes to dating, while Myeong accused me of being a playboy when she flipped a card framing a devilish figure.

Their structures were also slightly different, with Myeong asking her clients to remove three to four cards in different sets, while Han asked that ten cards be removed from the start and then turned over one by one. Both readers are certified alumni of Dongguk University and operate in Hongdae on Seogyo-dong’s busiest street, across from the H&M.

Young fortune-goers buzzed around the shops as the night settled. So-Yeon, a twenty-three-year old working in finance, received a love reading.

“I mostly wanted to know if I could get into a relationship before the year ends,” she said.

Another critical aspect about fortune telling, especially with the ancient practice of saju, is the new year. With 2017 fast approaching, and the uncertainty that many feel regarding the changes they would like to see in the future, Koreans flock to fortune services full of questions. Some of the most popular establishments require reservations well in advance around this time.

“But it wasn’t a good result,” So-Yeon admitted. “I’m not satisfied. I’ll have to go again soon.”

Seo-Yeon believes that the readings are about 80% accurate and that she would only implement small changes to her lifestyle based on the results. Changes like cutting her hair, dressing a certain way, or rethinking her routines, just to fit the cards’ readings.

Gwang-Jin and Ah-Yeong, a couple in their early 20s, went for a saju reading on their 100th day celebration—quite an important dating achievement in Korea.

“It was our first time doing this, but the readings were mostly helpful and fun,” Gwang-Jin said.

The event, they admitted, wasn’t planned.

“We were just walking around and thought it might be fun.”

The couple looked at one another and agreed that the readings were about 50% true, before fading into the crowd with their fingers interlocked.

One of the last things Han told me was that I would find a wife in the year 2020 or 2021. Whether or not that is true, as with most clients who take a plunge into the crystal ball, only time will tell. Until then, the ubiquitous buskers, street performers, and festivities of a typical night out in Hongdae didn’t seem like a bad way to pass the time.

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