‘The notion that it’s new is ridiculous’: Understanding feng shui in Australia

Updated

October 14, 2019 10:31:42

Speaking in 1994, the then-property developer Donald Trump said feng shui was something his industry “couldn’t ignore” because of the power of Asian consumers.

Key points:

  • In Australia, the first buildings using feng shui are at least 150 years old
  • Today property developers are increasingly marketing their projects with feng shui
  • But feng shui practitioners warn about conflating the practice with general superstition

He uttered those words in reference to his decision to commission feng shui master Pun-Yin for the New York Trump Tower, a residential and hotel complex overlooking Central Park.

In popular culture, the things that have traditionally been associated with the ancient Chinese cultural practice include red-framed mirrors being placed above doors, statues of the laughing buddha dotted around a house, or the Japanese Neko waving its hand at you in a shop window.

Put simply, feng shui maps positive and negative energy sources in a building — and its principles are designed to maximise the amount of qi, or energy, in the home or place of work.

This is believed to increase a person’s wellbeing, or the growth of a business.

This has also been reflected in the design of some newer Australian residential projects, where property developers increased their use of feng shui to cater to Asian buyers: this includes paying careful attention to a building’s positioning, its shell’s recurring shapes and its footprint.

David Shen is a director at property developer Wuzhong International Australia, and his company’s newest residential project in South Melbourne takes its built form, interiors and colour schemes from feng shui principles.

While Mr Shen acknowledged that the project did not involve input from a feng shui master, he said the project architects were asked to maximise feng shui’s “feel good factors”.

“The bottom line is that these people are all looking for good design,” Mr Shen said.

Feng shui isn’t new to Australia

While the promotion of feng shui in Australia may appear to be a relatively recent phenomenon, its first appearance on the continent stretches right back to the 1850s.

Derham Groves, a specialist in non-Western architectural history at the Melbourne School of Design, told the ABC there was a surviving example of this in the Victorian gold rush town of Bendigo, which is home to a Chinese-made temple from the era.

“If you just look at the way it’s actually designed … you know it’s not just three sheds put together — it’s a complex little building,” Dr Groves said.

However the White Australia Policy stunted feng shui’s growth in Australia, as non-European migration was banned until the late-1960s.

“The notion that [feng shui] is something new [in Australia] is ridiculous.”

As waves of Asian immigrants came to Australia from the 1970s, structures with feng shui elements, such as temples and cemeteries, were re-introduced in Australian cities.

Today however, the application of feng shui in Australia stretches far beyond places of spiritual significance — now medium-to-high density residential towers and even shopping centres are being scrutinised for their feng shui.

Dr Derham said Australian property developers who ignore feng shui quickly feel the consequences.

“Their motivation often is the bottom line, and so if some apartments sell faster them others, it’s up to them to find out why that is,” he said.

Australian property developer Golden Age Group, which is involved in projects in Melbourne suburbs with high mainland Chinese populations, could be considered part of this trend.

While the group doesn’t engage the work of feng shui consultants as a rule, some of their projects “paid tribute to the five elements that are deeply woven into the fabric of Chinese culture … metal, wood, water, fire and earth”.

“Each project Golden Age develops is designed to cater to the community in which its located and both Box Hill and Glen Waverley are home to large Asian demographics, therefore it was important to consider cultural nuances in the design,” a spokesperson said.

Understanding feng shui also requires getting critical

Classically-trained feng shui master Janene Laird, the current President of the Australian Chapter of the International Feng Shui Association (IFSA), said the practice’s principles often get conflated with cultural superstitions.

“One classic example is that the Chinese won’t buy a house ending in the number four,” Ms Laird told the ABC.

The Chinese word for number four is very similar to the word for death, but Ms Laird said “numerology has nothing to do” with feng shui, and was more a product of superstitions passed through generations.

However this avoidance of the number four has found its way into the Greenland Group’s 66-storey Greenland Centre, currently under construction in Sydney’s CBD, which will omit the number four entirely.

Plans for a rooftop garden were also scrapped, owing to an alleged association with infidelity.

Mina Zheng, a consultant with Feng Shui Australia, told the ABC in 2014 that rooftop gardens could be associated with a Chinese folk tale about a woman who had an affair, after her partner went to war wearing a green hat.

For Michael Paton, a historian of Chinese science and its environment, this kind of correlative decision making was unfounded — at least in terms of the original ideas of feng shui, as contained in the Song dynasty text 24 Difficult Problems.

“Basically you’re looking for a framework to nurture yourself or nurture the spirit of your ancestors — and [folk] tales have nothing to do with anything in this process,” Dr Paton said.

In a response to the ABC, Ms Zheng said the folk tale had “drawn a lot of beliefs” which “affected people’s thinking and decision making”.

“Feng shui has a different practice,” she said.

Additionally, eliminating green roofs from a building due to feng shui claims could have significant environmental impacts, as rooftop gardens defend against the so-called Urban Heat Island effect — a term describing an urban area’s ability to trap heat in dense areas.

For Ms Laird, applying feng shui correctly should not get in the way of a building’s environmental performance.

“The only thing that we don’t like are the irregular spaces and sharp corners of some of the edgier designs,” Ms Laird said.

One of the most famous examples of the conflict between feng shui and sharp edges is Hong Kong’s Bank of China tower, designed by the late Chinese-American architect IM Pei.

It was said to have produced such bad energy — mainly due to its exterior shell, which is reminiscent of knife blades — that it prompted the neighbouring HSBC tower to place rooftop winches mimicking cannons to deflect the energy.

The decision has become legend, and some now believe that the rooftop winches were responsible for HSBC’s financial success in the following years.

The same kinds of hopes help explain why people try to implement feng shui today, both in the home and the workplace.

But for Dr Groves, the uptake of feng shui isn’t just about financial success, as he pointed to socio-cultural parallels between the practice and the West’s rituals.

He said traditions like building dedication ceremonies, topping-out celebrations and the laying of a foundation stone all mirror feng shui, as they emphasise the future wellbeing or productivity of a building’s occupants.

“In essence one of feng shui’s aspects is manipulating symbols, and I’ve always believed that major role of an architect is to manipulate symbols,” Dr Groves said.

“All of these things really, are designed to try and ensure the place you’re living and working is the best place for you — it’s all about a sense of place.”

BVN Architecture, the designers of Greenland Centre, declined to comment to the ABC, while the Greenland Group has been contacted for comment.

Topics:

urban-development-and-planning,

architecture,

emigration,

immigration,

multiculturalism,

population-and-demographics,

vic,

china,

asia

First posted

October 12, 2019 06:24:55

Read More

Leave a Comment