Life

Promise of prosperity

Fad or fact, feng shui is all the rage

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER April 28 1997
Life

Promise of prosperity

Fad or fact, feng shui is all the rage

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER April 28 1997

Promise of prosperity

Life

Fad or fact, feng shui is all the rage

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER

It looks like an ordinary mirror. But in the eyes of Robin Kay, the small woodframed looking glass, hanging inconspicuously above the back door in one of her boutiques, has extraordinary power. Kay—owner of a chain of fashion stores in four Canadian cities—views the mirror as a strategically placed “cure” for a problem that could harm her business. Despite a promising location in an upscale Toronto neighborhood, the shop suffers from an inauspicious positioning of doors. The direct path from the front entrance to the rear exit—according to the rules of feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement—could tempt visitors, and profits, to pass right through. ‘You don’t want the customer to walk in the front door and have his thoughts go right out the back door,” says Kay. ‘To counteract that, I placed a mirror above the back

door, so the energy is brought back in.”

In the past three years, Kay has applied the principles of feng shui at all of her 10 locations. Paying special attention to the placement of cash desks, fitting rooms and even toilets, ensuring that ch’i or vital energy flows smoothly through the shops, she is intent on bathing customers and employees in “a sense of harmony, well-being and serenity.” In the two stores where she has paid special attention to the principles, she believes it has also enhanced them—profits have increased by 20 per cent. “Feng shui has certainly been a positive influence on the business,” says Kay.

The ch’i does not stop there. Over the past few years, feng shui—Chinese for wind and water—has taken on a life force of its own, circuiting the globe via thousands of Web sites, sparking a string of TV shows, videos, workshops and the publication of dozens of books. Novices flip through such titles as Feng Shui for Dummies, Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui and Feng Shui for Beginners. Venerable feng shui masters, long ignored outside the Chinese community, and even neophyte consultants are in demand, earning up to $500 an hour for boosting the ch’i of highrise condos, suburban houses and airless office cubicles.

Across Canada, the Roots clothing chain, the Toronto-Dominion Bank and RBC Do-

minion Securities are among hundreds of businesses that have become newly attuned to feng shui, along with restaurants, legal offices, hospitals and at least one church congregation. In many parts of Toronto and Vancouver, where recent influxes of Chinese immigrants gave it a head start, feng shui has become as important to builders as local bylaws. Vancouver architect Ron Yuen, who worked on Li Ka-shing’s Concord Pacific Place—a large residential development—attests that he would examine how an apartment unit was laid out, ensuring that the bedroom doors did not face the front door, and there were ways “to militate against the good fortunes flowing out.” Says Yuen: “It has permeated the development industry from the architect who designs a house, to the contractor who builds it and the real estate agent who sells it. It could be an Italian builder, an East Indian framer or a Caucasian real estate agent—they all talk about it.”

In the 1990s, feng shui—albeit in a somewhat watered-down, Westernized version— appears to have struck a chord, with its easy offer of health, wealth and inner peace at the clink of a wind chime. Its appeal is as clear as the crystals that dangle in what believers refer to as “sacred spaces.” Feng shui packs the major trends of a decade—from cocooning and a concern for the environment, to a fascination with Eastern medicine and spirituality, and a yearning for simpler, stressfree life—into one neat package. Need a job? Want a lover? A cure for eczema? “Hang a crystal, place a plant, paint a wall,” claims an ad for Nancy SantoPietro, a New York City psychotherapist turned feng shui specialist, “and you will discover how you can change your environment and change your life.” But more than 100 years ago, when Chinese immigrants first brought feng shui to Canada, nobody noticed. “It was practised here before the Second World War by old Chinese,” says David Lai, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria. The tradition—described by Lai as “a mystical combination of Chinese philosophical, religious, astrological, cosmological, mathematical and geographic concepts”—stretches back more than 3,000 years into Asian history and still plays an important role in Hong Kong, where no building is erected without the advice of a feng shui master. Central to feng shui —which Lai dismisses as “superstition”—is the belief that ch’i, or life force, flows through a home or an office in much the same way that it circulates through the human body. If positive energy moves freely through a space, its inhabitants will thrive. But if ch’i is blocked, they will experience “bad feng shui” and their health, career or relationships will suffer.

Experts warn, somewhat ominously, that most North American homes are like minefields, with potential blockages—often

THE MASTER PLAN

The bagua, an octagonal chart representing the different aspects of life, is placed over a floor plan to make a diagnosis.

called shars or poison arrows—threatening at every turn. Most often, shars are straight lines or sharp angles: a corner of a neighboring building that points at a home, or a driveway that forms a straight line to a front door. “If a corner juts out into a room,” says Helen Williams, a Toronto feng shui expert, “it’s like a knife coming at you. Even though you don’t notice it, you become a little bit nervous in your subconscious mind.” Fortunately, feng shui experts can offer “cures” for almost any shar, and the standard reme-

dies include such inexpensive accessories as mirrors, crystals, wind chimes, plants, water fountains and aquariums. “It’s like getting acupuncture for the home,” says SantoPietro.

Many feng shui experts use a bagua—a kind of map—as a diagnostic tool. The bagua is an octagonal chart with eight areas, or “corners,” each representing a different aspect of life: fame, relationships, children, helpful people, career, knowledge, family and wealth. The master places the bagua over a scaled floor plan of the home or office, and proceeds to relate each area to the person’s life situation. Sometimes, in an L-shaped house, there will be large gaps in the bagua. “If the wealth corner is missing,” says Toronto interior designer Andrée Beauchamp, “you’ll find, interestingly enough, it will often be missing in their lives. They never seem to be able to get ahead financially.”

Ivan Yip, a Toronto master and a former engineer, has developed computer software to analyze the flow of ch’i in his clients’ homes and offices. Yip—who launched his own Web site earlier this month—has created an electronic version of the ancient feng shui compass, incorporating Chinese astrology and other elements, enabling him to balance yin and yang, synchronize the energy in a home with the energy of its inhabitants and work out the most favorable locations and

directions for each individual in a microsecond. “Feng shui involves calculations,” observes Yip. “Luck changes every year with the direction of the compass.”

Ultimately, feng shui requires a transcendental leap of faith. “This is an Eastern system,” explains Toronto feng shui practitioner and former architect Malea Narrol. “It’s not linear, not logical, it’s not perfect, it doesn’t always add up. There is paradox and confusion.” SantoPietro offers a “scientific” basis for feng shui, explaining it in terms of “an invisible field of energy”—an acceptable analogy, she feels, in an era of cell phones and laptop computers. “This invisible energy affects much more than we can see,” she argues. “We realize that sound changes energy, light changes energy. If a couple is having problems, I might say hang a pink feng shui crystal on a nine-inch red string in your relationship corner.” To doubters, SantoPietro puts the question: “If an acupuncturist puts a needle in your wrist to treat your liver, can you see that?”

Witold Rybczynski, the acclaimed Canadian author and architect, now at the University of Pennsylvania, understands the acupuncture connection, but remains skeptical. “Orientalisms have always attracted people in the West,” says Rybczynski. “Acupuncture and Chinese medicine found a niche.” But he cautions that the North American understanding of feng shui, on the whole, is “not very profound. I think it’s a fad, an interesting bit of folklore.” For Lai, another skeptic, the real value of feng shui may be psychological. “I consider the feng shui man a psychiatrist,” he says. “If you believe him when he says, ‘Put a fish pond here and your fortunes will be better,’ it gives you the confidence to do well. If you don’t believe it, you say, The hell with this!’ ”

Author Evelyn Lau, whose parents were Chinese immigrants, has no trouble ignoring feng shui. “My relatives, buying a house, looked into that sort of thing—where the mountains were, where the wind was going to blow,” recalls Lau. “I rolled my eyes at that stuff even when I was a little kid.” She rolled them again two years ago when she purchased a condo in downtown Vancouver. The suite number—404—is considered unlucky: in Chinese, the number four sounds like the word for death. “Certainly, with two fours, it’s like death and more death,” says Lau. “But when it comes down to getting a good deal or living in a place that can mean death, I chose the good deal.” Willing to thumb her nose at feng shui, Lau adds: “I’ve been just fine here.”