One of the hazards of being a Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Areas is that I frequently get asked to give advice about Feng-Shui. Feng-Shui is perhaps one of the most virulent strain of pseudoscience from the East that has attached itself firmly to the New Age Movement and adopted by many noveau rich of the Silicon Valley and Napa Valley who seem to have an affection for all things associated with Ancient Eastern philosophy or mysticism. I have been at gatherings where the conversation revolves around business successes attributed to good Feng-Shui and bad business outcomes or a failed startup vineyard or dot.com venture was blamed on the principals’ willful ignorance of the “fundamentals” of Feng-Shui when designing their corporate headquarters.
Feng-Shui, which literally means “Wind” and “Water”, is the belief that every location has a natural vital energy force “qi” (pronounced as chi) and building and furnishings must be laid out in such a way as to be in harmony with this qi. I’ll leave it to my readers to Google “Feng Shui” to learn all about the history and the intricacies of this very well developed pseudoscience. When you do, pay special attention to how the defenders of Feng-Shui try to define the meaning of qi and justify its existence.
There are really two very different variation of Feng Shui. The first is the kind most people are familiar with and which irks practitioners of “Real” Feng Shui – it’s what I call “Feng-Shui lite.” Feng-Shui lite does not require any belief in qi or any other associated mambo-jumbo. This is the Feng-Shui of the popular press in the US and what most people are really referring to when they talk Feng-Shui. It’s the common sense wisdom about how to position your furniture in your rooms for health and prosperity; how to decorate your office and reception area, where to place a potted plant etc. if you want your business to be successful and have good health to boot! Up to a point, even skeptics like me have no problem with this. It certainly does not take a Harvard MBA to understand that if your place of business is decorated appropriate to your line of business and your reception area or meeting rooms are warm, comfortable and welcoming, you probably will make a better impression on your prospects and customers. Any successfully restaurant owner can attest to that fact that other than good food, a well laid out dinning room with comfortable chairs and eye-pleasing décor will attract returning customers. If your business is successful, you’ll probably be less stressed out and more likely be in better health!
But, no, that’s not it. That’s not what Feng-Shui is all about, say the true believers. “Real” Feng-Shui, they claim has nothing to do with consumer psychology. What they are claiming is that “real” Feng-Shui is a very well developed set of rules of how to align physical objects to be in harmony with the qi lines of the earth. They claim that it is a “science” in its own right. “Real” Feng Shui practitioners who claim to have studied the subject and learned the tools of the trade will be able to really divine the most optimum way to orient buildings, locate the doorways, place furniture and grow the right tree or bush to ensure success for the business, good fortune, health and career success for the occupant of buildings so laid out. In cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, no architect will start locating a building on a site without first consulting a Feng-Shui master. It has been pointed out to me that lately, some architects and builders in North American cities like Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco and Los Angeles are beginning to hire Feng-Shui consultants if they have any Chinese investor in their development project or if they think they may have a chance to sell the property to Chinese buyers. These Feng-Shui consultants do not come cheap – a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars for consultation fee is not uncommon. They come armed with a “bagua” – a measuring instrument to help lend Feng-Shui some “scientific” validation. You can find many images of the bagua on the net – but the “real” ones used by the highly paid consultants usually come with a small compass in the middle (where most amateur models will have the yin-yang symbol) for more precise alignment of the room, building, garden with the perceived qi of the locale to achieve optimal harmony. In addition, in high profile development projects (such as the recently completed Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taipei, Taiwan) the initial on-site consultation comes with no small amount of pomp and ceremony, complete with the highly paid Feng-Shui Master dressed in Qing Dynasty silk robe – like he just walked off the set of The Last Emperor! (I have never met a woman Feng-Shui consultant but my true believer friends and relatives assured me that there is no proscription against females from partaking in this lucrative profession.) The Feng-Shui consultant is usually respectfully referred to and addressed as Mr. Feng-Shui.
Now, for the uninitiated, you may wonder why all the fuss. Isn’t there a set of rules, or better yet, well established formulae on how to layout a building, room or garden courtyard? Surely after a few thousand years, shouldn’t there be just a look up table or a massive reference manual that any architect or land developer can refer to? “Well, just because you have a Physician’s Desk Manual doesn’t mean you can practice medicine” a kindly Mr. Feng-Shui once explained to me. (He’s a good friend of my mom, and with a degree in civil engineering, he worked for a large multinational construction company before deciding to take up Feng- Shui consulting full time.) “Real Feng-Shui is very complicated and requires many years of studies and hands on training to acquire the competence to be a consultant. And like Traditional Chinese Medicine, understanding Taoism is necessary to understanding Feng-Shui.” He then went on to explain how when he is on site, he “reads” and “feels” the qi lines of force, take note of the nearby hill and streams, prevailing wind directions and other building that may affect the qi flow and then try to predict how the new building will change the overall qi pattern. Really? Really! In an urban setting, it is important to note who your business neighbors are; how the buildings across the street look like, where their front doors open to etc. Some businesses are particularly troublesome – casinos, funeral parlors and business using sharp instruments (butcher shops, workshop etc) have “killer qi” and may affect an otherwise normal qi flow. So, he is trained to “see” how all these factors affect the qi of the area and the resulting qi flow and how the harmony with the occupants will be affected in the new building or a building being renovated. Readers are definitely welcome to imagine me rolling my eyes while he was explaining this to me!
So, does Feng-Shui work? Well practitioners all have their anecdotal stories and the popular press in Asia publishes them uncritically for their believing readership. My classmates and relatives who live in Hong Kong and Singapore delight in frequently emailing to Feng-Shui infidels like me many “success” stories. They all have the same story arc. Here’s a typical “see-it-works!” Feng-Shui story. Some big multinational company (always headquartered in USA, Germany or UK and run by unbelievers) decided to set up a regional headquarter in Singapore (or Hong Kong, or Taipei – pick one) They bought or leased a building, gutted the inside and renovated it without consulting with a Mr. Feng Shui despite pleas by the local staff who obviously knew better. As predicted, after the company moved in, things started to go wrong. Either the staff got sick a lot or the business performance was abysmal. Then the regional boss wised up and hired Mr. Feng Shui to take a look. In one version, the remedy was as simple as hanging a mirror at some strategic location in the front lobby to deflect bad qi emitting from across the street. In more involved versions, Mr. Fung Shui recommended that the front door should be moved a few feet to the South, turn the receptionist desk to face a different direction, convert the lobby restrooms into janitor closets to stop good qi from escaping down the drains, relocate the boss’s office to a different floor and to the opposite corner of the building, change the décor of the conference room etc., etc. Voila! A few million dollars of renovations and $25K to Mr. Feng Shui (payment always wrapped in a red envelope) and the company reported a profit the following quarter. It’s amazing how many such similar stories are circulated in Asian financial centers. The details may differ, but it’s the same story line every time.
While many Chinese in modern Asia may be eschewing Tradition Chinese Medicine in favor of evident-based Western medicine, the belief in the efficacy of Feng-Shui is still firmly entrenched in their psyche. What I don’t get is how these believers don’t see the inherent dissonance in their thinking. Many business tycoons have business degrees from the best business schools in the US, UK and Canada. They send their children to learn from the best (Haas, Sloan, Wharton, Harvard etc) to make sure their business remain competitive and thrive. Yet, in the end, they put their trust in an ancient superstition. Maybe it’s the desire to cover all the bases, for in my reading about Asian business tycoons, it seems that the more money they have, the more superstitious they tend to be. If Feng-Shui really works, why are millions spent by foreign aid agencies and the UN in their effort to help developing nations get the hang of growing a business infrastructure and acquiring business know-how to compete in a market economy? Why bother with all the business incubation programs if all that is needed to assure business success is to have a Feng-Shui consultant setup their business venue? What about the current financial down-turn? Of course some businesses even in Feng-Shui friendly Singapore, Hong Kong or Taipei will eventually be affected. I predict that all the Feng-Shui consultants with clients who survived the recession will tout the value of their trade and will get a lot more business. They will certainly conveniently ignore or just forget to mention their many clients who folded during this financially challenging period despite their best and most sincere Feng-Shui advice.