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Feng Shui Australia

Dragon, Toads and Me (continue)

 It is not an inexpensive interest, with home consultations varying from about $100 an hour (Austin's rate) to hundreds for the first consultation and extra for special needs. Business consultations are reported to cost up to $5,000.

As we walk, Clare Austin is checking for the energy movement in our home. We go up to our bedroom, the layout of which is vital, because feng shui teaches that people should sleep in the direction that suits them, which is determined by their birth year. Luckily, Austin calculates that our bed direction suits us both.

Other good news is we don't have mirrors in the bedroom, which can make it too energized at night, nor a large painting over the bed, which could signify a threat. There is minimal clutter (a feng shui no-no in any book you open).

However, we fail on the "Don't sleep between two sets of doors" rule: "It is hard to rest if you are in a slipstream of chi," says Austin. "You should keep the bathroom door closed when you are in bed."

Also, she says, "The verandah looks like it slopes down a bit, and that, with the floor-to-ceiling window, creates a sense of insecurity, a kind of waterfall effect. Two or three more solid, terracotta pots out there would make it feel more contained."

She suggests our muted colour scheme may have too much male "yang" energy and needs more "yin", which encourages intimacy and warmth. We could fix this with manchester in shades of red.

She asks if there are any specific problems; and the one that springs to mind is our youngest son's habit of popping in often overnight. Austin suggests that since his room opens directly on to the landing, he may feel insecure. A tall plant or some rocks on the landing would be an antidote to that. Also a horizontal painting with a vertical theme would suit an empty wall over the stairs. It could be in orange/red tones (good colours in feng shui) to create a feeling of upward movement.

Another trip is to experiment with yellow sheets for our boys, and perhaps an earthy orange or red-toned floor rug. And a nightlight would counteract all the dark water colours.

DOWN AT THE SOUTH MELBOURNE MARKET among the bargain carpets and children's shoes is a stall selling small frogs with glittering eyes. There are dragons, two-packs of bamboo flutes, and even a feng shui love kit under a sign saying Feng Shui Creating Success. Sitting behind a card table at the base of a yellow-painted wall is Michelle Rebelo, a delightfully warm woman for whom feng shui is not only a business but something of a lifestyle, since she believes it helped create her happy home.

"I was at a stage when I was ready to settle down and that perfect person hadn't yet come into my life; I had been single five years. I got a red feng shui fan for love, some love candles and a rose-quartz crystal," she says. She placed them in the relationship corner of her room and lit a candle each evening for 30 days. " Within a couple of months I was in a wonderful relationship with a very close friend and now we are married."

Rebelo says the enthusiasm for feng shui is ever-growing - though not all her customers understand what it actually is: "A lot of people come in and say, 'I want everything [love, health, prosperity, luck]. What can you give me?'

'People think that once they have had a conclusion that it will all happen immediately. But it's not a quick-fix, it's a lifestyle, and everything in the shop is just an enhancer."

Dragons are big sellers, as are feng shui car-protection kits. Various small Buddhas and Chinese guardian figures sell well, too: "It's partly the symbolism of them… a lot of the little things have a really nice feel to them."

Associate Professor Ken Gelder, a lecturer in pop culture and post-colonialism and head of English at Melbourne University, says the fact people can buy such comforting trinkets without it clashing with their existing beliefs is another factor in the boom.

"It's not a religion, it's a lifestyle practice, so you can be secular and take up feng shui. It's like yoga, it travels. Also, it's a lifestyle and Australians are very big on lifestyle. We are a nation of home buyers and home-space developers."

He says rapid social change and globalization have brought uncertainty and "as a result, one of the reasons why feng shui is so attractive is it allows you to take command of your domestic space, perhaps the only space you can reign over.

"It's about orienting yourself in a world that is really otherwise quite disorienting, and there's a long history of the West turning to the East for orientation." Ordinary people may turn to feng shui for tranquility the way celebrities go to Tibet.

Professor Gelder says it is "terrific that in the midst of this increased sense that our lives are arbitrary and our movement through the universe is random, along comes this system that says no, no, everything has significance.

"It makes our lives seem much more about planning and self-planning and that's important for people in the generally disoriented West."

The "grubby, damaged, chaotic and cluttered" Western world craves, says Gelder, "a well-behaved environment that looks clean" - in short, one with good feng shui. The minimalist design trend is also consistent with that.

The one danger would appear to be that converts to what is ostensibly a hazard-free interest could open themselves to disappointment by expecting instant results.

Feng shui author, columnist and consultant Terri Rew also thanks feng shui for an amazing turnaround in her personal life but says people wanting improvements must examine themselves as well as their harmony-inducing home layouts.

"The first thing I have to tell them is they have to take responsibility for themselves," says Rew, whose coffee-table book Feng Shui Today provides dozens of examples of modern feng-shui designed homes.

"It won't make them wealthy and healthy [on its own], it is up to them as well."