In November 2020, the one-year anniversary of the clashes between pro-democracy protesters and police at Chinese University of Hong Kong, Emma, a fourth year law student, found herself unable to sleep at night. (Due to fears for her own safety, she does not want to disclose her real name.)

CUHK exhibition
Photo of the 2019 CUHK clash with erased slogan from the flag. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Her friends were facing charges related to the 2019 pro-democracy protests. Other schoolmates had been arrested under the National Security Law for chanting slogans on their graduation day. “I still had my friends around but for some reason I found myself unable to open up to them,” Emma said. 

Instead, Emma turned to her “black rutilated quartz,” a translucent crystal flecked with black stripe-like inclusions. A few months earlier, following a difficult romantic break-up, Emma had started to buy crystal bracelets. In the New Age lexicon, every crystal has a distinctive power; black rutilated quartz is said to help remove negative energy. Emma said that wearing her crystals helped lighten her mind and ease the anxiety brought on by the anniversary of the CUHK demonstrations. 

Black rutilated crystal
Emma’s black rutilated crystal bracelet, Photo: supplied.

“When you cannot find anything helpful, you start to try ‘superstitious’ things,” said Phoebe Chan, co-owner of Alma Crystal, a shop dealing in New Age jewellery. Stores offering “healing crystals” or fortune telling and other alternative psychic and healing services have long been a fixture of Hong Kong life. Often, however, these practices were stigmatised as superstitious, and their traditional base was mainly older, grassroots people.

That’s changing. Alma Crystal’s customers include university-educated middle class and upscale professionals-–and most are in their twenties and thirties. In the last two years, Hongkongers have experienced an unprecedented social movement, followed by dramatic political changes and strict pandemic measures. To cope with the stress of living through uncertain times, many young people in Hong Kong are turning to New Age practices and therapies. Boutiques specialising in crystals have popped up in trendy shopping areas such as Mongkok and Tsim Sha Tsui, as well as online.

Alma Crystal
Co-owner Phoebe Chan in her boutique Alma Crystal, Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

According to the owners and their clients, these boutiques offer more than jewellery–they are providing a much-needed informal emotional support network to a generation dealing with personal and social upheaval. 

‘In dire need of heart to heart conversations’

Moonstones–icy-blue, pearl-like and translucent–were Emma’s first addition to her collection. They also pulled Chan, the 23-year old shop owner, into the crystal-healing trend. 

Chan and her partner Hugo Tang opened Alma Crystal as an online store in November, 2020. In just eight months, they successfully expanded their digital storefront into a small physical shop in Mongkok. 

Chan said that young women going through difficult times are particularly attracted to a belief in the power of crystals.“I broke up in around the second or third year of university and felt so lost. I had tried so many ways to make myself happy– I worked, studied, joined university clubs–nothing worked.” 

Alma Crystal owners Phoebe Chan and Hugo Tang.
Alma Crystal owners Phoebe Chan and Hugo Tang. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

But the first time she put on her moonstone bracelet, she said, “I felt so peaceful. I was very calm, rid of distracting thoughts and felt comfortable.”

Chan said her helpless and depressed moments made her realise “crystal buyers are in dire need of heart to heart conversation.” Yet the crystal shops she had visited previously were simply places for commercial transactions. She decided her own business would be different.

‘Someone you can talk to’

Chan and Tang’s shop is a brightly lit space with a counter in the centre arrayed with shimmering crystal bracelets, all carefully sorted by colour.. Shelves line the walls, displaying still more crystals and accessories. Customers typically walk around first, browsing the collection. But then many will take a seat at the counter–and begin revealing their secrets, worries, hopes and fears to two complete strangers.

Usually first-timers will not share much, Chan explained. “But when they come around for the second time, they will be willing to talk.”

Crystal Bracelets
Crystal bracelets sorted by colour in a counter of Alma Crystal. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“I want to offer a feeling that I understand [my customer’s] needs, and provide them with aid,” she said. Her customers, often, are vulnerable young people without access to more traditional forms of therapy.

For instance, there was the 16-year-old who was having an affair with a divorced man.  “She was looking for love-related crystals, but I also found her stones that can help her to have her own thinking and see things clearly,” Chan said. She advised the girl to care about herself more and adopt safety measures during sex, which “she had not had the sense to do.” 

For New Age businesses like Alma Crystal, commerce intertwines with healing therapy. Trust, and a safe space to express emotions freely, are as important as the items on sale.  “Some customers were uncomfortable sharing their feelings with others or had no one to chat with. They told me they would instead talk to their crystals about how they feel,” said Chan.

‘A safe haven’

Rachel Kwan and Sai Kwok’s customary greeting to the customers who come to their fortune-telling shop, We Luv Tarot, is a statement of reassurance: “This is a safe haven, where you can come and say anything, nothing will leak out and no trouble will follow.” 

Rachel Kwan at We Luv Tarot
Rachel Kwan at We Luv Tarot. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“Some [clients] will immediately start crying when they sit down,” Kwan pointed to a tissue box conveniently positioned next to the counter. “What we do is to provide a space for everyone to dump the weight off their minds and carry on with their own journey.” The partners started an online business in 2014 and now operate a shop in a commercial building in Tsim Sha Tsui.

As pungent white sage incense and soothing music fill the air, Kwan invites clients to relax and talk about their troubles. “Some may have kept a secret for nearly 20 years and not found an outlet,” she said. “We will help them sort out their feelings, [figure out] what they should do and how they [can] perceive things.”

A space to support “those suffering” and “main characters”

Since June 2019, over 10,000 Hongkongers have been arrested and nearly 2,700 charged in relation to the pro-democracy protests. Many are now imprisoned. Students account for about 40 percent of those arrested. Established New Age shops like We Luv Tarot and Alma Crystal now find themselves serving the needs of a new client base of Hong Kongers in need of safe, trusted spaces where they can talk about their problems.

pepe tissue box
A tissue box next to the counter in We Luv Tarot. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

For every person charged, arrested and imprisoned–Kwan refers to them as “main characters”–there is a ripple effect, with thousands more close friends and family members feeling the impact of the stresses involved in supporting an incarcerated person. (Kwan calls this larger community “those suffering.”)

Both the “main characters” and “those suffering” have sought Kwan and Kwok’s advice and healing services. 

The two are protective of their clients, and will not reveal either their identities or the content of their conversations. “In here they can say whatever they want, but of course.” Kwan said. “They will consult [with me and ask for] my advice, and find ways to provide support to those ‘main characters’.” 

Tarot Cards
Part of the Tarot card collection in We Luv Tarot. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Kwan said that “main characters” were less-frequent customers, more reluctant to open up. ”They would ask about other topics first, such as family issues, then touch on ‘that problem’, saying they had been emotionally struggling.”

Kwan paused for two to three seconds, and added “it could be the pandemic, or the social atmosphere making life in this city not gratifying and full of stress.” 

“They may find solutions in Tarot, or we would offer them therapies and music to help them relax…wearing crystals could be a way to uplift their [emotions] as well.” 

Informal support networks have an important role in well-being

Phoebe Chan, who has helped many crystal buyers talk through their troubles, said she does not see herself as a counsellor or therapist. “I chat with them [my clients]  just like normal friends would do.” 

Alma crystal
Phoebe Chan at work in Alma Crystal. Photo: Peter Lee/ HKFP.

But the advice and emotional support services that she, and other New Age shop owners, are giving to their customers–many of whom are facing serious, complex life issues– is very similar to what a social worker or psychologist would provide. Which raises the question: Is it okay for an untrained professional to be doing this?

Jammie Cheng, chairperson of Division of Clinical Psychology at the Hong Kong Psychological Society, told HKFP that she thinks it is fine for people to get advice through informal channels, as long as it does not bring harm to the client. She mentioned romantic break-ups as an example of a situation in which people would rely on their networks, rather than a professional, to help them get through a painful period. “It’s not like every time you want to see a social worker or psychologist,” she said.

Trust also is a huge issue for people when they are in need of advice and emotional support. “Some may not want to talk with their family or close ones, but they can find reassurance with an outsider like a fortune teller or crystal vendor,” Cheng said.

protest admiralty lippo centre tear gas masks
Protest scene in Hong Kong in 2019. File Photo: Isaac Yee/HKFP.

This is particularly true for Hong Kongers caught in the aftermath of the 2019 protests, who may feel uneasy about working with therapists who are part of the government health system. “There is an obvious difficulty for the whole society to have trust in others at this time,” Cheng said, but emphasized that there are many social workers and non-governmental organizations in the community who can reach out to any person wary of confiding sensitive information to a therapist. 

Cheng said the bottom line is: If clients are in a critical condition in which they might hurt themselves, they should be referred to qualified counsellors.

Sai Kwok of We Luv Tarot shop agrees. “We are here to help people. We will for sure send them to qualified services if things are beyond our control.”

Crystal bracelets for sale in We Luv Tarot
Crystal bracelets for sale in We Luv Tarot. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Chan doesn’t think her crystal business is competing with professional therapy–indeed, she sees it as a needed support buffer for people in emotional crises facing long queues for professional help in the public health system. “A lady told me her daughter has been suffering from depression and anxiety. But affordable public counselling services will not be available until 2023.” Chan said. The crystals she sold to them could “help them to be happier and more positive at the moment.”

The “New Age” therapies have educational as well as healing benefits, especially for younger people, said Rachel Kwan. Doing Tarot reading, or using crystals can act as a beginning point for a young person to understand and get in touch with their inner emotions. The goal is to help the client learn how to begin “exploring the best solutions for themselves.” 

The end of the crystal path

When HKFP interviewed Emma, she was having a difficult couple of weeks. She was in the middle of an intense battery of law examinations. And she recently had received some upsetting letters from friends in prison, letters that had moved her to tears.

CUHK democracy wall sun yat-sen double ten
CUHK democracy wall. File Photo: via CC 2.0.

But this time, facing a double hit of stress and sadness, Emma did not reach for her black rutilated quartz; she was able to take care of herself. “I have slowly returned to normal life and found more ways to deal with my emotions, by socialising and opening up with my friends.”

“With or without crystals, as long as you have a healthy mind, you can achieve what you want.”

Emma went to her exams. She left her crystal bracelets at home.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.