Feng Shui is Alive and Well
While studying Chinese in the U.S., I learned a bit about feng shui, and its long tradition in Chinese culture. Rooted in nature and geography, feng shui, or geomancy, is a traditional collection of theories which experts interpret when offering advice to ordinary folk on everything from which locations offer maximum potential for good or bad luck (for homes as well as offices), to interior design which maximizes “good vibes”, landscape architecture, etc. It is often combined with elements of numerology.
The nature of the subject matter, like fortune-telling, invites charlatans and scam-artists, but there are also many serious and respected feng shui masters whose advice and guidance are much sought after.
Like so many things about traditional Chinese culture which I studied in the classroom, I had no idea when I first arrived in Hong Kong whether or not feng shui was still an integral part of Chinese culture in Hong Kong or the Chinese mainland.
It didn’t take long to find out. In the mid-70s, although feng shui was officially frowned about as a superstitious holdover from feudal society in mainland China, it was (and is) in full swing in Hong Kong. It has made quite a comeback in China since that time as well, especially in the past ten years.
In my first personal encounter with feng shui I learned a lesson about respecting other peoples’ beliefs whether you share them or not.
As mentioned in my last post, after my loo went potty in the mid-levels, I moved out. Seeking a combination of a low-rent district with exposure to Chinese culture, I went out to visit the outlying island of Cheung Chau, about one hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong’s Central district.
I knew little about the place, but what I’d heard sounded charming: small picturesque island nestled in the South China Sea, traditional fishing village, no motorized vehicles, only an hour from downtown, rents only a fraction of Hong Kong Island, only a handful of foreign residents, etc.
I didn’t speak a word of Cantonese then, and expected to find few if any speakers of Mandarin, so I wrote down a series of statements and questions in Chinese characters on 3″ x 5″ index cards, just in case:
“I am looking for a one-bedroom apartment to rent.”
“How much is the rent?”
As I got off the ferry boat on Cheung Chau that Saturday morning in the early September heat, I was greeted by the wafting, pungent aroma of shrimp paste drying on rattan frames along the waterfront. The harbor was full of fishing junks, and village houses and shopfronts were mostly two or three-story affairs. The waterfront was a bustling and colorful place.
I felt an instant affinity for the island. Now the practical question was where to begin the search for housing. I gazed along the waterfront and saw a sign for the “Cheung Chau Chamber of Commerce.” What better place to start my search, I thought.
I walked up a narrow, rickety set of wooden stairs to the Chamber office and came upon two square tables of ancient-looking Chinese gentlemen in the midst of playing mahjong. Most were wearing baggy white T-shirts, which seemed to be the official uniform. of old men. Seniority was indicated by whispy white beards or hairy facial moles.
I stood there at the edge of the room, at the top of the stairs, realizing I may have misjudged the mission and scope of the Chamber. After standing there like an invisible alien statue for awhile, I brandished my index card and finally caught the attention of one of the old fellows, who leaned over and looked nonchalantly at my card.
He announced my intentions to the rest of the players, which elicited a rousing 14-part harmony of chuckles, grunts and shrugs. The nuance of the chorus was clear: “Anywhere but here!”. Off I went.
Eventually my search lead me to a very old temple on the waterfront, which I investigated with interest. Thirsty, I stopped in a ground floor shop to get a cold drink and happened to overhear the shopkeeper speaking to someone (who turned out to be a relative) in Mandarin.
I piped up and inquired about finding a flat to rent, and serendipitously, the top floor flat of the building was available. After some discussion, we settled on HK$550 per month in rent (roughly US$110 at the prevailing exchange rate), for a 500-square foot room and the full rooftop above it, with a seaview on both sides, two flights up from the shop, five minutes from the ferry pier. Eureka!
熙熙攘攘的长洲码头 / Cheung Chau’s bustling waterfront
Beginning a pattern which has continued ever since, I announced to Chinese friends what a great deal I had struck, only to be told that I had grossly overpaid.
I was delighted and moved my few possessions in the next day. It was glorified camping at first given the lack of furniture. My first piece of furniture was a folding aluminum camp bed, which worked just fine in combination with my sleeping bag.
I set about exploring the island and getting a sense of this small rural community just a stone’s throw from Hong Kong’s Central District, yet a million miles away in terms of environment and the pace of life.
The landlady’s family were very kind to me, occasionally bringing me strange-tasting Chinese medicinal teas when they heard me coughing or sneezing.
Shopkeepers were generally very friendly, and people very laid back. In the warmer months, many people slept on folding cots in the lanes, where it was cool. In the morning, people had dimsum in outdoor cafes, chatting and reading the newspaper in their pajamas. Seafood was abundant and cheap.
长洲村屋 / Cheung Chau village house
Some months later I was joined by a roommate, an American schoolmate of mine who intended to stay a weekend and ended up finding a job and staying for more than a year.
One day he reported finding a fantastic traditional village house for rent, with three small bedrooms and a lush garden, atop a quiet bay on the other side of the island. He took me to see it and I agreed it was a great place. We went to see the landlord and struck a deal to move in.
As the agreed moving-in date approached, my roommate Pat reported with great disappointment that the lush garden had been decimated since we’d last seen the place, and reduced to bare earth. Upset, we went to see the landlord, Mr. Yeung.
While acknowledging his regret of any inconvenience to us, he insisted the garden had to be removed. We asked why and received various circular non-answers. Finally he said the roots of the plants were endangering the foundation of the house. This was clearly an excuse, but it was the best and only answer we were going to get.
We explained that the garden had been one of the house’s appealing points to us, and sought his agreement that we could plant a new one. Much hemming and hawing followed. While clearly not very comfortable with the idea, he could not very well say no.
We moved in, and set about replanting the garden with great gusto, buying tools, seeds, fertilizer, etc. It was a warm early spring in Hong Kong’s subtropical climate, and the plants grew like wildfire. We derived great enjoyment from this. We would sometimes spend Sunday afternoons in the sun, gardening or swimming in the bay below. Mr. Yeung and his wife would often pass by on their regular Sunday walks. Always warm and friendly, they would greet us, but steadfastly avoid looking at the plants in the garden.
Eventually I found out from friends on the island that they had removed the plants in the garden on the advice of a feng shui master whom they had consulted after a spate of very bad luck in the family. His advice was that the location of the house and garden were such that bad spirits and negative influences were “roosting” in the plants in the garden. Removing the plants was the recommended course of action, which they carefully followed.
By the time we knew this, our garden was flourishing, but its existence was still not acknowledged by Mr. and Mrs. Yeung.
Then one day that Spring, with the garden in full swing, it began to rain torrentially, and continued day after day without interruption for weeks on end. As a result, our whole garden ended up resembling a large plate of boiled spinach.
The sun finally returned, and on the first available Sunday we were out cleaning up the soggy remains of our prized garden.
Along came Mr. and Mrs. Yeung. Friendly as always, this time they made a point of looking long and hard at what was left of our garden. After the usual greeting, Mr. Yeung asked with a knowing smile:
“How’s your garden?”
From then on, I have taken a deferential view of feng shui, an attitude which has served me well since.