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Friday, September 12, 2014, 09:50

Central’s war of winds and waters

By Luis Liu

Hong Kong is said to be one of Asia’s most superstitious cities. Feng shui believers point to some of the city’s most recognizable buildings where, they say, a battle is on among the towering edifices. Luis Liu writes.

Central’s war of winds and waters
Central’s war of winds and waters
Leading feng shui master Mak Ling-ling says the designs of some of Central’s skyscrapers represent bad qi.

An uneasy spirit hovers over the famed skyscrapers that shape Hong Kong’s legendary skyline. It’s an ancient spirit, rooted in Chinese culture — hidden to all but the most studied observer.

Mak Ling-ling, the city’s leading feng shui master, says a spirit of conflict pervades over Central District. Mak, who has studied the city’s buildings for more than 20 years, says the towering edifices of Hong Kong’s financial institutions are “at war”. She led China Daily to a point across from 1 Garden Road, Central, where she pointed to “the heart of the battle” — the nearly 370-meter tall Bank of China (BoC) Tower.

“It has really violated some principles,” Mak said, pointing to the sharp corners that, she contends, look like daggers, pointing in every direction.

Feng shui (literally “wind and water”), deeply rooted in Chinese culture, is an ancient geomantic art that seeks to channel beneficial energies of nature and create harmony of the elements.

“Sharp corners create irregular flows of qi (literally air, though in the present context, natural energy). Traditional buildings in Chinese culture are set square and straight to minimize interruptions of natural flow. They aim to create a balanced aura,” Mak says.

Dagger-like effect

The BoC tower was designed by Leoh Ming Pei, 97, commonly known as I.M. Pei — the renowned Chinese-American architect whose other creations include the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. Pei has been called “the master of modern architecture” and he doesn’t believe in feng shui. “If what feng shui people say is true, why not hire them as architects?” he queried in an interview a few years ago.  

Pei said the inspiration for the tower was bamboo shoots. The aim was to portray determination toward sustained growth, in Pei’s summation, to signify “the ambitions of all Chinese”.

Feng shui experts, however, don’t share Pei’s perspective. The highly aggressive stance of the BoC, says Mak, stirred unease among the city’s leading companies. Even wealthy individuals were knocking at her door as soon as the tower topped out.

“The first came from Central Mid-Levels, all the way from May Road to the Peak,” Mak recalls. “My time was completely occupied by the BoC Tower in those days,” she adds. 

According to Mak, people came to her seeking to deflect the bad feng shui emerging from the BoC tower. Plant trees, she advised, and put in window covers. Build all kinds of round objects and the tower’s “dagger-like” effect would be blunted, she assured.

The tower came under criticism. The government was criticized for offering the BoC a better deal than it was willing to give local firms. BoC paid only half the HK$1.82 billion cash MTR Corporation laid down for the 6,250-square-meter Admiralty II plot. The BoC made an initial payment of HK$60 million, with the balance payable over 13 years at six percent. The announcement of the sale touched off an uproar. The next day, the Hang Seng Index fell 80 points. The HK dollar fell 1.5 percent.

Mak claims the business climate of the Central District really changed, after the tower’s completion. New buildings falling within the aura of the BoC Tower’s piercing energies had to build defenses. HSBC was the first to fight back, Mak claims. She recounted how the financial giant sought out feng shui masters to mount remedies after a plunge in the London Stock Exchange. Months after the tower’s completion in 1989, HSBC’s share price dropped from 6 pounds ($9.74) to a historic low of 3.74 pounds.

Two objects, looking like cannons, appeared on the roof of the HSBC Tower, aimed directly at the BoC Tower blades. “The mentality holds that if a cold weapon, a dagger, represents the East, a hot weapon, a canon, symbolizes the West,” Mak reveals.

HSBC, as Mak interprets, refused to bend, and seemed not only to defend, but “return fire”, inflicting damage of its own. HSBC declined to validate Mak’s interpretation, saying the cannon-like appurtenances are “hanging ropes for window cleaners”.

“Hong Kong people are the most superstitious in the world,” Pei said in an interview with the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily. Pei, who accepted the commission to design the BoC tower, largely because his father had been a BoC manager, dismissed the feng shui furor as nonsense.

But feng shui critics paid particular note of the date the BoC tower topped off — August 8, 1988 — the eighth day of the eighth month of the “eighty-eighth” year — a most auspicious date in the 20th century, according to Chinese culture. After that, feng shui followers had no doubt about the bank’s intention to take an aggressive stance.

Citibank, America’s largest bank based on assets, designed its Hong Kong headquarters to resemble an open book — to channel away the “bad energy” from the BoC tower.

Cheung Kong Centre, tycoon Li Ka-shing’s flagship property, got some disappointing reviews when it first opened. People thought it was boring. Mak claims the building was designed to balance the negative qi from the BoC tower, by taking on a bland exterior. Mak advises that Cheung Kong Centre is unusual for Hong Kong Island’s skyline. It is one of the few tall buildings with a conventional design, like an American black office tower. 

Mak says Li consulted feng shui experts seeking ways to absorb negative energy from the BoC’s sharp edges. “To me, that is the best design,” Mak said, “the stable and straight style makes it immune to bad qi because the qi flows “smoothly” around square buildings.”

The maximum height of the center was also calculated by drawing an imaginary line from the BoC tower to HSBC’s headquarters, she says. 

Headquarters a ‘bad design’

Much of the city is afflicted with bad feng shui these days, says Mak. The political climate has turned turbulent in recent years — streets filling with protesters, and progress mired in partisan politics. Feng shui advocates point to Admiralty, where the new government headquarters is located.

Former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said the “open-door” design revealed the government’s “welcoming of opinions”. But  the “big open mouth” is a bad design, especially for government headquarters, says Mak. 

Long before the building came into use, Mak openly predicted, “It would bring endless quarrels. Opinions are good, but too many opinions hurt.”

“So far I have no idea how to offset it,” she shrugs. Not only the political disputes, but the slowdown of Hong Kong’s economy during the years have created anxiety in the city.

Mak offers reassurance, however, that favorable times will return in the near future. “Hong Kong is a blessed place.  Notice that the city is almost free of natural disasters. Typhoons are not a problem. Most change course and shy away from Hong Kong,” she said.

“In the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Horse and the Year of the Goat are perceived as bad years but, I think, after these two turbulent years, good luck will come back to the city.

“But, more importantly, we need real talents to step up and lead the city,” Mak said.

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