THE GUY IN THE COUCH SHOP was having trouble in the love department. He was struggling, so he called in feng shui help. Feng shui- "wind and water" - is the Chinese system that organizes environments to enhance and use the earth's natural energy. Its practitioners, whose main tool is the compass, consider it a science.
It was originally used to establish a site for the tombs of Chinese emperors, but lately it is so much in vogue in the West that it is being tried by everyone from carmakers to software developers to enhance business - and to aid romance, apparently.
After following the advice to remove photos of his child from a previous relationship from his bedroom and to place in a certain corner of it a love bowl - including precious stones, water, a floating candle and flower - the sofa man's romantic life bloomed.
He was telling us this, me and my feng shui-cynic friend, after we noticed the shop had its own tiny fountain (the sound of water attracts money). It turned out the owner had also had the shop's feng shui done.
"I have to go out and buy candles for the oil burner this morning or I won't make a sale all day," said the happy salesman, who believes his private life turned around as a direct result of feng shui. My friend the cynic left the shop grinding her teeth quietly. "I bet the person who came up with feng shui wasn't thinking electrical-buzzing water fountains with ugly cords in mass-produced plastic," she growled.
But more evidence of the reach and trans-generational appeal of the 4,000-year-old system came in the very next shop. The saleswoman in this designer home store was about to have her home feng shui-ed as a gift from her mother, who had told her, "I don't think you are happy in your house."
Feng shui's feng shui must be strong at the moment because many of us notoriously sceptical Australians are placing a great deal of faith - and money - in it. Such is our interest in feng shui, which would tell us the best places for our beds, mirrors, televisions, doors, stairs and desks, that the Malaysian-Chinese feng shui author Lillian Too is outselling the Dalai Llama. Last year her book Easy To Use Feng Shui sold 15,000 copies here, while his The Art Of Living sold 9,000.
Between 1998 and 2000 Too, a former bank CEO, sold 92,000 copies of her pocket-sized guide Lillian Too's Little Book Of Feng Shui in Australia.
And while feng shui - pronounced fung shway - has been strictly adhered to by Hong Kong businesses for years, it is now winning over Australian executives. Some examples: Ford Australia is designing the 2003 interior of its flagship car, the Falcon, using feng shui principles in the belief that it may help to reduce road rage and fatigue. Marcus Hotblack, manager of interior design at Ford, says taking feng shui into account when designing the interior of the new Barra Falcon (which will be released later this year) was in the context of "following general principles of good design and harmony".
Ford also had a feng shui expert audit the interior of the current Falcon.
The clothing chain Jeans West has all its new shops checked for their feng shui, and Vogue Australia has had its Sydney offices appropriately renovated, as has Grey Worldwide
"You cannot isolate a pair of slippers as the single thing causing you misfortune, but the public believes these things."
advertising agency at its Melbourne headquarters. It added a large water feature, and the general manager, Jane Emery, needed to move office to place her in the right feng shui "money position" for her role. "We thought it might help us win more new business," says Emery.
The Sydney Property Expo has included feng shui among its sessions on property tax and investment portfolios, and the Sydney company Blue Haven Pools has reported that since it started offering free feng shui advice on pool placement, 20 per cent of the 2,000 buyers yearly have taken it.
Crown Casino is perhaps the most famous large business to have used feng shui, though the Melbourne feng shui master Yu Gui Feng says it failed to observe southern hemisphere conditions. Feng, who teaches at his Australian Feng Shui and Qui Gong Centre in the Melbourne CBD, does a lot of corporate work and is often called upon to assess company logos.
Feng says he has a lot of internationally famous business clients who take enormous trouble to get their feng shui right: "Sometimes for the whole consultation clients will spend tens of thousands of dollars, and I can give them a couple of simple pieces of advice."
The ANZ Bank's headquarters in Sydney were refurbished using its principles, and the measures included rounding off sharp desk edges- which are said to create negative arrows of energy - using shades of red and avoiding the number four.
Obviously it's not foolproof. One.Tel spent thousands introducing feng shui to its offices, adding fish, crystals and dragons - though one feng shui consultant I spoke to said even that could not counteract the actions of the bosses.
What is it about feng shui that appeals to everyone from the lovelorn to the proprietors of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, who just had a feng shui sun painted in the southern dressing room to address the fact that sports teams using it had lost 11 games straight?
Kaz Cooke, the satirist and writer who released her light-hearted Little Book Of Dumb Feng Shui the year after Too's Little Book, says part of the appeal may be that people who have attended religious or regimented schools continue to find sets of life- rules comforting. "Another aspect of it is people without spirituality want to buy it in." She points out that some of feng shui is just commonsense.
The heavy-hitting international feng shui teacher and author Master Raymond Lo says it is in part the growing recognition that science cannot explain everything. "People are becoming more open-minded and accepting alternatives; there are many alternatives proving to be better than the traditional thing," he says from his Hong Kong office.
He warns, though, that traditional feng shui, concerned with calculating the harmonious placement of buildings and objects - and keeping environments clean and clutter-free so their energy is good - is being re-interpreted and commercialised to the point where some of the advice is ridiculous.
"There are a lot of books published but 99 per cent are written by someone who doesn't know the subject. When experts look at such a feng shui book, they don't recognise those as feng shui books," says Lo.
"I have clients who say, 'I have to throw away all my feng shui books; they are causing misery in my life. They tell my husband he can't put his shirt here, his tie here or his slippers here.' How can feng shui be that superficial?
"You cannot isolate a pair of slippers as the single thing causing you misfortune, but the public buys these things and believes them… feng shui actually needs studying like engineering or architecture."
He says that true feng shui does improve the harmony of life, but cautions, "If you engage feng shui services, you have to be very sceptical; the person must sound very logical to you, everything must be explained, supported by solid logic and knowledge.
"Feng shui is talking about how you make the best use of your energy and how you allocate things. The most important thing is that you sleep in the right place and work in the right place, and put your [main] things in the right place. No traditional Chinese book will go to the point of where to put a pair of slippers."
AS SHE PREPARES TO READ OUR HOME FOR ITS good and bad feng shui, Clare Austin digs into her handbag for a compass. She produces a practical-looking orienteering type, which picks the all important direction our house faces (north-west).
Austin, a teacher at the Feng Shui College of Melbourne, is very thoughtful as she surveys the two-storey terrace from the street. "The land is sloping down, which is good, because you want the back higher than the front," she says. "But the confusion created by the address is not good feng shui." (Our street has two number 52s.)
The theory is that if taxis, couriers and visitors can fail to find us, so could the enriching "chi" energy feng shui encourages into the home. Is it bad that we don't have water at the front, as classical feng shui recommends? Austin reassures that roads equal rivers of energy, and the chi moves nicely along ours.
"The form is good," she pronounces of the exterior, which should look receptive, solid, clean and intact. She suggests we fix the rusted drainpipe, as leaking water is bad in feng shui, and also keep the climber on it trimmed so it doesn't give the impression of nature reclaiming the house.
I am bracing myself for when Austin sees the feng shui equivalent of shorts with long white socks: stairs facing the door. The chi is believed to waft straight up them, instead of flowing evenly through the house. A remedy, such as a pot plant, is often necessary, though in this case it could land someone in traction.
"That [rule] is relative to how close to the door they are," she says, adding that ours are passable. Also, she considers the dark carpet feels like a waterfall, bringing the eye back down. "Chi energy follows your senses; if the eye is drawn down, the chi will also be drawn back down."
And what of our lack of three-legged money toads (bring gold in), money turtles (keep the money in), dragons (breathe fortune) or crystal chandeliers (bring love, luck),etc, that I've seen in the pop-feng-shui classics?
Luckily, Austin sees past these kinds of charms, and says what matters is optimising the energy created by all the objects and the environment itself, and not "the superficial - where [your house] can end up looking like a Chinese restaurant".
Austin is called in to a lot of homes and businesses - one client company designs stockmarket data programs - and says that in the past five years there has been an upsurge of interest. "I think it's fashionable," she says.
"There are those who want to hedge their bets, who may not necessarily believe in it but don't want to miss out on the possible benefits; they want the feng shui stamp of approval. And then there is a generation of people in their 40s and 50s who have gone through life's social changes, and are now the people in suits. They are perhaps also interested in yoga or meditation and are authentically interested in it.
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