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The Washington Post
daily broadsheet, Washington DC USA
Thursday 12 May 2005
Got Their Numbers
by Michelle Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
[photo:] Jacquelyn Garrett, with lottery representative Sidney Chambers, was among 110 people with winning tickets. (Tennessee Education Lottery)
NEW YORK, 11 May -- "All the preparation you've done will finally be paying off," read the fortune in Jacquelyn W. Garrett's cookie. The prophecy caught her eye, but it was the numbers stretched across the slip of paper that paid off for her.
She played them in the Powerball lottery and won second prize.
She was not alone -- an additional 109 people used the same series of numbers to become second-prize Powerball winners in the March 30 drawing.
"We expected four or five and ended up with 110," Chuck Strutt, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association, said Wednesday. "That's well beyond the realm of normal possibilities."
Lottery officials at first suspected a scam or maybe a computer glitch. They did not suspect fortune cookies that would lead to the payout of, well, a fortune.
But there they were: winners in 26 of the 29 states with the lotteries, each bearing the same number series --
22, 28, 32, 33, 39, 40.
Depending on the bet, each winner raked in between U$100,000 and U$500,000 -- costing the lottery association nearly U$19,000,000 it had not counted on paying out. It made for an expensive night for Powerball, with winners beating the odds in a game with a 1 in 3,000,000 winning combination.
If the winners had chosen 42 instead of 40, they would have struck the U$25,000,000 jackpot. "It actually would have been better for us," said Strutt, explaining that jackpots are divided among the winners.
Garrett said she got her fortune cookie at her favorite Chinese restaurant in suburban Nashville. "I didn't recognize the numbers would mean anything," said Garrett, a schoolteacher. "I was just interested in the fact that this was something positive to me."
Lottery officials followed the fortune cookie trail, locating the distributor and then narrowing down the cookie makers to three possibilities. The New York Times on Wednesday identified the fortune cookie factory as Wonton Food, a Queens-based company that cranks out 4,000,000 fortune cookies a day.
Derrick Wong, a sales executive at Wonton Food, said the company started printing lottery numbers on fortunes 10 years ago, to distinguish itself from competitors. Numbers are randomly chosen from a big bowl, lottery style, he said.
"It's not magic. It's [a] pretty traditional way," Wong said. "Those people are very, very lucky."
Wonton Food updates the prophecies every few months, and next time, Wong said, it will add more variety to the number combinations.
"I think that more people are asking for fortune cookies now. Now more people will want to get a piece of the pie," he said. "That's my prediction."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company
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The New Yorker
weekly national magazine USA
Monday 6 June 2005
Odd Jobs Dept.:
by Jeremy Olshan
As a vice-president at Wonton Food, Inc., in Long Island City [borough of Queens, New York], Donald Lau manages the company’s accounts payable and receivable, negotiates with insurers, and, somewhat incidentally, composes the fortunes that go inside the fortune cookies, of which Wonton is the world’s largest manufacturer. Each day, Wonton’s factory churns out 4,000,000 Golden Bowl-brand cookies, which are sold to several hundred venders, who, in turn, sell them to most of the 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the country. Wonton’s primacy in the industry and, for that matter, in the gambler’s imagination is such that when, in March, five of six lucky numbers printed on a fortune happened to coincide with the winning picks for the Powerball lottery, a hundred and ten people, instead of the usual handful, came forward to claim prizes of around a hundred thousand dollars.
Lottery officials suspected a scam until they traced the sequence to a fortune printed with the digits “22-28-32-33-39-40” and Donald Lau’s prediction: “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.”
“We’ve had winners before, but never this many,” Lau said the other day, in his East Williamsburg office, which is furnished with stacks of financial reports and “A Dictionary of American Proverbs.” “A computer picks the numbers, not me. If only a computer could also write the fortunes.” Lau never expected to become a fortune-cookie writer. After graduating from Columbia [University, New York City] with degrees in engineering and business, he joined Bank of America, then ran a company that exported logs from the Pacific Northwest to China.
In the early eighties, he was hired by a Chinatown noodle manufacturer, which eventually expanded into fortune cookies. The firm bought the Long Island City plant, and it soon became apparent that its antiquated catalogue of fortunes would have to be updated. (“Find someone as gay as you are,” one leftover from the nineteen-forties read.) “We knew we needed to add new sayings,” Lau said. “I was chosen because my English was the best of the group, not because I’m a poet.”
At first, the writing came easily. Finding inspiration in sources ranging from the I Ching to the Post [NYC tabloid newspaper], Lau cranked out three or four maxims a day, between scrutinizing spreadsheets and monitoring the company’s inventory of chow mein.
“I’d be on the subway and look up at the signs and think, Hey, that would make a great fortune,” he said. (One such adage: “Beware of odors from unfamiliar sources.”) “I’d keep a small notebook and jot down whatever came to me. I don’t think I ever sat in front of the computer and said, ‘I am going to write ten fortunes right now.’ It has to come naturally.”
Love, riches, power: there is a limited range of experience that can be expressed in one sentence, and, about eleven years into his tenure, Lau began to run out of ideas. He leaned increasingly on traditional Chinese sayings, which offer insight (along the lines of “True gold fears no fire”) but not foresight (“Your income will increase”), and in 1995 he gave up altogether. “I’ve written thousands of fortunes, but the inspiration is gone,” Lau said. “Have you heard of writer’s block? That is what happened to me.”
These days, he cycles selections from his vast oeuvre in and out of circulation. He is worried that readers will notice that the cookies are in reruns, which might result in Wonton’s losing its edge on the competition. (This is unlikely. Although there are about forty fortune-cookie companies in the United States, few have Wonton’s manufacturing capabilities.)
So Lau has decided to bring in new blood. The company will soon advertise for a new fortune writer, and Lau will make the transition to editor. “Maybe when I retire I’ll write again—perhaps a book about writing fortunes,” he said. Returning to form, he summarized the thrust of the book with two simple axioms. “Don’t have too complicated a mind,” he said. “Think in ten-word sentences.”
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