Winner TMAC Best Business Travel Feature, 2012.
Cultural adaptation can take many forms and for consultants working in different cultures, being aware of cultural norms – and taboos – can be invaluable. Feng Shui is one example.
In the centre of Hong Kong, on arguably some of the most expensive real estate in the world, stands a small, 10-storey parking garage. The only other low building in the vicinity is the old colonial governor’s mansion. This handsome building, fronted by a large, busy open square, remains untouched, a testimony to history.
When I comment on the curiosity of this diminutive garage in the midst of a forest of skyscrapers, my guide, Denny Ip, laughs, “That garage is never more than half full, and mostly with the cars of foreigners. Few Chinese will park there.” And this in a city where parking is at a premium!
The reason is typically Chinese. This site, explains my guide, was the headquarters of the Japanese during the war; hundreds of Chinese were executed here. “This place has bad qi (pronounced chi),” he says. “No one will build here because Feng Shui Masters have told them that the enterprise wouldn’t succeed.”
Feng Shui – serious business
In Hong Kong, Feng Shui is serious business; no building is constructed without strict adherence to its principles. Hong Kong may have its head firmly in the modern world, but its heart remains rooted in Chinese culture. Cell phones and computers notwithstanding, no one wants to send the wrong message to the spirit world.
Feng shui means “wind water”. This ancient Chinese system of aesthetics is said to help improve life by enhancing positive qi. Usually defined as spirit or energy, qi can be both good and bad, positive and negative. Avoiding bad qi is crucial.
But the rules governing Feng Shui are complex, and necessitate consulting a Master in order to ensure compliance. And this applies not simply to individuals, but also to large corporations.
Ip goes on to explain that the tall buildings surrounding the garage serve to keep the bad energy from escaping by pressing it down. And the semi-circular sweep and rushing cars of a raised road right in front of the garage, act like a knife to cut down bad energy. Would the Bank of America or Lloyds refuse to develop such a prime site in New York or London because of such esoteric considerations?
The HSBC Headquarters
Apparently HSBC would. The headquarters of the nearby Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC) overlooks the square in which the governor’s mansion stands. Between it and the harbour there is little to stop the flow of good energy – is this why this bank has been so successful? Ip thinks so. He explains that the city of Hong Kong is in a particularly auspicious setting – between the promontory of Victoria Peak, the city’s mountain, and water – and that this bank actually has one of the best locations to take advantage of this good fortune.
When he planned the HSBC headquarters, the British architect, Norman Foster, met with a Feng Shui master who guided his design. It is, says Ip, an example of the best in Feng Shui. The building has no ground floor but is hollow underneath with escalators leading up into the building. But the escalators had to be moved from their original placement in Foster’s first design, because the Master disapproved of their orientation. Even the hour and day of the official opening – 2 a.m.! – was dictated by Feng Shui. Staff then went inside and sat at their desks for half an hour before returning home to bed.
But, he adds, when a new qi cycle begins, the building will have to be re-oriented in order to take full advantage of the new energy flow. And it will be – the entire structure is modular, like a Lego construction!
One of the skyscrapers overlooking the forlorn little garage is the Bank of China’s magnificent building. Designed by I.M. Pei, the sharply angled façade on one side is a pointed knife blade aimed directly at the colonial governor’s mansion as well as at HSBC beyond it, a rival in the financial world.
Feng Shui eschews sharp angles as those points are said to direct bad energy at whomever they are aimed. Coincidence or a direct hit? HSBC was taking no chances. Apparently, they mounted two cannonshaped structures on the roof – aimed at the Bank of China!
The top of Pei’s tower is another triangle, but this one is pointed downward – in obeisance. You see, the Hong Kong headquarters of China’s largest bank faces Beijing.
Even the settings of buildings are critical. Rocks and water, plants and animals, all contribute to positive qi. Two lions guard the energy on either side of the HSBC entrance – one with mouth closed, the other roaring. Ip tells me that although they both have manes, one is female. “You can tell,” he laughs, “because her mouth is open and she’s talking.”
But humour aside, the lion is a powerful symbol of protection in Feng Shui, so it’s not surprising that the entire city of Hong Kong has taken the precaution of being well protected. Victoria Peak affords a gorgeous panorama of this magnificent city and overlooking it all at the summit is her guardian – a huge lion.
In this city, Western commerce has, for the most part, been wise enough to accommodate Chinese culture. Most consult a Feng Shui Master when planning to ensure good construction practice. “See that building,” says Ip, pointing to a tall cigar-shaped structure, the Hopewell Centre. “The shape of that building is like a burning cigarette, bad Feng Shui. They had to put a swimming pool on the roof to put out the fire and improve the building’s qi.”
Not even Disney was willing to flirt with failure as a result of offending the laws of Feng Shui. Accordingly, Disneyland Hong Kong was carefully positioned on Lantau Island, among the surrounding hills and sea, to maximize good qi. And the main gate was shifted 12 degrees to maximize energy flow, as directed by a Feng Shui Master. Large rocks throughout the park represent stability and each Disney hotel in the resort has a Feng Shui rock at the entrance and courtyard or pool areas, to prevent good fortune from flowing away.
Rocks make for good Feng Shui. Beside the China Bank runs a small waterfall with large rocks imported all the way from Hong Zhou in China. I.M. Pei has apparently commented that the cost of supporting these heavy rocks made them one of the most expensive items in the building. But flowing water increases positive qi and rocks represent stability; properly placed these two important elements help to ensure prosperity.
Numbers are important too. Seven is lucky to the Chinese as it symbolizes togetherness and is good for relationships. Indeed, the Cheung Kong building next door to the China Bank, owned by one of the city’s most successful property developers, has an elevator which indicates it goes to the 70th floor although there are only 62. The floor was simply renamed and floors 4, 14, 24, 34, etc. were removed. Indeed, in this building, you won’t find a floor with the number four in it. In Chinese, the sound of the word four is a homonym for the word for “death” so it is considered unlucky.
On the other hand, the number eight is also very lucky as it sounds like the word for wealth. The opening ceremonies for the Summer Olympics in Beijing began on 8/8/08, at 8 minutes and 8 seconds past 8 p.m. local time, for an auspicious start. One might wonder at such venerable institutions and indeed, entire nations being so superstitious. But to the Chinese, this is simply prudence. After all, why create bad energy when one can maximize good luck? For consultants working in places like Hong Kong, being aware of and even catering to such firmly held beliefs and
traditions can prove the difference between success or failure of a project.
This article was originally published in the January 2012 issue of “The Consultant” Magazine.